Why Do a Majority of Black and Latino Students End Up at Two-Year Colleges?

A new initiative in East Los Angeles hopes to create a college-going culture that will steer Latino students to four-year schools, where they’re much more likely to graduate with a degree.

Students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles work on group engineering projects. Thanks to a new collaboration with Cal State L.A., graduating seniors will be eligible for automatic admission to the local four-year university.
National Journal
May 21, 2014, 12:34 p.m.

In Los Angeles, the an­nounce­ment last week made for front-of-the-loc­al-sec­tion news. Stu­dents at gang- and poverty-rid­den East Los Angeles’s Gar­field High School who meet min­im­um re­quire­ments will now en­joy guar­an­teed ad­mis­sion to Cali­for­nia State Uni­versity (Los Angeles). The same ini­ti­at­ive will also guar­an­tee that stu­dents at East L.A. Col­lege, a nearby com­munity col­lege, can trans­fer to Cal State L.A., and the com­munity col­lege will ex­pand its course of­fer­ings avail­able to Gar­field stu­dents.

The part­ner­ship between the Los Angeles Board of Edu­ca­tion, lead­er­ship at Cal State L.A., and East L.A. Col­lege aims to cre­ate a col­lege-go­ing cul­ture in a sec­tion of East Los Angeles where only a tiny share of the over­whelm­ingly Latino res­id­ents have col­lege de­grees. Re­search shows that giv­ing minor­ity high school stu­dents op­por­tun­it­ies to spend time on col­lege cam­puses and in classrooms, earn col­lege cred­its while still in high school, and ac­cess ment­ors and in­tern­ships — all ad­di­tion­al fea­tures of the ar­range­ment — makes them more likely to both enter col­lege and gradu­ate.

In the nearly five dec­ades since the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment began track­ing minor­ity col­lege en­roll­ment, col­lege en­trance pat­terns have taken on a new shape. The once-sig­ni­fic­ant gaps between the share of black, white, and Latino stu­dents en­ter­ing col­lege have reached near equi­lib­ri­um. (Asi­an stu­dents have long en­rolled at a high­er rate than the oth­er groups.) In 2012, Latino stu­dents even slightly out­paced their black and white peers when it came to en­ter­ing col­lege. Still, a vast gulf re­mains in terms of who ac­tu­ally gradu­ates with a de­gree.

“The is­sue we face is not one of ac­cess but com­ple­tion,” says Jeff Strohl, dir­ect­or of re­search at Geor­getown Uni­versity’s Cen­ter on Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force.

The most re­cent fed­er­al data avail­able de­pict the out­comes for stu­dents who en­rolled full-time in 2005 and gradu­ated by 2011. Dur­ing that time, about 69 per­cent of Asi­an stu­dents earned un­der­gradu­ate de­grees, as did 58 per­cent of whites. But just 46 per­cent of Latino stu­dents and 45 per­cent of black stu­dents com­pleted their un­der­gradu­ate edu­ca­tion.

“This is the kind of prob­lem we simply can’t ig­nore,” says Susie Savedra, seni­or le­gis­lat­ive dir­ect­or for health and edu­ca­tion policy with the Na­tion­al Urb­an League. “If we can’t get more stu­dents of all races and back­grounds all the way through col­lege now, we will be fa­cing a much broad­er crisis.” 

With­in just four years, the ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans un­der the age of 18 will be people of col­or. The Na­tion­al Urb­an League re­leased a re­port last week warn­ing that schools and poli­cy­makers need a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the na­tion’s black and Latino stu­dent pop­u­la­tions if they want to boost gradu­ation rates. The re­port fo­cused on the lower-in­come black stu­dents, the group least likely to com­plete an un­der­gradu­ate de­gree pro­gram. But its re­com­mend­a­tions could and should be ap­plied broadly to boost the na­tion­al gradu­ation rate, says Sav­endra.

Dur­ing the 2011-2012 school year, about 62 per­cent of all black col­lege stu­dents re­ceived Pell Grants, fed­er­al stu­dent aid re­served for the poorest stu­dents. Of these stu­dents, 65 per­cent were clas­si­fied as in­de­pend­ent, mean­ing they re­ceive no fin­an­cial sup­port from their fam­il­ies. In­de­pend­ent Afric­an-Amer­ic­an Pell Grant re­cip­i­ents were by far the most likely (48 per­cent) to also be single par­ents re­spons­ible for the care of of­ten very young chil­dren. The same was true of 34 per­cent of Latino stu­dents, 23 per­cent of whites, and 19 per­cent of Asi­ans.

Those re­spons­ib­il­it­ies also mean that just over half of black in­de­pend­ent stu­dents re­ceiv­ing Pell Grants are over the age of 24. Most are already work­ing 30 hours or more each week. Just un­der half of these same in­di­vidu­als de­scribe them­selves as work­ers who are also en­rolled in school as op­posed to stu­dents work­ing their way through school.

Most schools have de­signed everything from their class sched­ules to the en­roll­ment pro­cess and the course­work ne­ces­sary to gradu­ate around middle- to up­per-middle-class stu­dents who at­tend school full-time, live on or near cam­pus, and have lim­ited out­side re­spons­ib­il­it­ies, said Mary­beth Gas­man, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fess­or of edu­ca­tion at the Uni­versity of Pennsylvania. Gas­man is also one of the coun­try’s lead­ing ex­perts on the edu­ca­tion­al tra­ject­or­ies of black stu­dents.

Gas­man de­scribes her­self as an ex­ample of what a Pell Grant can do. She comes from a large and very low-in­come fam­ily. She was the first in her fam­ily to even at­tend, much less com­plete, col­lege. Today, Gas­man has a Ph.D. and teaches at an Ivy League uni­versity. She also has a teen­age daugh­ter who speaks three lan­guages and has already traveled abroad.

“That’s what happened in my fam­ily in a single gen­er­a­tion be­cause of a Pell Grant and the pres­ence of a few key people who were will­ing to guide me through a pro­cess no one in my fam­ily knew any­thing about,” she says.

Even though no one in her fam­ily had pre­vi­ously at­ten­ded col­lege, Gas­man, who is white, be­nefited from a col­lege-go­ing cul­ture in her lar­ger com­munity. A study re­leased last year by Geor­getown’s Cen­ter on Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force looked at en­roll­ment trends at 4,400 in­sti­tu­tions, and found that even low-in­come or low-per­form­ing white stu­dents are far more likely to at­tend four-year col­leges than high-in­come or high-per­form­ing minor­ity stu­dents.

The Geor­getown re­search­ers found that since 1995, 85 per­cent of in­com­ing white stu­dents at­ten­ded se­lect­ive four-year schools. Dur­ing that same time peri­od, 72 per­cent of in­com­ing Latino stu­dents and 68 per­cent of their black peers in­stead went to two-year, open-en­roll­ment schools.

Se­lect­ive four-year in­sti­tu­tions gen­er­ally have the fund­ing and fac­ulty to provide tu­tor­ing op­er­a­tions, high­er-qual­ity labs, and more-fre­quent aca­dem­ic sup­port. They are more likely to re­quire reg­u­lar and act­ive aca­dem­ic ad­vising ses­sions between in­di­vidu­al stu­dents and fac­ulty, and to re­quire stu­dents to identi­fy a ma­jor and fo­cus their stud­ies early on in the col­lege pro­cess. All of these factors boost gradu­ation rates, Strohl says.

Even minor­ity stu­dents with high GPAs and stand­ard­ized-test scores are far more likely to at­tend two-year schools than their white peers and are sub­sequently far less likely to gradu­ate. The new col­lege pipeline es­tab­lished for stu­dents at Gar­field High in East Los Angeles should al­ter that trend — and it could provide a mod­el for boost­ing gradu­ation rates in oth­er areas of the coun­try that badly need the help.

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