Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Gloria Padilla: 'Community' helps students excel at community colleges

Gloria Padilla | San Antonio Express-News

I did not realize just how small a minority I belong to as a graduate of a community college.

The number of students who graduate from community colleges, transfer to a four-year university and get a degree pales by comparison to the number of students who are enrolling in community colleges across the country.

Each fall, there are news releases touting the great strides in enrollment, but there are never media alerts about how many students failed to successfully complete the school year — or even first semester. Perhaps it's time to focus on that.

Spending 12 months at Texas Southmost College in Brownsville — now a part of the University of Texas at Brownsville — before transferring to the University of Texas at Austin as a junior was a matter of economics for me. Placement tests helped me fulfill requirements for an associate degree quickly and signing up to participate in the community college graduation ceremony was an excuse to party with friends afterwards.

Not graduating after two years in Austin was not an option for me and the close-knit circle of women with whom I transferred to UT. Many of us were first generation college students; some were first generation high school graduates, for whom English was a second language.

There was a lot riding on us; many of us had younger siblings who were counting on us.

Perhaps a major factor in our success was that we all moved into the same small apartment complex. The living and learning community we developed away from home provided the support we needed to succeed.

Some community colleges are now working on something similar to help their students. They are investing in establishing small learning communities to help students succeed; studies show it works. My college friends Letty, Abby, Olivia, Diana, Duck, Lissy, Hilda, Elsa, Sylvia and Mayra would be surprised to learn we were ahead of our time.

Much has changed since I went to college. Great progress has been made to provide access to higher education through the community college system, but more focus is needed on ensuring student success.

For many first-time college students, a community college is where they have to go to get ready for college courses.

Many new college students, an estimated 38 percent of community college students in the state and 24 percent of student in public four-year universities, spend their first few semesters on campus taking remedial courses in math, reading and writing, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Success for students taking developmental math class often falls into single digits.

Research indicates that the chances of success decrease if a student has to take a remedial course more than once. Unfortunately, repeating a remedial course happens more than some community college officials are willing to discuss.

Any way you add up the numbers, they don't look good in the effort to build a college-educated work force.

National statistics indicate that, on average, only 70 percent of high school students in the country graduate with a regular diploma.

We know all high school graduates don't immediately head off to college. But if we know that one in three of those that do end up at a Texas community college need remedial classes, it does not take a genius to realize the magnitude of the problem facing us.

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