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A very rough road for U.S. community college students

LOS ANGELES -- Foster Washington knows the odds are against him. The Los Angeles Southwest College student is a 20-year-old from a tough neighborhood in Watts where, he says, there was little encouragement or preparation for college.

LA Southwest college students
Los Angeles Southwest College students Vincent Atkins, left, Frank Simmons, Kent Williams and Foster Washington work on a class project together with instructor Eddie Powell, standing. (Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

LOS ANGELES -- Foster Washington knows the odds are against him. The Los Angeles Southwest College student is a 20-year-old from a tough neighborhood in Watts where, he says, there was little encouragement or preparation for college.

Recent studies suggest that students like Washington are the least likely to stay in school, get a degree or transfer to a four-year university, hampering their future job prospects.

But Washington is determined to be the first college graduate in his family of 12 siblings. Southwest, part of the nine-campus Los Angeles Community College District, is trying to fulfill his goal through new programs focused on intensive tutoring, faculty training and helping students adjust to college life.

"I have no time to hang out on the street with my homies; I want to be at school every day," Washington said after a recent English class that he said is his favorite. "Coming here gives me a sense of worth."

He is eager and engaged, particularly when discussing the writings of Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass in the all-male class. It is a remedial class aimed at students who need additional preparation before enrolling in college-level English; two tutors are on hand to supplement the instruction of the professor.


The class is part of a program geared to young men of color, but nearly all of the 8,000 students at Southwest have unmet social and academic needs, said Patrick Jefferson, dean of student services. About 96 percent need remedial math and English, and many are the first in their family to attend college. They grew up amid crime and poverty and graduated from local high schools that are among the lowest-performing in the state, he added.

"Our students don't leave those issues at the front door," Jefferson said. "But we're getting there."

The challenges facing Southwest and community colleges nationwide are borne out by a trio of studies released last week by the Civil Rights Project, a social science research group at UCLA.

The studies found that black and Latino community college students in Southern California are failing to advance because many have graduated from low-performing high schools that ill-prepare them for college work. These students then end up at similar two-year institutions with poor transfer records.

One of the studies analyzed high school graduates and the transfer rates of students after six years at 51 community colleges in Ventura, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange and San Diego counties. It found that students who graduated from high schools with large minority populations, low test scores and low numbers of parents with college degrees were far less likely to transfer to a four-year institution.

The likelihood of attending a low- or high-performing high school was strongly related to race and ethnicity, the studies found. Patterns of high school segregation -- by race, ethnicity and poverty -- continued in the community college system because students typically attend the college closest to home.

The patterns have broad implications for long-term economic and social stability, the studies conclude, because nearly 80 percent of black and Latino students in the postsecondary system attend a community college and only about three in 10 transfer within six years.

"If we can't figure out how to revise the system in a dramatic way, we're going to be on a path downward," said Gary Orfield, who co-directs the Civil Rights Project. "We have to face up to it if we don't want to have horrible economic and social consequences."


Southwest is nearly 70 percent black, and about 29 percent of its students transfer after six years, compared with 37 percent of students countywide, according to the Civil Rights Project study. Southwest and other campuses in the district have embarked on a three-year effort to smooth a path for students before they stumble, said Yasmin Delahoussaye, the colleges' vice chancellor for institutional effectiveness and educational programs.

The nonprofit Achieving the Dream initiative, based in Maryland, provides coaches and advisors to more than 150 community colleges around the nation who help develop strategies to boost student outcomes. Early results from the Southwest program are expected in the spring.

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