Life After Community College

Forty-five percent of college students start out at a community college. To continue on for a bachelor’s degree, they’ll have to beat the odds. Here are three who did.

National Journal
Janell Ross
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Janell Ross
June 10, 2014, 2:33 p.m.

Across the coun­try, nearly half of U.S. col­lege stu­dents start out at com­munity col­leges. Though these in­sti­tu­tions are of­ten touted as a lower-cost, in­cre­ment­al route to ob­tain­ing a four-year de­gree, a close look at fed­er­al edu­ca­tion data re­veals a far dif­fer­ent pic­ture. In fact, only about one-quarter of com­munity col­lege stu­dents go on to ob­tain a bach­el­or’s de­gree with­in six years of en­ter­ing school, ac­cord­ing to a 2013 study con­duc­ted by Toby J. Park at Flor­ida State Uni­versity.

Park’s study sug­gests a need for policies that ad­dress the range of of­ten com­plex so­cial, fin­an­cial, and aca­dem­ic chal­lenges that hinder com­munity col­lege stu­dents’ pro­gress. With so many stu­dents be­gin­ning their post­sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tions at com­munity col­leges, boost­ing the share that ul­ti­mately ob­tain four-year de­grees could strengthen the U.S. work­force. And since so many com­munity col­lege stu­dents come from ra­cial and eth­nic minor­ity groups, fam­il­ies where few have gone to col­lege, and low-in­come back­grounds, eco­nom­ists say that help­ing more of them earn bach­el­or’s de­grees could also help to nar­row the in­equal­ity gap. 

Last week, New York City-based La­Guardia Com­munity Col­lege held a gradu­ation ce­re­mony for stu­dents re­ceiv­ing as­so­ci­ate de­grees. Na­tion­al Journ­al spoke with three La­Guardia stu­dents, se­lec­ted at ran­dom, about their paths to com­munity col­lege, their ex­per­i­ences in school, and their fu­ture plans. 

***

Valjean Guerra, 26, de­scribes his path to gradu­ation as long, windy, and ul­ti­mately worth­while. From the time he was a teen­ager, he had an in­terest in the per­form­ing arts. Guerra, the son of Trin­id­a­di­an and Venezuelan im­mig­rants, begged his par­ents to al­low him to at­tend one of New York’s arts-fo­cused pub­lic high schools, where he wanted to study mod­ern dance and try his hand at the gui­tar or maybe the drums. Guerra’s par­ents balked — and when it was time to talk about col­lege, they in­sisted he study something they con­sidered prac­tic­al and luc­rat­ive, like com­puter soft­ware en­gin­eer­ing. Even so, when Guerra came to them with a par­tial schol­ar­ship of­fer from a Pennsylvania school that would have re­quired his par­ents to pay or bor­row about $20,000 a year, Guerra’s fath­er de­clared that he had no plans to “waste his money.”

The con­ver­sa­tion sent Guerra on a six-year odys­sey through four dif­fer­ent com­munity and tech­nic­al col­leges and three dif­fer­ent ma­jors. At the first school, Guerra man­aged to pass just one class — his­tory — and pos­ted a grade-point av­er­age that today makes him chuckle: 0.80. By the time he ar­rived at La­Guardia, Guerra had fi­nally found the abil­ity to fo­cus, to pull down a GPA of which he is proud (3.3 as of last semester) while work­ing nearly full-time hours as a li­censed barber. He also found a way to con­nect stud­ies in mass com­mu­nic­a­tions with his pas­sion­ate in­terest in the per­form­ing arts.

After he en­rolled at La­Guardia three years ago, Guerra joined a theat­er arts club at the school and par­ti­cip­ated in as many shows as his school­work, job, and com­mute would al­low. He re­searched four-year per­form­ing arts pro­grams and ques­tioned La­Guardia fac­ulty and stu­dents about what would make him an at­tract­ive ap­plic­ant. And, even­tu­ally, his fath­er apo­lo­gized for his com­ments about tu­ition and waste.

A few months ago, Guerra ap­plied to New York Uni­versity and hopes to hear news about the school’s ad­mis­sions de­cision some­time in the next two weeks. If he gets in, his next steps will be guided by the goal of even­tu­ally earn­ing a mas­ter’s de­gree in fine arts.

***

In 2011, Kat Lam, now 20, came from Hong Kong to the U.S. with her moth­er look­ing for a way to build a ca­reer in sci­ence. She had just fin­ished high school, but sci­entif­ic jobs in Hong Kong were scarce and ad­mis­sion to the coun­try’s uni­versit­ies ex­tremely com­pet­it­ive. For a girl from a lower-in­come fam­ily, it was also ex­tremely rare.

When Lam and her moth­er ar­rived, they dis­covered the sorts of chal­lenges that con­front many low-in­come and first-gen­er­a­tion Amer­ic­an-born col­lege stu­dents. Lam didn’t have enough money to en­roll in col­lege right away. She was not eli­gible for fed­er­al stu­dent aid and her fam­ily did not have the money to cov­er tu­ition and fees.

Lam found two re­tail jobs while her moth­er struggled to find just one in any in­dustry. Soon, Lam found her­self trapped in a soul-suck­ing routine. Get up. Go to work. Go to a second job. Go home to Flush­ing, Queens. Lam was lonely and craved the chal­lenge of learn­ing. She of­ten felt as if she was par­ti­cip­at­ing in some sort of gruel­ing psy­cho­lo­gic­al study.

After eight or nine months, Lam had saved $5,000 she could ap­ply to col­lege. Her moth­er found work. So Lam quit one job and en­rolled at La Guardia to pur­sue an as­so­ci­ate de­gree in bio­logy.

Pro­fess­ors began to no­tice her work, and sug­ges­ted that she enter stu­dent sci­ence com­pet­i­tions. They also helped her se­cure in­tern­ships and re­search op­por­tun­it­ies. Then, La­Guardia gave Lam a schol­ar­ship that al­lowed her to stop work­ing off cam­pus. This year she worked just a few hours a week as a math tu­tor and was able to fo­cus com­pletely on her stud­ies.

One pro­fess­or sug­ges­ted that Lam start to think about con­tinu­ing her edu­ca­tion at a school with a big re­search budget and rig­or­ous courses. He sug­ges­ted Johns Hop­kins Uni­versity. Lam was skep­tic­al that Johns Hop­kins would ser­i­ously con­sider a com­munity col­lege stu­dent, but she felt al­most ob­lig­ated to try. Ap­plic­a­tion es­says were a chal­lenge for the bio­logy ma­jor, so the school found a La­Guardia alum who agreed to work with Lam via email on her es­says.

In Au­gust, Lam will move to Bal­timore and be­gin her stud­ies at Johns Hop­kins, where she will fo­cus on mo­lecu­lar and cel­lu­lar bio­logy. Lam wants to be­come a prac­ti­cing phys­i­cian who also en­gages in re­search.

***

Ilisa­beta Tarakinikini, 22, has lived in three dif­fer­ent coun­tries and speaks two lan­guages flu­ently. But when the Fiji nat­ive’s fam­ily moved to New York dur­ing her seni­or year of high school so that her fath­er could ac­cept a job with the United Na­tions, Tarakinikini found her­self over­whelmed. Be­fore the fam­ily landed in Val­ley Stream, Long Is­land, Tarakinikini thought high school cliques and high-stakes col­lege ad­mis­sions were both myth­ic­al fea­tures of Amer­ic­an movies.

Even­tu­ally, Tarakinikini de­cided that she wanted to at­tend a Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-area school with a highly-re­garded in­ter­na­tion­al re­la­tions pro­gram. But Tarakinikini’s moth­er wor­ried that “something would hap­pen” to the 18-year-old and con­vinced her to en­roll at St. John’s Uni­versity close to the fam­ily’s home.

St. John’s didn’t have the kind of pro­gram Tarakinikini wanted. Pro­fess­ors seemed un­avail­able to dis­cuss course­work or ca­reer plans out­side their lim­ited of­fice hours. After a year and a half, Tarakinikini stopped go­ing to school. She spent the next two years help­ing out at her moth­er’s busi­ness and mostly hanging out at home. When she tried to reen­roll at St. John’s, the col­lege told Tarakinikini she should try a com­munity col­lege. La­Guardia fell well in­side her moth­er’s geo­graph­ic pref­er­ences.

With the cred­its she brought with her from St. John’s, Tarakinikini earned her as­so­ci­ate de­gree in one year. That wouldn’t have been pos­sible without ad­vice from oth­er stu­dents, she says. They told her to use a little-known soft­ware pro­gram to which all New York pub­lic col­lege stu­dents have ac­cess called De­gree Audit. The pro­gram iden­ti­fies courses that a stu­dent must take to gradu­ate, cre­at­ing an in­di­vidu­al road map to gradu­ation.

Tarakinikini cred­its the pro­gram with help­ing her make early ca­reer plans. She re­mained in­ter­ested in polit­ics and policy. But she also knew that she was the only mem­ber of her fam­ily who was ex­cited when Hur­ricane Sandy was en route to the East Coast. She ac­tu­ally got a thrill out of the earth­quake drills her fath­er used to run the fam­ily through when they lived in Nepal. She has al­ways been ex­cep­tion­ally or­gan­ized. Sud­denly the an­swer was clear: dis­aster re­cov­ery and man­age­ment work for the U.N.

Tarakinikini found a pro­gram at John Jay Col­lege in Man­hat­tan that will al­low her to earn a bach­el­or’s and mas­ter’s in pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion in just three years, thanks to her de­gree from La­Guardia. She ap­plied and got in. Classes be­gin at John Jay in Au­gust.

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