When she got accepted into UC Berkeley last year, 31-year-old Laura Tipon thought her hard work and perseverance finally had paid off.
It is exciting to see more decision makers embrace the value of investing in community college students. However, while offering free tuition is a good first step, we miss the mark if we only focus on providing access and increasing enrollment.
Community college in California is already free for about 60 percent of students due to financial need. Many others receive state grants or scholarships. A more crucial goal is getting degrees into the hands of more community college students faster. Here’s why:
She had spent the previous 4½ years at two community colleges while balancing parenting and work. Tipon had full class loads, worked up to 32 hours a week on campus and parented her young son during her three-year stint at Modesto Junior College. When she transferred to American River College in Sacramento, she worked fewer hours and reduced her course load to spend more time with her growing boy.
Tipon attended UC Berkeley’s orientation and even registered for classes. Then, she said, she got an email: One of the remedial math classes she took at American River College, a prerequisite class for statistics, was not recognized at UC Berkeley.
“It was devastating,” said Tipon.
Part of the delay in completing her associate degree was the four remedial math courses Tipon had to take — basically a repeat, she said. “I received A’s and B’s in the same classes in high school,” she said.
Tipon said she later found out that American River College and UC Berkeley did not have a clear transfer agreement. Her enrollment put on hold, she moved back to Sacramento.
Tipon’s goal is to earn her bachelor’s degree in anthropology. She hopes to eventually teach at the college level. She hasn’t given up. She is starting her first year at CSU Sacramento this fall.
— Catalina Ruiz-Healy
Completion takes too long. It can take three to 10 years for community college students to get to the finish line. One major reason for the delay to complete a degree is that more than 2 out of 3 students who enter community colleges must first take remedial math or English courses that do not count toward a degree. Within this cohort, the rate of successful completion is dismal; only 3 in 10 students earn a certificate or associate degree or transfer to a four-year university within six years. Students of color fare even worse. Within the same time frame, just 1 in 4 African American students and 1 in 5 Latino students successfully complete community college.
Delay comes at a big cost. School fees constitute just a small portion of what students pay to attend community college. Of the approximately $23,000 that it costs a student who graduates community college in three years, the bulk is spent on supplies, transportation and other living expenses. A student who takes six years to complete community college can end up paying about $45,000 in school fees and living expenses. If we take into account wages a student did not earn while attending school, that figure jumps to more than $119,000.
That’s why we need to find ways to help students earn their degrees faster. At the Rappaport Family Foundation, we have invested more than $1 million over five years on bold and promising efforts to bolster the leadership, power and voice of community college students. We believe that students can and should define solutions to the challenges they face in their communities. Time and time again, we have seen students advocate on their campuses for systems and policy changes that will help them get their degrees faster — not for a break in tuition. In one powerful example, community college students working with the Campaign for College Opportunity secured $60 million in California’s budget to assist community colleges in improving remedial placement testing and classes. Students Making a Change, a nonprofit, organized and significantly altered testing and placement policies at City College of San Francisco when it found that an inordinate number of students of color tested below their real ability and got stuck in the remedial class whirlpool.
Examples of best practices exist. Long Beach’s pioneering program, the College Promise, provides one free academic year at Long Beach Community College, guaranteed admission to California State University Long Beach and intensive support along the way. Efforts under way in Sacramento to create a California College Promise Innovation Grant Program would expand existing fee waivers and increase financial support for cost of living for more students. Outside California, New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (known appropriately as ASAP) supports students to graduate within three years through small class sizes, comprehensive and personalized advisement, career development services, financial support, and more.
We cannot afford to let any more promising students fall through the cracks. We all have a role to play. Almost half of America’s undergraduates study at a community college. We can support their success by urging state and local policymakers to invest resources in addressing the inequities in completion, not just access, through intensive academic and other support along the way. We can also champion and support leaders and organizations who are advocating for more resources to get a diploma into every student’s hand faster. We all benefit when more community college students finish their education. Schools and governments save money, a higher-quality and better-skilled workforce emerges, and more people attain the American dream.
Catalina Ruiz-Healy is vice president of the Rappaport Family Foundation, and founder of GradGuru.org. The foundation is one of many funders of the Campaign for College Opportunity. To comment, please send your letter to the editor to http://bit.ly/SFChronicleletters.