Community colleges - an academic dead end for minority students?

In this Golden State of promised opportunity, a growing minority population has come to see college education as a path to improvement and prosperity. Yet for minority students, that path has often ended in urban community colleges, with no baccalaureate degree in sight.

Eighty percent of California's minority college students are in community colleges; relatively few of them succeed in transferring to four-year colleges and universities. While more than one-quarter of the state's community college population are members of minority groups, they made up only 13 percent of students transferring to four-year state schools in 1982.

''What we're seeing is a de facto segregated system of higher education,'' says Susan Brown, an attorney for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) of San Francisco.

The problem, according to Ms. Brown, other civil rights advocates, and educators, is that too few colleges and universities have worked closely with two-year schools to hammer out - in what is called ''articulation'' - what courses and programs will be accepted for transfer. Few programs exist to encourage community college students to begin planning their transfer early; clear, up-to-date information is often hard to find or nonexistent.

''There is a vast lack of transfer information for community college students and counselors, and an equal lack of uniformity in transfer policies,'' Ms. Brown adds.''It's an utterly confounded system.''

In an effort to force the state to take action on the issue, MALDEF and Public Advocates, a San Francisco-based public-interest law firm, filed a petition with the state's three segments of higher education last year to increase minority transfers. Addressing the community colleges, the 19 state colleges and universities, and the nine-campus University of California (UC), the petitioners seek mandatory counseling of community college students on transfer requirements, agreements to accept more transfer students, and clarification and streamlining of transfer policies.

In addition, the petitioners say California's public four-year schools have violated state law by not holding to acts prescribing reservation of space for transferring upper-division students. The number of students entering the four-year institutions as freshmen has increased over the past decade, even as the transfer rate from community colleges has declined: by 30 percent to UC, by 10 percent to the state colleges and universities.

The problem of low transfer rates from community colleges, particularly among minorities, is not unique to California. Nationwide, only about 1 in 7 community college students wishing to complete a four-year college education actually does so. And the burden of those numbers falls particularly hard on minority students concentrated in urban two-year colleges. According to the Ford Foundation, while only 27 percent of full-time white college students enroll in a community college, the percentage among minorities is much higher: 37 percent for blacks, 45 percent for Hispanics.

And although minority students are not alone in facing bleak transfer prospects, their situation is particularly discouraging. Many minority students are first-generation college-goers, without family experience in handling college bureaucracies.

Recognizing the issue as one of major national consequence, the Ford Foundation has allocated some $3 million since last year - mostly to urban community colleges - to help develop replicable solutions for various aspects of the transfer problem.

''The community colleges are asked to do so much - remedial work, vocational training, adult education - that it appeared the support for academic students was often neglected,'' says Oona Sullivan of the Ford Foundation's Office of Reports. ''We felt that if we could encourage community colleges to come up with ideas for encouraging transfers and support services, it would lead to a general increase'' in transferring students.

Many states, especially those with growing minority student populations, will be watching California and how it responds to the MALDEF petition.

According to MALDEF attorney Ronald Vera, his organization is encouraged by initial response. He says it has ''brought people together'' from the three higher-education systems to discuss the issue and has resulted in three bills in the California Legislature.

Gerald Hayward, chancellor of the California community college system, agrees the issue has begun to foster greater cooperation between the state's 107-campus community college system and the four-year institutions. He stresses that increasing the number of transferring students is not something the community colleges can do alone. Inadequate preparation, he says, ''is systemic to education from kindergarten through college.''

Noting that the California community colleges spend $65 million annually on remedial education services, he adds, ''Fortunately we are seeing a trend in accepting that quality depends on a coordinated effort on the part of all segments.''

But Mr. Vera says he is still waiting for action to come voluntarily from the directors of the higher-education systems. ''I'm afraid they think the legislative steps will end the petition,'' he says, ''but we have not adopted that policy.'' Stating that his organization prefers ''a desire to cooperate and solve this'' to further legal action, he point to examples of strong voluntary transfer programs.

For instance, the University of California at Santa Barbara has set up a transfer center which it maintains jointly with Santa Barbara City College. The two schools share the program cost, including regularly updated literature, meetings on transferring, and a counselor who coordinates the project. UC Santa Barbara now has the best transfer rate for minorities in the nine-campus system.

In Arizona, clear and up-to-date course-equivalency guides exist for students transferring to Arizona State University, and community college students' transcripts are automatically sent to the state university's computer.

Nor are state schools the only ones working to increase the number of transferring community college students. Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and La Guardia Community College in nearby Long Island City have established a transfer program with the help of a Ford Foundation grant. One of the objects of that program is to encourage community college students to consider a wide range of schools for continuing their education.

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