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Barriers Limiting Community College Student Success

Louisa Jonas
Texas Public Radio
Bruce Leslie, Chancellor at the Alamo Colleges

The majority of college students in Texas start off at community colleges, but many of those students are floundering. Education officials are trying to uncover what’s gone wrong, and what can be done to make it right.

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Anthony Franklin, a kinesiology major at San Antonio College, who intends to transfer to a four-year university.

Anthony Franklin is a 20-year-old student at San Antonio College, one of the five schools in the Alamo Community College system. He’s majoring in kinesiology and plans to become a physical therapist or a sports manager for an athletic team.

"I plan on getting a bachelor’s either at UTSA or maybe Texas A&M Kingsville so I can actually get from there my master’s and then go on from there," Franklin says.

This is the kind of stuff that Bruce Leslie, the chancellor at the Alamo Colleges, wishes he could hear more often. Only 20 percent of students in the community college system transfer to four year institutions to pursue bachelor’s degrees.

"If you finish with an associate’s degree in English, there’s no career for you. You can’t be an editor, you can’t be a journalist. You need a baccalaureate for those kinds--you can’t be a teacher, you need a master’s degree to do that [for the most part]," Leslie says. 

And it’s not just an associate’s in English that would leave you without a job in that field, Leslie says. With only an associate’s degree, you can’t be an engineer, a doctor or a nurse.

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"We have high paid, high demand careers that are waiting for people to fill them, but we don’t have enough people who are graduating in those fields, mostly STEM," he says.

STEM careers are those in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. In San Antonio STEM job opportunities abound in medicine, IT and security.

Leslie does point out that some two-year degrees do prepare students for jobs in fields like manufacturing, aerospace and allied health. But a lot of them don’t even get that far. Of students entering the Alamo Colleges in 2011, only 15 percent completed their associate’s degree in four years. Sixty-five percent dropped out of the school without any degree, and without transferring to a four-year institution.

Natasia Upadhaya is a San Antonio College student who plans to transfer. She’s a 26-year-old veteran majoring in mechanical engineering. And she believes she knows why more students don’t continue on. It’s because community college credits don’t often transfer to four-year schools, she says.

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Natasia Upadhaya, 26, is San Antonio College student who plans to transfer. She’s a veteran majoring in mechanical engineering.

"You have community colleges telling you this is what classes you have to take in order to transfer, and then you have the  universities looking back down- you know they have their own different sort of plan. I don’t think the universities and the community colleges are on track," Upadhaya says.

Leslie agrees. He says when students’ credits don’t transfer, they can’t begin at a four-year school as a junior. They get frustrated, many don’t want to start over, so they just don’t go.   

Raymund Paredes is the commissioner for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. He says a lack of academic preparedness is one reason students don’t fare well in community colleges.

"Higher education and public education simply don’t talk to each other enough. College readiness has to be determined jointly by college and university faculty as well as high school teachers and administrators, that’s one thing," Paredes says.

And the other thing? Finances.

"Most community college students are poor. They have to drop out in order to work full time or work more, and that retards their academic progress, and lots of times they simply don’t come back," Paredes says.

Leslie says the Alamo Colleges have made efforts to encourage more students to transfer. They’ve increased their advisor to student ratio and those advisors attempt to have more contact with students.

"The state of Texas’ future economic vitality is really dependent on success at community college because the majority of students go to us," Leslie says. "I think Texas really needs to take seriously anything that can be done to clear the path—is the phrase we use—so that students aren’t facing barriers all the time in their efforts to achieve their degrees will make a huge difference on the competitiveness of Texas."

Franklin, the 20-year-old kinesiology major, is one student who doesn’t seem aware of any barriers.

"To me an associate's - at least you have a degree - but to me most dreams starts off with bachelor’s. Then from bachelor’s you move on from there," he says.

And Texas officials are trying to figure out how to get more students on the same education track as Anthony, so they too can follow their career dreams.