Wait, What Do You Mean by College?

A critical race analysis of Latina/o students and their pathways to community college

By Tanya J. Gaxiola Serrano

Tanya J. Gaxiola Serrano is a recent Ph.D. Graduate of UCLA’s division of social sciences and comparative education (’18, race and ethnic studies) and formerly worked as Assistant Director of the Center for Critical Race Studies at UCLA.

Gaxiola Serrano has examined the college trajectories of Latina/o students through the lens of critical race theory. In a recently published article in the Community College Journal of Research and Practice, she presents the barriers that Latina/o students face, such as institutional racism, exclusionary academic tracking, lack of information on college and college-prep courses, and the low expectations of teachers and administrators. She posits that these conditions lead to disproportionately high enrollments of Latina/o students in community colleges over four-year institutions of higher learning.

Born in Los Angeles and raised in Tijuana, Gaxiola Serrano and her family migrated back to the United States when she was in elementary school, settling in Chula Vista, California. Her father was a transnational worker who crossed the border legally each day, and her mother was a preschool teacher. Gaxiola Serrano, who has done extensive research on other aspects of the lives of Latina/o community college students, says her findings “[challenge] the narrative that Latina/o students don’t care about higher education or that they are lazy or unfit for it.”

“They want to be journalists, a chef, an attorney, a marine biologist,” she says. “They want to get Ph.D.s. In terms of their careers and professions, they all have awesome career paths that they are trying to take.”

EXCERPTS FROM THE ARTICLE IN Community College Journal of Research and Practice 2017, VOL. 41

As a group, Latina/o students are more likely to experience a substandard K–12 education complete with under-resourced schools, high teacher turnover, and fewer college-preparatory courses. It is this same inferior education that denies many Latina/o high school students the opportunity to engage in college-choice—leading to their disproportionate enrollment in community colleges over 4-year colleges or universities. In California alone, approximately 75% of Latina/o students in higher education can be found in the community college sector—making this an important pathway for many Latina/o students. The initial findings suggest that racism in K–12 in the forms of tracking, limited college information, and low expectations from academic personnel had a direct impact on the postsecondary experiences and opportunities available to Latina/o students.

Latinas/os are one of the fastest growing groups in the United States, with 55 million people (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015). The increase in the Latina/o population continues to transform the student bodies found in academic institutions from preschool to graduate and professional schools (Fry & Lopez, 2012). Specifically, we have witnessed a rise in the enrollment of Latinas/os in community college over any other sector of higher education. While there has been a surge in the number of Latinas/os in postsecondary education, particularly community colleges, the educational attainment gap still persists with “only 12.7% of all Latino adults hav[ing] a baccalaureate degree compared to 30% of Whites” (Zarate & Burciaga, 2010, p. 25). In other words, a higher number of Latinas/os in higher education does not equate to an increase in the attainment of college degrees for this group.

The educational inequality present for Latina/o students does not begin in higher education; rather, it is present all throughout the educational pipeline. Latina/o students experience institutionalized racism in their elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education with fewer students progressing from one step to the next (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Yosso & Solórzano, 2006). Encountering substandard and underresourced schools in racially segregated neighborhoods and communities, high push-out rates, and low college enrollment and completion percentages lead to disproportionate schooling outcomes for Latina/o students, something that has become the norm rather than the exception (Valenzuela, 1999).

Community colleges enroll the majority of students of color in higher education in part due to their open access policies providing all interested the “opportunity” to enter and participate in higher education. Community colleges are also generally much less costly in tuition than 4-year colleges and universities. For reasons similar to these, community colleges are known to be the big equalizer in our society as they democratize higher education (Boggs, 2010).

In 2014–2015, the California Community College (CCC) system matriculated close to one million Latina/o students, accounting for 42% of their student body (California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, 2015). Unfortunately, only 14% of the Latinas/os in the CCC system persist to transfer to a 4-year university making this one of the highest pushout points in the educational pipeline (Solórzano, Acevedo-Gil, & Santos, 2013). This educational disparity is alarming, and it calls for the improvement of retention and transfer pathways for Latina/o students in community colleges (Chapa & Schink, 2006; Moore & Shulock, 2010; Ornelas & Solórzano, 2004; Rivas, Perez, Alvarez, & Solórzano, 2007).

Institutional Racism

Instances of institutional racism were a common occurrence, as expressed in the counterstories provided by the study’s participants. Racism as experienced by the students consisted of events inside and outside of their schools, whether in K–12 or community college. More specifically, the students themselves mentioned how they experienced racism through (a) being placed in the noncollege track while in K–12, (b) receiving limited information on preparation for college and the application process, and (c) suffering from a lack of encouragement and support from school stakeholders—all leading to negative experiences and disengagement in high school and, ultimately, to their enrollment in community colleges.

Exclusionary Tracking for College Access

Literature on the K–12 schooling experiences of Latina/o students states how placing students in noncollege tracks is a common occurrence for this population (Yun & Moreno, 2006). Consequently,

Latina/o students experience an inequitable education compared to their White counterparts early in their academic career, leaving them unprepared for college and with limited postsecondary options (Valenzuela, 1999). In the case of Laura, who migrated from Mexico to the U.S. at the age of four, she explains how her experience as an immigrant student with limited English proficiency led her to being enrolled in bilingual classrooms up until 3rd grade, which she further described as “bilingual meaning Spanish.” During 4th grade, Laura was identified as a gifted student and transitioned into an all-English classroom at a pilot school. Although this experience should have marked her transition and placement in a regular English track, Laura still experienced a form of tracking early in her academic career during her elementary years:

“In fifth and sixth grade, I know now reflecting on it I wasn’t put in the class with all the advanced English speakers, I was put in the class with English speakers but with the kids that had more behavioral issues. I didn’t have really good teachers in fifth and sixth grade. I pretty much spent a lot of time being disciplined.”

Research on the schooling experiences of limited English proficiency students has demonstrated how these students get disproportionately and wrongfully placed in special education classrooms filled with students with behavioral problems (Callahan, 2005). This is problematic at many levels given that students who are placed in classrooms such as these get automatically labeled as special education students or students with behavior problems, even without the proper diagnosis (MacSwan & Rolstad, 2006). Being negatively labeled at such an early age has a long-term impact on the education of these students, as they will continue to be placed in a noncollege track as they transition to middle school and high school, largely reducing their chances of attending college (Callahan, 2005). Furthermore, exiting the special education track and transitioning into a regular, noncollege track is also a hard task to do for these students and their families. Cristina, a first-generation college student and the oldest of three had a very negative and disempowering high school experience. When asked about her pathway to community college, she shared:

“What led me [to enroll in a community college] was basically that I didn’t have a chance at getting into any college. And so my track was the community college track. I know the AP [advanced placement] and honors students were getting into UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles], into the top schools. That’s when I started to question my position, I was like wait, what do you mean by college?”

Hence, for Cristina, much like as for Laura, her noncollege tracking started early on in her academic career, before she was able to have the language and tools to speak back to this type of racial discrimination and systematic oppression. The experience of Cristina can be taken as a piece of evidence of the different forms of racism that Latina/o students and their families face when attempting to navigate educational institutions starting in K–12 and beyond (Yosso, Smith, Ceja, & Solórzano, 2009).

Limited College Information and The Prison Pipeline

Access to college information and preparation has also been found to be a key component in the experiences of disenfranchised students of color. Research studies have found that Latina/o students largely attend schools that suffer from finite resources including limited AP and honors courses; impoverished facilities; unprepared teachers and few counselors in largely overcrowded schools; and limited college preparation, information, and workshops (Kozol, 1991, 2005; Valenzuela, 1999; Vaught, 2011).

The students in this study all shared how very little information on college was received throughout their high school career from not once meeting with an academic counselor to first finding out about college only a few months before high school was over. Julian, a third-generation Chicano, explained how he would always receive good grades, but was never chosen to enroll in AP classes or any other college-track courses during high school.

“There was like zero college prep, it was just taking those general classes. My high school didn’t have, at least for myself, didn’t have any college prep, it was only about meeting those graduation requirements. It was never like, what’s the steps after. I wouldn’t say I had any college prep, it was just like meeting those general requirements. I was never approached by anybody, like I didn’t see any counselors at all throughout my entire high school experience except for one time when I was forced because I got in trouble for something.

But besides that I didn’t see any academic counselors.”

College preparation is vital to the success of students like Julian who are first-generation college students and do not have readily available resources to prepare and guide them through the process. He highlighted how the only time he met with an academic counselor was when he got in trouble and was required to attend a meeting. In this instance, Julian, like many Latino students, was not called in to see an academic counselor to discuss his future career plans or to receive information on college, but instead, to be reprimanded. We can imagine how such experiences in high school support the well-documented school-to-prison pipeline for Latinos (Valles & Villalpando, 2013).

This intractable pattern for schools to treat students like delinquents further reinforces the master narrative that Latinos are not meant to be in academic spaces as they threaten the school safety. These experiences directly affect the academic identity Latino males hold of themselves and how others come to view them as well as reinforce derogatory stereotypes based on race and gender.

Tanya Gaxiola Serrano, ’18 Ph.D. in Race and Ethnic Studies, is currently serving her Ford Dissertation Year Fellowship at UCLA, and in 2019 will enter a tenure-track position in the department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at UTSA. She earned her M.Ed. from the University of Utah.

Low Expectations and Lack of Encouragement and Support

The lack of encouragement and support from teachers, counselors, and other school stakeholders further inhibits the academic identities of Latinas/os as successful students with academic potential beyond high school.

The [study] participants suffered from low expectations, support, and encouragement, and these forms of institutional racism ultimately led to having poor experiences in the classroom and disengagement.

The limited nurturing of Latina/o students in the classroom has been linked to the high pushout rates of these group in the literature. For example, a study done by Aviles, Guerrero, Howarth, and Thomas (1999) demonstrated how Chicano students did not drop out as commonly as referred to in the mainstream education literature; instead, they were facilitated out or pushed out. The study further confirmed this by sharing how a “combination of lowered teacher expectations and encouragement on the part of school personnel to opt out of mainstream education facilitated a steady exodus of Chicano/Latino students out of the school system” (Aviles et al., 1999, p. 469). This statement begins to explore how not only are the low teacher expectations harmful to the academic success of students, but also how other school stakeholders, such as counselors and administrators, also provided very little support and encouragement to their success.

Conclusions and Implications

Community colleges can begin responding to this inequity by supporting the educational success of their large Latina/o student body. K–12 schools and community colleges can help improve the pathways of K–12 to community college for Latina/o students by (a) ending tracking practices that constantly exclude and further marginalize students, (b) providing students college preparation and information, and (c) nurturing the academic identities of students. Noncollege tracked students find themselves with limited postsecondary educations albeit their college-going aspirations. The lack of available college-level courses directly impacts the future academic experiences and college choice for these students.

The nurturing of academic identities should continue for students when they enter community colleges. Incorporating pedagogical practices that hold students accountable to high expectations while also understanding their experiences as a marginalized group can strengthen the academic careers and future pathway of these students.

Centering the counterstories of Latina/o graduate students provides scholars, educators, and practitioners the opportunity to learn from their trajectory and experiences while being critical of majoritarian discourses. Although students of color have access to higher education via the pathway of community college, we have seen in the literature that access does not equate to successful degree attainment. Yet, in order to begin to chip away at institutional racism, we first need to hear these experiences through the voices of those situated at the margins. It is only after our society can acknowledge the impact of racism in education that we will be able to deconstruct the practices that support educational inequalities for Latina/o students and students of color in general.