For many college-bound students, decision time is right around the corner. The month of March is when many institutions of higher learning start sending out their regular admission notices on who they have accepted for the new fall semester. It can be a stressful time for some who are trying to decide among the many choices of where to spend the next several years after high school.
Latino students are joining their peers in greater numbers in pursuing higher education, with more and more Hispanic students finishing high school and continuing their studies.
And where are many of them going? Many education advocates say community colleges can be a hidden gem in academia, provided it's a good program that focuses on completion or a transfer to a four-year college.
Community college once had a negative connotation, seen as a last-chance alternative when the university-of-choice wasn't in the cards.
But with the costs of a four-year degree continuing to rise, community college has been gaining popularity among students and their families who are looking at ways to go to college without breaking the bank.
Education advocates say it is especially beneficial financially for the first two years of college, where many students take the same types of courses before focusing on their major. If if can be done for less money, then why not? Plus, there's the added savings of not paying room and board.
For many Latino students and their families, this has been the way to go. In fact, nearly half of Latino college students — 48 percent — go to community college, higher than any other race or ethnic group, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. Many Latino students who go on to earn a bachelor's degree — and beyond — start at a community college.
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"It makes sense economically," said Deborah Santiago, COO and Vice President for Policy at Excelencia in Education, an education research group in Washington, D.C., that focuses on education attainment among Latino students. Santiago also said it can offer a good academic pathway - and her organization has focused on ranking those community colleges that offer the best programs to ensure completion and advancement to a 4-year university for its students.
Bottom line, says Santiago, there are some compelling reasons to look at community college as a good option:
- It's affordable. Simply put, there's little chance of sticker shock.
- It's accessible. Many community colleges have flexible schedules and programs to help accommodate work and family schedules.
- It's got a good location. You won't have to go too far and you won't be spending money living away from home.
- It's a chance to help strengthen some academics. Meaning if you need extra help on a particular subject, you can do that without paying the higher tuition at a four-year-university.
That's the good news. The not-so-good news is that while Latinos are pursuing higher education in larger numbers than ever before, they still lag behind other groups in actually finishing what they started, in part because some community colleges are not making academic success and completion as much a priority as enrollment.
A new report by the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund looked at Latino student participation in community college and found that 23 percent of Latino students obtained an associate's (two-year) degree, compared to 33 percent for African-Americans and 46 percent for non-Hispanic white students.
The study cited a number of factors, including the large number of students in remedial classes and work and family pressures that make pursuing even a two-year degree more difficult. All of that is having an economic impact.
"As the second-largest population group in the United States, increasing the number of Latinos who pursue and complete a postsecondary degree is imperative for the economic vitality of this country," said the report, which recommending that colleges work more closely with high schools to help prepare students for academic life after high school graduation.
There are several community college systems that are doing a better job than others in helping students succeed in the classroom and beyond. The community colleges that are a part of the City University of New York (CUNY), for example, created the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), under which students receive a variety of services, including academic and career counseling, tutoring, tuition waivers, financial aid for books, and even assistance in paying for transportation to and from the campus. The program has helped increase retention and graduation rates among a student population where nearly 40 percent are Latino.
Long Beach City College offers a free year of tuition, and graduating students are guaranteed admission to the Long Beach campus of California State University. In Florida, Miami Dade College is the second-largest higher education institution in the country, and 72 percent of the students are Latino. The college created an honors program targeting high school students, and also has a dual language program. It also offers flexibility for working students; for example there is a virtual college, where a degree can be obtained entirely online. One of their programs offers free classes for high school students, and has three bachelor's degrees available, including in education.
Excelencia's Santiago says Latino students should also be proactive when looking to continue their studies beyond community college. One important way to do it is to look closely at institutions that facilitate credit transfers from the two-year colleges to four-year institutions, so that students can seamlessly transition without wasting their credits, time and money.
Santiago offered other things students should be looking for in a community college.
"Look for opportunities to connect with other students and participate in school, check the faculty in the subjects and disciplines you're interested in pursuing, familiarize yourself with the financial aid office and with the academic advisors office and other student support offices, and look at where do graduates transfer to when they are done with community college," says Santiago. "It is possible to be successful."