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Black, Latino Students Lag in Transfers to UC Campuses

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Transferring from community colleges to four-year universities was supposed to be the key to college dreams for California’s poor and minority students. Instead, it has become a mechanism that reinforces some of the most troubling economic and racial inequities in higher education.

Statewide, blacks are less than half as likely as whites to transfer from a community college to a UC campus, and less than one-fifth as likely as Asians, according to figures compiled by the state’s Post-secondary Education Commission. Latinos fare a little better than blacks, but not much.

Statewide, just 293 black community college students transferred to UC campuses last year. By contrast, about 7,300 whites and Asians transferred.

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A major factor in the stark disparity is the system’s tilt toward savvy, well-prepared middle-class students, and toward a handful of community colleges with historically high transfer rates.

Large numbers of disadvantaged students attend colleges that don’t place strong emphasis on UC transfers--including some that have reduced or eliminated vital counseling services--with the result that students who need the most help and encouragement in transferring are the least likely to get it.

Under state law, California’s system of community college transfers was designed to provide one of the most forgiving pathways to higher education in the world, giving late bloomers a second chance. To enter a UC campus as a junior, a person needs at least a 2.4 grade-point average in community college. Even at UC’s most competitive campuses, such as UCLA, students with high B averages can be competitive as transfers if they have taken the right courses.

In theory, no matter what a student’s race or background--and even if the student performed poorly in high school--he or she can go from the nation’s cheapest open-door public colleges to some of the country’s most elite universities in a matter of a few years.

At its best, the system offers people such as Jevon Hunter unparalleled second chances. Hunter, an African American of working-class background, thought not long ago that his future lay somewhere between a $9-an-hour construction job and the one-in-a-million chance that he would play for the National Basketball Assn.

Instead, at his community college in Santa Ana, Hunter discovered a talent for writing and academic work. He transferred to UC Irvine, got a bachelor’s degree and now hopes to attend graduate school at Yale or Stanford.

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The story is different for Denard McKinley, an African American former security guard from Inglewood who has a B average at Los Angeles Southwest College, high enough to enter a UC school as a transfer student. Last year, Southwest transferred just four students to UC.

McKinley is a lively talker and a promising math student; he recently got an A in calculus. He will transfer to San Francisco State this year.

McKinley had become interested in UC Davis after a visit there, but by then the application deadline had passed.

“I guess . . . if I had, like, a counselor, someone who said, ‘Well, you know, you should apply to a UC,’ ” his academic future might have been different, McKinley said. As it is, he added, “I know CSUs are No. 2, and that’s good enough for me.”

The transfer system has long been a source of consternation among educators. According to a 1991 state law: “It is a community college’s primary role to prepare students for upper-division access to the University of California and the California State University.”

However, “even in the best of times our numbers from community colleges in terms of diversity haven’t been anything to write home about,” acknowledged Steve Handel, UC associate director for outreach and student affairs.

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The latest in a long history of statewide policy efforts to raise the number of transfers includes a pledge by the UC campuses and community colleges in recent years to increase that figure by about 5% per year.

Also, under pressure from Gov. Gray Davis, California community colleges have taken the first step toward adopting transfer standards. Institutions with low transfer rates have been given a rough target of improving them by 15%.

Admittedly, transfers to UC are only one part of the college picture. California State University, the state’s second-tier public four-year system, accepts more than four times as many community college students and has a better diversity record in transfers than UC. An unknown number of students also transfer to private and out-of-state institutions.

Even under the best of circumstances, the vast majority of students will probably not opt for UC transfer. Many are in community colleges only to take a few courses. Others are too poor, or think they are, or lack academic skills, don’t have time, don’t want to travel or simply have other plans for their education.

Yet because UC offers some of the most elite options available to community college students, transfers to the system are a key element of educational opportunity, said Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

The reasons so few of the several hundred thousand black and Latino students in the community college system emerge as UC transfer students are complicated. A critical one is the poor preparation for college that many black and Latino students receive in high school, especially in math and English, which can strand them in remedial classes, sometimes for semester upon semester. Another is the complexity of UC admissions criteria.

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But success in UC transfers also appears to be a function of which of the state’s 106 community colleges a student happens to attend.

Some community colleges--those with higher proportions of middle-class white and Asian students--simply appear to try harder. By contrast, among the least successful at generating transfers are schools serving largely African American and Latino populations.

For Santa Monica College, which has relatively few high school feeder schools, advertising its high UC transfer rate is key to attracting students from surrounding areas. These students are more often middle class and are generally more motivated and self-directed about transferring. But the school leaves nothing to chance, providing an excellent ratio of counselors to students, intensive orientation, sophisticated tracking efforts, even UC application workshops.

At Santa Monica, “transfer is assumed,” said Michael Feldman, who transferred from there to UC Irvine.

By contrast, lower-income students from South-Central Los Angeles, for example, tend to wind up at the community college closest to their home. Among their choices are Compton, Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, West Los Angeles College and Southwest College--all of which have historically low UC transfer rates and relatively scanty resources devoted to such transfers.

In recent years, Trade-Tech and West Los Angeles, for example, have gone for periods with no functioning transfer centers at all because of budget cuts.

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Santa Monica College transferred 680 students to UC last year, most of them white or Asian. By contrast, Southwest, West Los Angeles, Trade-Tech and Compton, which together have more students than Santa Monica--the vast majority of them Latino or black--collectively transferred 45.

At those schools, students are more likely to fall into tracks leading to vocational certificates or Cal State campuses. Indeed, at many schools with lower-income student bodies, class offerings are concentrated in vocational or remedial classes, which is where most of their enrollment is. Higher-level courses that would benefit the few students in the transfer pipeline are hard to come by.

In numerous interviews, black and Latino community college students, even those who had been in college quite some time, displayed ignorance about UC requirements, as well as deadlines and tuition--even the difference between Cal State and UC.

At a recent recruiting workshop at UCLA, a group of prospective transfer students was asked to guess the tuition and cost of books for a year at the university. Their consensus: between $25,000 and $60,000 per year. The true figure: $3,900.

“These students don’t understand what options are,” said Hunter, the UC Irvine graduate. He knows what it’s like. He was enrolled in community college before he learned UC Irvine even existed, even though he grew up nearby in Santa Ana.

Counseling Seen as Key

Among UC transfer students interviewed, a single issue--counseling--was mentioned again and again.

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“When you start out at community college and you don’t know what you are doing, it just looks like a puzzle and you only have one little piece of it,” said Oscar Flores, a UCLA student who transferred from East Los Angeles College. “But instead of urging you to aim high, they just say, ‘Oh, here’s the next step.’ ”

In interviews, a few minority students said they were discouraged from applying to UC or were urged to follow vocational tracks despite stating transferring as their goal. More commonly, transfer students described having to seek out people knowledgeable about transferring to UC.

“The effort is not proactive,” said Mark Lewis, an African American who transferred to UC Berkeley and was recently accepted to graduate school at Harvard. “If a person happens to float into someone’s office, they might get assistance. But no one is out there, especially for the young men, giving them some kind of focus.”

College presidents and counselors insist that there is no conscious effort to deflect students from UC, and say they have taken a number of steps to improve counseling and support for disadvantaged students. But mandatory counseling for all entering students is often turned into an assembly-line process because the ratio of students to counselors is sometimes 1,000 to 1, said Charles Ratliff, deputy director of the California Postsecondary Education Commission.

In some cases, said Kevin Bray, past president of the California Community College Counselors Assn., counselors emphasize Cal State transfers with the best of intentions.

Knowing that the majority of their students are not destined for UC, counselors reasonably focus on courses of study they are likeliest to complete, he said.

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“It becomes a path of lesser resistance,” he added.

The importance of counseling comes through in many of the stories of UC transfer students who are black or Latino, came from low-income families or were first in their family to go to college. They described being slow to realize their academic talents. Some even started in vocational programs.

African American transfer student Ciara Tymony-Coemons credits a chance encounter with an interested teacher, Jay Adler, chairman of the English department at Southwest College. “He told me, ‘You have potential,’ ” she said. “No one had ever told me that.”

The problem with this method of inspiring students is that “it’s luck of the draw,” said Chuck Lindahl, associate vice president for academic affairs for Cal State and a former community college counselor.

“These poor and minority students have shown volition to get to community colleges on their own. . . . They could be inspired to get a bachelor’s degree,” he said, “if someone would just spend a little time with them.”

Most systematic recruiting and talent scouting of the 1.2 million students at the state’s community colleges is done by a handful of UC recruiters.

They tend to observe the squeaky-wheel rule: Colleges such as Santa Monica with the most organized transfer programs have traditionally gotten the most recruiting attention.

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For UC Irvine graduate Hunter, the answer lies in being willing to “take people by the hand.”

“These students should be inundated with UC this and UC that. Go in and hit them hard with it--daily, weekly, monthly. . . . Hammer it and hammer it.”

He feels so strongly that, these days, he spends his free time recruiting the children of friends and neighbors to UC Irvine.

“I don’t want to ever hear these kids say, ‘Nobody ever told me,’ ” he said.

“I was that kid.”

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College Transfer Disparity

Under state law, community college transfers are supposed to play “a key role in meeting educational equity.” Few community college students of any background transfer to the University of California, but the rate for blacks and Latinos is considerably below that of whites and Asians.

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