Civil Rights Project: California Maintains Segregated Community College System

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

The vast majority of Black and Latino students in California are being subjected to a “segregated” community college system where very few transfer to four-year institutions, researchers charged Tuesday as they released three reports that shine light on the problem.

The entire system needs to be revamped, the researchers at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project said, and new policies must be crafted that will lead to greater ethnic and racial parity.

“Higher education (in California) needs to be re-examined and changed at each level of the process,” said Dr. Gary Orfield, professor in the Graduate School of Education, co-director of The Civil Rights Project at UCLA and a co-author of one of the reports. “We need to think very consciously about racial equality in making policies.”

Orfield is co-author of “Building Pathways to Transfer: Community Colleges that Break the Chain of Failure for Students of Color,” one of three studies The Civil Rights Project released Tuesday to call for changes in California’s community college system.

The other two reports are “Unrealized Promises: Unequal Access, Affordability, and Excellence at Community Colleges in Southern California and “Beyond the Master Plan: The Case for Restructuring Baccalaureate Education in California.”

The reports were released as the state continues efforts already in place to improve outcomes for community college students.

For instance, the California Community Colleges Board of Governors recently approved a 22-recommendation report titled “Advancing Student Success in California Community Colleges.”

In 2010, the state passed the Student Transfer Agreement Reform Act, which gives students who earn a newly designed California Community College associate degree eligibility for admission with junior standing into the California State University (CSU) system.

California Assemblyman Martin Block, chairman of the Higher Education Committee, called both efforts “a starting point” but expressed concern over recent “horrendous budget cuts” that have undermined higher education in general.

California leads the nation with a 21-percent increase in tuition last year.

“There just hasn’t been money to fully fund programs that need to be funded,” Block said during a phone conference Tuesday with the UCLA researchers. “So, in the wake of funding cuts, we’ve had to do more with less.”

Dr. Patricia Gándara, co-director of The Civil Rights Project and co-author of the “Building Pathways to Transfer” report, says the research released Tuesday found that the problem of lack of transfer is “systemic in the entire education system in California.”

“It’s going to require bold and systemic solutions, not things that are just tweaking on the edges,” Gándara said.

Her remarks were aimed at the “Advancing Student Success in the California Community Colleges” report, which The Civil Rights Project said “falls far short of making recommendations that can turn the situation around and fails to address the most urgent problems.”

Among those problems, the UCLA researchers found, while nearly three-fourths of all Latino and two-thirds of all Black students who enroll in a post-secondary institution in California go to a community college, in 2010 both groups collectively represented only 20 percent of all transfers to four-year institutions.

This is due, Gándara said, to the fact that the pathways to the baccalaureate are being subjected to a segregated system in which a handful of community colleges that primarily serve White, Asian and middle-class students are responsible for the vast majority of transfers in the state.

“We found linear relations between the high school you attend and chances of getting a bachelor’s degree in this state,” Gándara said, adding that students in segregated schools are “really condemned to a rather bleak future in the higher education system.”

Orfield also was critical of “Advancing Student Success in the California Community Colleges.”

“It’s a facelift, and we need reconstruction,” Orfield said, criticizing the report for what he said was its lack of attention to the issue of spaces for transfer students and transforming community colleges into places where students can earn a baccalaureate.

“We need to have more four-year colleges,” Orfield said.

Asked what lies behind the lack of transfers among minority students, Orfield and Gándara attributed the problem to too many students arriving unprepared for college work, who must then take remedial courses that don’t bear credit and thus lengthen the time for attaining a degree.

The transfer system, Orfield said, is “OK for those few students who manage to transfer, but very few from those with weak high schools ever make the transfer.”

Orfield also blamed poor counseling for the lack of transfers, saying many students don’t know how to make the transition from a two-year to a four-year college.

While the UCLA researchers were critical of the “Advancing Student Success in the California Community Colleges” report, a review of the 66-page report shows that it is rife with references to the transfer issue throughout and, at least on some levels, is just as critical of the status quo as were the UCLA researchers and calls for similar sweeping reform.

“As a system, we have both initiated and continue to rely on these ineffective policies,” the reports states. “However, now is the time for the community college system to abandon these ineffective policies and adopt enrollment management polices that encourage students to follow and make progress along delineated educational pathways that are most likely to lead to completion of a certificate, degree, transfer, or career advancement goal.”

Efforts to reach members of the task force that drafted the report, including Jack Scott, Chancellor of the California Community Colleges, were not successful.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project, has been named a 2012 recipient of the Dr. John Hope Franklin Award that is sponsored by Cox, Matthews and Associates, the publisher of Diverse: Issues In Higher Education and DiverseEducation.com. The award recognizes individuals and organizations whose contributions to higher education are consistent with the highest standards of excellence.

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