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
See more stories about...
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.

What We're Following See More »
Obama Grants 111 More Commutations
21 minutes ago

In a release Tuesday afternoon, the White House announced that President Obama has commuted and/or reduced the sentences of another 111 convicted criminals, mostly convicted of drug possession or trafficking. About 35 were serving life sentences.

Grassley Open to Lame Duck Hearings on Garland
1 hours ago

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said Monday he'd now be willing to hold a hearing on Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in a lame-duck session of Congress. While he said he wouldn't push for it, he said if "Hillary Clinton wins the White House, and a majority of senators convinced him to do so," he would soften his previous opposition.

Rubio Can’t Guarantee He’ll Serve a Full Term
3 hours ago

We can call this the anti-Sherman-esque statement: If reelected, Marco Rubio ... might serve his whole term. Or he might not. The senator, who initially said he wouldn't run for a second term this year, now tells CNN that if reelected, he wouldn't necessarily serve all six years. “No one can make that commitment because you don’t know what the future is gonna hold in your life, personally or politically,” he said, before adding that he's prepared to make his Senate seat the last political office he ever holds.

Obama to Raise Multiple Issues in Meeting With Philippines Prez
3 hours ago

Since Rodrigo Duterte took over as president of the Philippines in June, he has made a serious of controversial statements and launched a war on drugs that has led to nearly 2000 deaths. He called the US ambassador to the Philippines, Philip Goldberg, "a gay son of a bitch." Next week, President Obama will meet with President Duterte at the East Asia Summit in Laos, where he " will raise concerns about some of the recent statements from the president of the Philippines," according to White House Deputy National Security advisor Ben Rhodes.

Conservatives Preparing ‘Dry Run’ for Constitutional Convention
3 hours ago

The Convention of States Project, which seeks to force a constitutional convention under Article V of the Constitution, will hold a "dry run" in Colonial Williamsburg starting Sept. 21. "Several states have already followed the process in Article V to endorse the convention." Thirty-four are required to call an actual convention. "The dry run in Williamsburg is meant to show how one would work and focus on the changes and potential constitutional amendments that would be proposed."