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Divided We Fall

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Last week, the Campaign for College Opportunity (CCO) — a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that has a mission is to ensure 1 million additional college graduates in California by 2025 — released a report by the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at California State University Sacramento examining four-year transfer rates for Californians who begin at one of the state’s 110 community colleges.

The longitudinal research study examines community college completion and transfer rates for over 250,000 Californians who began at public two-year schools in 2003-04, revealing significant disparities across racial and ethnic lines. Only 26 percent of Black students and 22 percent of Latino students completed a certificate, degree or transferred to a four-year school within six years, compared with 37 percent of White students.

While this may not be surprising to those who study such trends, it should sound a loud alarm to state policymakers and business leaders who will need to rely on an increasingly diverse population for future economic prosperity.

The Latino community — California’s largest underrepresented minority group — is expected to make up a full half of the state’s population by 2050. While California’s information- and health care-driven economy is expanding, the educational mobility of its new majority is not keeping pace.

According to the California Employment Development Project, the number of STEM jobs will grow 20 percent between 2006-2016, the majority requiring at least an associate of science degree. Yet, the state’s racial/ethnic minority youth and adult populations remain far behind their majority peers in educational attainment, particularly in scientific fields.

The propensity of these populations to begin higher education at the two-year level (a trend that is true in California and nationally) means that community colleges must do a better job of completing and transferring their students.

Yet none of this would be clear if the policy and advocacy community did not first ask the right questions and seek the relevant data. The Divided We Fail authors make central to their argument the need to utilize student progress data to inform completion policy and subsequent practice.

Only by examining the STEM pipeline in full — with an emphasis on student transition points — will researchers and policymakers know where students stall and thus where practical interventions should be utilized; a practice being employed by the Community College Chancellor’s Office.

If community colleges are indeed a pathway to the baccalaureate, as California’s long-held “Master Plan” for higher education lays out, then reports like Divided We Fail raise as many, if not more, questions than they do answers, including:

1) How does the state’s K-12 math and science curriculum align with community college coursework and remediation? 2) How should the two-year college sector recruit, retain, and continuously train exceptional STEM faculty? 3) What approach should the state’s four-year university STEM departments take in supporting and building their own capacity for the transfer and completion of underrepresented students in scientific fields?

A fourth and increasingly important question is how do the community colleges work with K-12, while at the same time strengthen their pedagogical practices and student support services, for STEM majors in need of math and science remediation.

The issue of remediation is at a point of crisis in California and elsewhere. As reported by edsource.org, only 13 percent of Black and 16 percent of Latinos begin California community college at the intermediate algebra/geometry level.

Despite the challenges, the CCO/IHELP report reminds us that the role of community colleges has never been greater and their success never more important. National completion goals necessitate the success of two-year institutions, as do trends that show increased enrollment in this sector, particularly by the country’s most educationally underserved populations.

According to research beyond this report, nearly a fifth of Latinos who receive STEM bachelor’s degrees originated in community colleges and an increasing number of Ph.D. holders of all backgrounds begin at two-year institutions.

The importance of the two- to four-year transition point of the STEM pipeline is being emphasized in systems across the country, and must be addressed in federal and state education and workforce policy. This means additional support for rigorous data collection and analysis for informed decision making and subsequent practice — a process that cannot be understated in its value.

Dr. Lorelle L. Espinosa is the director of policy and strategic initiatives at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based independent, nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world.

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