Across the country, nearly half of U.S. college students start out at community colleges. Though these institutions are often touted as a lower-cost, incremental route to obtaining a four-year degree, a close look at federal education data reveals a far different picture. In fact, only about one-quarter of community college students go on to obtain a bachelor's degree within six years of entering school, according to a 2013 study conducted by Toby J. Park at Florida State University.
Park's study suggests a need for policies that address the range of often complex social, financial, and academic challenges that hinder community college students' progress. With so many students beginning their postsecondary educations at community colleges, boosting the share that ultimately obtain four-year degrees could strengthen the U.S. workforce. And since so many community college students come from racial and ethnic minority groups, families where few have gone to college, and low-income backgrounds, economists say that helping more of them earn bachelor's degrees could also help to narrow the inequality gap.
Last week, New York City-based LaGuardia Community College held a graduation ceremony for students receiving associate degrees. National Journal spoke with three LaGuardia students, selected at random, about their paths to community college, their experiences in school, and their future plans.
Valjean Guerra, 26, describes his path to graduation as long, windy, and ultimately worthwhile. From the time he was a teenager, he had an interest in the performing arts. Guerra, the son of Trinidadian and Venezuelan immigrants, begged his parents to allow him to attend one of New York's arts-focused public high schools, where he wanted to study modern dance and try his hand at the guitar or maybe the drums. Guerra's parents balked — and when it was time to talk about college, they insisted he study something they considered practical and lucrative, like computer software engineering. Even so, when Guerra came to them with a partial scholarship offer from a Pennsylvania school that would have required his parents to pay or borrow about $20,000 a year, Guerra's father declared that he had no plans to "waste his money."
The conversation sent Guerra on a six-year odyssey through four different community and technical colleges and three different majors. At the first school, Guerra managed to pass just one class — history — and posted a grade-point average that today makes him chuckle: 0.80. By the time he arrived at LaGuardia, Guerra had finally found the ability to focus, to pull down a GPA of which he is proud (3.3 as of last semester) while working nearly full-time hours as a licensed barber. He also found a way to connect studies in mass communications with his passionate interest in the performing arts.
After he enrolled at LaGuardia three years ago, Guerra joined a theater arts club at the school and participated in as many shows as his schoolwork, job, and commute would allow. He researched four-year performing arts programs and questioned LaGuardia faculty and students about what would make him an attractive applicant. And, eventually, his father apologized for his comments about tuition and waste.
A few months ago, Guerra applied to New York University and hopes to hear news about the school's admissions decision sometime in the next two weeks. If he gets in, his next steps will be guided by the goal of eventually earning a master's degree in fine arts.
In 2011, Kat Lam, now 20, came from Hong Kong to the U.S. with her mother looking for a way to build a career in science. She had just finished high school, but scientific jobs in Hong Kong were scarce and admission to the country's universities extremely competitive. For a girl from a lower-income family, it was also extremely rare.
When Lam and her mother arrived, they discovered the sorts of challenges that confront many low-income and first-generation American-born college students. Lam didn't have enough money to enroll in college right away. She was not eligible for federal student aid and her family did not have the money to cover tuition and fees.
Lam found two retail jobs while her mother struggled to find just one in any industry. Soon, Lam found herself trapped in a soul-sucking routine. Get up. Go to work. Go to a second job. Go home to Flushing, Queens. Lam was lonely and craved the challenge of learning. She often felt as if she was participating in some sort of grueling psychological study.
After eight or nine months, Lam had saved $5,000 she could apply to college. Her mother found work. So Lam quit one job and enrolled at La Guardia to pursue an associate degree in biology.
Professors began to notice her work, and suggested that she enter student science competitions. They also helped her secure internships and research opportunities. Then, LaGuardia gave Lam a scholarship that allowed her to stop working off campus. This year she worked just a few hours a week as a math tutor and was able to focus completely on her studies.
One professor suggested that Lam start to think about continuing her education at a school with a big research budget and rigorous courses. He suggested Johns Hopkins University. Lam was skeptical that Johns Hopkins would seriously consider a community college student, but she felt almost obligated to try. Application essays were a challenge for the biology major, so the school found a LaGuardia alum who agreed to work with Lam via email on her essays.
In August, Lam will move to Baltimore and begin her studies at Johns Hopkins, where she will focus on molecular and cellular biology. Lam wants to become a practicing physician who also engages in research.
Ilisabeta Tarakinikini, 22, has lived in three different countries and speaks two languages fluently. But when the Fiji native's family moved to New York during her senior year of high school so that her father could accept a job with the United Nations, Tarakinikini found herself overwhelmed. Before the family landed in Valley Stream, Long Island, Tarakinikini thought high school cliques and high-stakes college admissions were both mythical features of American movies.
Eventually, Tarakinikini decided that she wanted to attend a Washington, D.C.-area school with a highly-regarded international relations program. But Tarakinikini's mother worried that "something would happen" to the 18-year-old and convinced her to enroll at St. John's University close to the family's home.
St. John's didn't have the kind of program Tarakinikini wanted. Professors seemed unavailable to discuss coursework or career plans outside their limited office hours. After a year and a half, Tarakinikini stopped going to school. She spent the next two years helping out at her mother's business and mostly hanging out at home. When she tried to reenroll at St. John's, the college told Tarakinikini she should try a community college. LaGuardia fell well inside her mother's geographic preferences.
With the credits she brought with her from St. John's, Tarakinikini earned her associate degree in one year. That wouldn't have been possible without advice from other students, she says. They told her to use a little-known software program to which all New York public college students have access called Degree Audit. The program identifies courses that a student must take to graduate, creating an individual road map to graduation.
Tarakinikini credits the program with helping her make early career plans. She remained interested in politics and policy. But she also knew that she was the only member of her family who was excited when Hurricane Sandy was en route to the East Coast. She actually got a thrill out of the earthquake drills her father used to run the family through when they lived in Nepal. She has always been exceptionally organized. Suddenly the answer was clear: disaster recovery and management work for the U.N.
Tarakinikini found a program at John Jay College in Manhattan that will allow her to earn a bachelor's and master's in public administration in just three years, thanks to her degree from LaGuardia. She applied and got in. Classes begin at John Jay in August.
This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.