Black students face barriers to enrollment, graduation at community colleges, speakers say

Parent tells Fresno Unified school board about her son’s experience with discrimination

A Fresno Unified task force says the environment for the district’s African American students is in a state of emergency. Jenelle Pitt tells the school board about how her then-4-year-old son was treated during transitional kindergarten enrollment.
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A Fresno Unified task force says the environment for the district’s African American students is in a state of emergency. Jenelle Pitt tells the school board about how her then-4-year-old son was treated during transitional kindergarten enrollment.

At a Fresno town hall on the challenges that African American students face at community colleges, Raje Stanfield said he knew those hurdles well.

Stanfield said he started taking classes at Fresno City College after high school in hopes of clearing his general education requirements. But after a year of work, and just as he found the major he wanted to pursue, he learned from a counselor that the classes he took weren’t the right ones. He would need to start over.

He said the experience was so discouraging that he dropped out instead.

“I felt like an outsider in college,” he said. “You feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, like a fish in a barrel with a shotgun pointed at you.”

Stanfield’s comments were echoed by other students and State Center Community College District staff members who told California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley on Tuesday night that the district lacks support for African American students from enrollment through graduation.

The result is that African American students are underrepresented among the district’s student body, and that their scores are 15 to 20 percentage points behind that of other groups at the district, according to SCCCD Chancellor Paul Parnell.

Statewide, a study found that community colleges transfer only 3% of black students within two years, and that 63% of black community college students do not earn a degree, certificate, or transfer within six years.

And while the barriers to success are similar across the state, the Central Valley has unique challenges, too, Oakley said in an interview. With classes impacted at both the CSU and community college levels, students have a hard time completing a degree, an issue that’s compounded by the Valley’s high poverty levels.

“It’s much harder for low-income students to just pack up and go to Humboldt State,” Oakley said.

Access, experience and graduation

The town hall at the Westside Church of God was the latest in a series hosted by Oakley throughout California. Participants broke into small groups to discuss how to improve access, experience and graduation rates at community colleges.

A common theme was meeting students where they are, like improving recruiting and outreach efforts in the African American community, at spaces like barbershops and traditionally black churches.

But more than just recruitment, speakers said that colleges need to recognize the systemic factors that place African American students at a disadvantage even before they set foot on campus.

Longtime SCCCD employee Pearl Mangum said the language of academia is often indecipherable to first-generation students, many of whom are African American. This leads to misunderstandings among students who may not know the weight of a “W” grade, or the effect of taking too many units on their financial aid eligibility – and may not have anyone to ask.

“We have a lot of educational words – but ask a student what a guided pathway is. We say financial aid is available, but what does that mean?” Mangum said. “We need to express it more clearly, because students won’t ask, because they’re embarrassed that they don’t know.”

Even students who aren’t first-generation may not understand all the acronyms and terms used in the district. June Stanfield said she encouraged her son to seek out counselors for help choosing his classes, because her own education at Fresno City College was more than 30 years ago.

“Everything is different now,” she said.

Back then, she said she was given a piece of paper outlining the classes she’d need to take in order to graduate. She said the college failed to make it so clear for her son, leaving the then 18-year-old to flounder on his own.

She said she hopes the town hall is the beginning of a discussion to find solutions, as she’d like to pass on advice to the young people she mentors.

SCCCD Trustee Eric Payne said district counselors now prioritize contacting first-year students and helping them come up with an academic plan. Still, he said, there’s more work to do, adding that the 4% enrollment rate for African American students at the district was “dismal” in a county where 6% of the population is African American.

Community members said that greater diversity among faculty and counselors would give students points of contact who better understand their backgrounds and experiences. At Clovis Community College, part of the State Center district, the only counselor for African American students works part-time, a faculty member pointed out.

Other speakers said that student support needs to start as early as high school and continue through college in order to normalize the process of asking for and receiving help.

Fresno Unified recently grappled with its own shortcomings when it comes to African American students, with a task force calling the situation “a state of emergency.”

Current and future programs

Oakley said community colleges are taking steps to become more inclusive, like doing away with placement tests that disproportionately placed students of color in remedial classes.

Next on the radar is standardized testing, which Oakley said says more about a student’s ability to pay for tutoring than about their intelligence. Though community colleges don’t require SAT or ACT scores, some colleges may ask to see such scores from transfer hopefuls.

Oakley also said California needs to fully fund all its colleges and universities in order to ensure equitable education.

Parnell pointed to the district’s plans to open a 39-acre campus in West Fresno as another way that the district wants to reach more African American students.

Existing programs include the Strengthening Young Men By Academic Achievement program at Fresno City College, which helps students transfer to a four-year university through academic advising and mentoring.

All students can also use an online financial aid calculator provided by California Community Colleges, which connects students to scholarship opportunities, said speaker Pamela Haynes, a member of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors.

“Lack of money should not be the reason for not getting a degree or certificate,” Haynes said.

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Aleksandra Appleton covers schools for the Fresno Bee. She grew up in Fresno before attending UC San Diego and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.