Helping My Brother Along the #Comm_College Pathway

My work has always been personal, whether in student affairs, admissions counseling, or educational research. I’ve invested myself in these endeavors believing that maybe, in a small way, my work could help others. Particularly, helping low-income, first-gen, students of color reach their personal and educational goals given the myriad of systemic barriers placed in front of them. As I like to think, “I don’t sell em dreams, but the inspiration is free.” So I’m all about facilitating and empowering students along their educational journey. This has always been my approach to college outreach. I miss that access work, that’s probably why I try align my research within community colleges on understanding transfer/advising and the way that CCs revitalize access to the baccalaureate through the transfer process. I’m convinced that transfer advising is just as critical, if not more so, than high school guidance given the high concentration of first-gen, low-income, students of color in community colleges, especially in CA. Recent data finds that 80 percent of community college students intend to transfer and earn at least a bachelor’s degree, but less than a 25 percent end up transferring (Jenkins & Fink, 2015). In addition to the overall transfer gap, African American and Latino students, who are overrepresented in community college, face the greatest inequity in transfer outcomes (Crisp & Nuñez, 2014; Moore & Shulock, 2010).

Two weeks ago I got a call from my brother, my only sibling, ten years my junior. He opened the call with, “I’m ready to sign up for college.” I nearly dropped the phone when I heard him breathe those words. I was excited and emotional to hear him reach out, to allow me to help him in his educational goals. After graduating high school he decided to forgo college and start working. My brother and I had different school experiences that alter the way we thought about education and schooling. As a college access person, I’ve always had guilt (placed on me by relatives) that I had failed to help the only person that mattered, my brother. Since then, I tried given him space, letting him know that I’d be there for him, when he was ready. So two years later he was ready and we talked. I asked “well, what do you think you want to study? Where do you think you want to go? And when do you want to start?” He mentioned he wanted to study automotive technology (a program that can be offered as technical training, degree-granting, and/or be transferable at different community colleges). He then shared that he wanted to attend somewhere local, given that he lives in Anaheim, he has several options around the area. And lastly he shared, that if possible he’d want to start in the summer, if not the fall.

Still on the phone, I continued to ask about his plans, “what research have you already done?” and before I shared my thoughts with him, I asked him, what do you think are best options for you?” Since I was wrapping up the semester, I said, lets meet in a week and I’ll bring more information to review then. As soon as I put the phone down I began planning my “advising” session with him. I thought to myself what type of guidance can I provide my brother? I wanted to provided information, without being overbearing and overwhelming. I felt confidence in my knowledge, I do have a college counseling background, I’ve researched community colleges the last two years, and this spring I had conducted ethnographic work at a transfer center, but wanted the delivery to be relevant to him.

He wants to get automotive tech training, acquire an AA, and then transfer, so there are numerous individual choices, institutional differences, and multiple pathways that could help or hinder him in achieving his educational goals. I decided to do three things: create a profile of the nearby community colleges, reach out to practitioners in the field, and better understand math/English assessment. First, I used the CCCCO Datamart to research the nearby community colleges. In total there are eight community colleges within three districts. The datamart is the info center for California community colleges with a range of data that can be pulled. I decided to create a simple table with completion and transfer metrics, both for the general population and Latinos. In addition, I checked each school if they offered some type of “automotive technology” program. Some schools offered the program as vocational only meaning that certificates of achievement (i.e., drivetrain specialist, brake certification, engine performance) could be attained. Other schools offered the program as an associates of science with the opportunity to transfer, which is closest to my brother’s goal. I then added headcount and counselor-to-student ratio to create a profile for each school. See the graphic below. I also included some crude equity analysis to see the gaps between the reference group and Latino students (in red font).

SAC_ExcelThe second thing I did was to contact two colleagues who work in automotive academic departments at LA community colleges. I asked them what they thought about the four schools that offer the program in Orange County, if there were advantages to one program format over another, and lastly to share any advice they could on navigating the process. They were helpful in understanding the slight differences in programs. For example College A can get students ASE certified, but focus on Toyotas whereas College B doesn’t certify but has a direct internship with Honda Dealerships to get their certification.

The third thing I did was look at the assessment process that each school used. Some schools used Accuplacer, others COMPASS, or the Math Diagnostic Testing Project (MDTP). I focused on assessment because of clear evidence of being a barrier for students in progressing into degree-granting and transferable-courses. Most recently it was estimated that 85% of students in CA need to take at least one remedial math course. Basic Skills progression is one of the most important areas to understand and improve: much of the inefficiencies and inequity in the high remedial placement of students of color is due to the assessment themselves. Shout out to the homie Federick Ngo and his article on Math Placement Decisions that helped me understand the different types of assessments and the move towards multiple measures. As well as this recent piece by Eloy Oritz that touches on more innovative practices such as LBCC’s College Promise Pathways Evaluation.

And this was especially important for my brother, like many other students I’ve meet at community college, he has been out of high school a few years, but has decided to continue his education. Looking at the image below, without preparation for these ineffective assessments, a student can be placed in Math N06 requiring at least five semesters of math courses before reaching a college-level, transferable course.

Math Sequence

You can best believe that we are going to freshen up on our Math and English; I’ve already practiced the MDTP placement practice questions (See below):

Level4 Image

So now equipped with data, advice, and assessment prep, I was ready to meet with my brother. In all, we probably spent 4-5 hours between reviewing different programs, college enrollment information, applying for the community college he selected, and then some assessment prep based on the diagnostic tool the campus uses. We first reviewed the table I created, we talked about how there were four schools that provide the program, but three of them provide the opportunity to get a degree and transfer. I mentioned that each school is different in size, from 15,000 to 66,000 annual headcount wise. Then I mentioned how each school has different completion and transfer rates, and that those rates are unfortunately lower for us, as Latinos.

After discussing the options, he chose to attend Santa Ana College (SAC). From there we reviewed the catalog, talked about the program of study, and what classes he wanted to talk both within the automotive tech and the GE-transfer pattern. I briefly covered the GE-transfer patterns, Plan A (Local CC), B (CSU), C (UC) and how they set students up on different pathways (Another piece can be written on transfer patterns, pathways, and articulation agreements, or just wait two years for my dissertation). After double checking, SAC was the school he wanted to attend, it had the program of interest, he was familiar with it, and had the potentially to wrestle for their team. We the choice made, we moved forward with applying. I have to say, as a community college research, this experience was context-building helping understand nuanced processes before a student actually steps foot on campus.

For example, one of the things I look at is the disparity between initial educational goals (stated on the application) and outcomes (certificate, AA, transfer). On the application, they give you 14!!! options as educational goals. When the question came up, I let my brother think about the choices before I asked him, “which one do you think reflects what you want to do at SAC.” Then he rationalized a few of them “well, I want to prepare for a new career, so maybe acquire job skills.” I asked, do others options fit better with your goals? He said well, I want technical training, with an associates, and to transfer…well that option wasn’t there, and as you can see below, the options overlap, but you can only select one. This process made me rethink my reliance on the educational goal data that comes directly from this step.


He completed the application, got information about the next steps. We then applied for the BOG waiver (financial aid) that covers tuition at community colleges. Once he got his student id, we started to review the assessment process at SAC. They use the MDTP, so we practiced study questions from Level 4 (Placement into Pre-Calculus) and Level 3 (Placement into College Algebra). We read that he could take both tests within the same week, but could only repeat the same test once per semester. The next few hours we spent on practicing Math and English… questions on linear expressions, reading comprehension, and polynomial equations. As we wrapped up the practice questions, he signed up for “MyMathTest” which is an online prep ran through pearson. On average we got about 75-80% of the questions right in the diagnostic, so he should be placed at college algebra, but the stake were low, there was no time limit, and no testing anxiety or intimidation present.

At the end of the day, we thought we had accomplished a good deal; my brother had reviewed his options, examined three programs offering similar coursework, and chose a school to enroll at. In addition, the first steps in financial aid were taken and we had practiced some math and English questions in anticipation for his assessment date (I hope he is still practicing!). Now it’s waiting for placement, from there he can enroll in summer school (3-6 units) and slowly transition back to near fulltime status (6-12).Since this is an on-going process, I’m hesitant to check up on him, but I know how important the next steps in matriculation are. For the most part, new policies (SB1456) require schools to be proactive with welcoming newly enrolled students with Assessment, Counseling, and Orientation.

I didn’t mean to write about this, at least not publicly, but I had mentioned this experience to Estela (my advisor) and she mentioned I should blog about it. And so I did, and it was helpful to reflect on this experience and how my research informs my practice. Through both my research and practice, I’ve developed better insight to help my brother, and others like him, those with aspirations of a bachelors but uncertain of the path given the complexities of higher education. I might post two more blogs, if my brother is cool with it, as we continue through the matriculation process. One about his experience around the assessment process itself, he’s signed up for a June 15th test date. Maybe a third one about the onboarding process, specifically the educational planning and counseling provided (which is what I’m currently researching).

Thanks for reading.


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