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Bronx Community College (Photo by Ryan Brenizer)

Latino students are far more likely than white students to enroll in two-year colleges. But this isn’t due to a lack of academic preparedness: Among the most able high school graduates, about 60 percent of Latinos enroll in non-selective colleges (including community colleges), compared to 52 percent of their white peers.

“For many of them, college is college,” says Deborah Santiago, co-founder of Excelencia in Education. “There isn’t a major distinction between going to an MIT and going to El Paso Community College.”

Santiago’s work with focus groups reveals a common belief among Latinos – especially first-generation and low-income university students – that they can get a good education anywhere as long as they are motivated. This means that going far away to attend a more expensive institution has little appeal. What matters most to Latinos when choosing a college is not its prestige or program offerings but its cost and location, Santiago said. Such pragmatic concerns buck the conventional wisdom that suggests students attend the most competitive and highly ranked institution to which they are admitted.

Close by and less expensive community colleges can often emerge as the most attractive option for these students. Overall, about half of traditional college-age Latino students attended two-year colleges in 2008, compared to about 32 percent of whites and 36 percent of black students.

But the data paint a worrisome picture about these students and their college completion rates. Community colleges typically lose about half of their students in their first year. Indeed, Latinos who start at two-year institutions are typically twice as likely to drop out as those who start at four-year schools.

And even for those who make it through to the associate’s degree, the odds of completing a bachelor’s degree aren’t great. A comprehensive California study found that while 40 percent of Latinos aspired to transfer from a community college to a four-year school, only 10 percent successfully did so – which was half the rate for white students. Another national study revealed that only five percent of Latinos who started at a community college ultimately received their bachelor’s degree within six years.

In many cases, the difficulty in seeing the process through to a bachelor’s degree is less a consequence of the difficulties in transferring than the problems that arise while students are enrolled in community college.

For instance, undemanding high schools or language barriers leave many students unprepared for college and needing to take remedial classes. Almost two-thirds of community college students must take remedial math or English before they can enroll in credit-bearing courses. Students also need to know how to study, but often find little guidance on campuses where the demand for services outpaces available resources.

And supports may be hard to find off-campus as well. Latino students often lack encouragement from peers, teachers or parents, who themselves did not go to college. Many also have family or work obligations. Seventeen percent are single parents, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. A quarter of full-time Latino community college students and half of part-time students work 40 hours per week.

While working may be necessary to help offset the costs of tuition, fees, books, living expenses and travel expenses, it can also jeopardize students’ eligibility for state and federal grants. Overall, Latinos tend to receive less financial aid than other students because they frequently attend part-time and thus may not qualify.

And even when students are eligible for financial aid, that doesn’t mean they’re getting it. A May 2010 study by the College Board found that in the 2007-2008 academic year, “58 percent of Pell-eligible students who attended community college either full time or part time applied for federal financial aid.” Seventy-seven percent of eligible students at four-year institutions applied. The Obama administration has moved to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) because students who do not complete it are ineligible for federal financial aid.

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