Are Community Colleges an Alternative Path for Hispanic Students to Attain a Bachelor’s Degree?
by Tatiana Melguizo - 2009
Background/Context: This study contributes to the longstanding debate over whether community colleges democratize education or divert students from attaining a bachelor’s degree.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The objective of this study is to determine whether Hispanic students have a lower chance of earning a bachelor’s degree (B.A.) if they transfer from a community college.
Population/Participants/Subjects: This study uses the High School and Beyond Sophomore sample (HS&B/So) high school senior class of 1982 and the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS:88/2000) high school senior class of 1992 to compare the progress of two samples of “traditional” Hispanic transfer and Hispanic “rising junior” students. The final sample is composed of 220 students from the high school senior class of 1982 and 140 students from the high school senior class of 1992.
Research Design: Regression analysis is used to identify the effect of being a transfer student on B.A. attainment, after controlling for individual characteristics and institutional characteristics of the community college. Simulation analysis is used to identify the factors that affected B.A. attainment in the 1980s, which are used to predict B.A. rates a decade later.
Findings/Results: The results show that the negative impact of being a transfer student in the 1980s had disappeared within a decade. The results suggest that the relatively lower attainment rate of Hispanic transfer students is the result of individual characteristics and lack of academic preparation rather than institutional characteristics.
Conclusions/Recommendations: Although community colleges have the potential to be an alternative path toward a B.A., until transfer rates increase, Hispanics may be better off beginning their college education at a 4-year institution.
Evidence from several studies that compare the B.A. completion rate of Hispanics and Whites suggests that there is a persistent college completion gap (Astin, 1985; Campuzano, 2004; Fry, 2002; Melguizo, 2003, in press; Vernez & Mizell, 2001). Recent statistics show that the percentage of Hispanics with a bachelors degree or higher is one third that of Whites (Current Population Survey, 2005). Even among the students most likely to succeedthose who begin their college career as full-time freshmen in 4-year collegesonly 6 out of every 10, on average, earn a B.A. in 5 five years (Horn & Berger, 2004). The individual and social benefits of additional years of postsecondary education in terms of income, employment opportunities, occupational prestige, and social mobility have been widely documented (Cabrera, Burkum, & La Nasa, 2005; Carnevale & Rose, 2003). However, the most recent studies argue that these opportunities materialize mostly for those who complete a college degree (Adelman, 1999; Cabrera et al.; Grubb, 2002; Katz & Autor, 1999). Mortenson (2006) calculated the median income earnings (in 2004 dollars) for males 25 years or older for the last four decades. He found that individuals with advanced degrees were making $40,000 more than high school graduates in 2003, compared with a difference of just over $20,000 in 1970. The lower educational attainment of Hispanics, coupled with the fact that, as a group, they are likely to represent a substantial percentage of working-age U.S. adults by 2025, suggests that improving their educational success is necessary to assure their social mobility and to maintain the vitality of the U.S. labor force (Fry; Schneider, Martinez & Owens, 2006).
A majority of Hispanic high school graduates first attend a community college, and their college completion rates lag behind those of Whites and Asians (Dougherty, 1992; Karabel, 1972; Rendón, Jalomo, & Garcia, 1994; Rendón, Jalomo, & Nora, 2000; Rendón & Nora, 1989). Hispanics enroll at sub-baccalaureate institutions at a higher rate than the overall population; 69.7% of all Hispanic college students enroll in these types of programs as compared with 60.6% of college students overall (Bailey, 2001; Bailey, Jenkins, & Leinbach, 2005). Hispanics have traditionally been attracted to community colleges. This is partly the result of relatively low tuition rates and also that community colleges enable students to commute from home and preserve close family ties while maintaining jobs (Gilroy, 1998). Community colleges also offer more remedial preparation courses do than 4-year colleges (Lewis, Farris, & Greene, 1996). Additionally, the substantial increase in 4-year-college tuition costs and more stringent admissions requirements (Wellman, 2002), coupled with the decline in federal and student aid programs, have resulted in community colleges becoming an attractive and major channel of entry for an increasing student population. Community colleges can be an excellent choice because their average tuition cost is about half that of a public 4-year institution. During the 19961997 school year, full-time students paid an average of $1,283 for annual tuition and required fees at public 2-year colleges, compared with $2,986 at public 4-year colleges (Kane & Rouse, 1999). For all these reasons, community colleges can provide a cost-effective way of getting through the first 2 years of college before transferring to a 4-year college to earn a bachelors degree.
The small number of studies that have looked specifically at the lower college completion rates of Hispanics argue either that they are the result of the inadequate academic preparation that they receive in high school (Adelman, 1999; Fry, 2002; Rendón & Nora, 1989; Rose & Betts, 2001; Sandy, Gonzalez, & Hilmer, 2006; Wilson & Melendez, 1985) or that these students disproportionately choose to start their education at 2-year institutions (Astin, 1985; Ganderton & Santos, 1995; Grubb, 1991). This study explores the impact of first attending a community college on the B.A. completion rate of Hispanics in the early 1980s and 1990s.
This study has four interrelated goals: (1) to describe and compare the characteristics of Hispanic transfer students in the 1980s and 1990s; (2) to conceptualize and test a model of academic persistence in college for traditional1 Hispanic community college transfer students; (3) to assess the impact that attending a community college has on students probability of attaining a bachelors degree; and (4) to predict and identify whether individual or institutional factors contributed to the college completion rates of Hispanic students. The following research questions guide this inquiry: (1) Were Hispanic transfers as likely to attain a degree as Hispanic rising juniors2 in the early 1980s and 1990s? (2) What factors explain the differences in degree attainment between the two cohorts of Hispanic students?
This study uses the High School and Beyond Sophomore sample (HS&B/So) high school senior class of 1982 and the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS:88/2000) high school senior class of 1992 to compare the progress of two samples of traditional Hispanic transfer3 and Hispanic rising junior4 students. The individual characteristics of the two samples are described and compared. Logistic regression analysis is used to identify the impact of being a transfer student and the impact of other factors affecting the college completion for Hispanic students who start their postsecondary education at a community college, after controlling for selected characteristics. Using simulation analysis and the characteristics of the average Hispanic student in the 1980s, a prediction can be made regarding college completion rates for Hispanic students in the 1990s.
The study not only describes the trends in transfer rates but also compares the college completion rates of Hispanic transfers and rising juniors in the past two decades while addressing three major shortcomings found in previous studies. First, the study extends the traditional academic persistence model for a traditional sample of Hispanic transfer students by including state-level factors that also affect their persistence and completion. The population of Hispanics is very heterogeneous, and this study accounts for this by including additional controls for country of origin and generation status. Second, this is one of the few studies that used two cohorts of the national longitudinal studies to focus on Hispanic transfer students. With three exceptions,5 the majority of the work that has been done using the senior cohorts of the national longitudinal studies focuses specifically on Whites. In addition, a small number of studies have focused on Hispanic or minority transfer students in California (Hagedorn & Lester, 2006; Shulock & Moore, 2005; Wassmer, Moore, & Shulock, 2004; ) and New York (Leimbach & Bailey, 2006). Third, this study acknowledges the problem of sample selection implicit in these types of studies and provides evidence that the selection issue is not a major concern in this specific study.
This article is organized as follows: The next section presents a review of relevant literature, and the conceptual framework of the study. These are followed by a discussion of the data, sample, and models used. The results of the models are then presented, followed by the analysis of the findings. The last section provides concluding remarks and policy implications.
CHARACTERISTICS OF THE HISPANIC POPULATION
The Hispanic population has been increasing at a very rapid rate; the most recent data indicate that it numbered more than 42 million in 2005 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005). Chapa and De La Rosa (2004) presented estimates of the Hispanic population growth and socioeconomic and demographic characteristics. Their results indicate that in 2000, the Hispanic population grew by more than 57%, whereas the non-White population grew by only 13% since 1990. Chapa and De La Rosa reported a similar rate of increase between the 1980s and 1990s. The explanation that they offered is that half of the growth is related to population migration and half to natural increases (Bernstein & Bergman, 2003). They concluded that by all projections, the Hispanic population will continue to grow at a much faster rate than the overall U.S. population well into the next century.
Hispanics traditionally have been concentrated in a California, Texas, New York, and Florida (Chapa & Valencia, 1993). One of the striking findings of the recent data is that major growth has been shown in new states. For example, the percentage of Hispanics in North Carolina, Arkansas, and Georgia increased by 400%, 337%, and 300%, respectively, between 1990 and 2000 (Chapa & De La Rosa, 2004).
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
Hispanics have traditionally been grouped by national origin: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central American, South American, and other Latinos. The distribution by country of origin has not changed substantially over time. Mexican-origin Hispanics constitute the majority with 58.5%, Puerto Rican, 9.6%, and Cuban, 3.5%; the Other category represents 28.4%. Although comparisons between the 1990 and 2000 census data suggest that the category Other Hispanic is growing, the category indicating those of Mexican origin has decreased slightly (Chapa & Valencia, 1993; Chapa & De La Rosa, 2004).
A special characteristic of Hispanics in the United States is that they are a youthful population. Estimates by Chapa & De La Rosa (2004) indicate that by 2000, over one third of Hispanics were under age 18, whereas only one quarter of non-Hispanics were under age 18. The median age for Hispanics was 26 years, whereas that of non-Hispanics was almost 36, an age increase from 7 years in the 1990s to almost 10 years a decade later (Chapa & Valencia, 1993).
HIGH SCHOOL EDUCATIONAL ATTAINMENT
Even though the educational levels of Hispanics have been increasing, Hispanics still have lower educational attainment in comparison with non-Hispanics. By 2002, the percentage of the Hispanic population who had a high school diploma or higher was only 57%, compared with 84.1% of the non-Hispanic population. There were also differences among Hispanics. The Mexican subgroup had the lowest percentage, 50.6%, and the Cuban subgroup had the highest percentage, 70.8% (Chapa & De La Rosa, 2004).
Fry (2002) argued that the lower academic preparation of Hispanics might occur because they are usually the graduates of underfunded, understaffed, and underperforming high schools and that this seriously hampers their chances of receiving adequate preparation for college. The lack of resources in large urban schools where Hispanics are overrepresented affects their academic preparation and their ability to prepare for college entrance. Some possible explanations for this persistent academic gap are that the majority of Hispanic students attend large urban schools (U.S. Department of Education [U.S. DOE], 1996), they disproportionately attend schools with the highest levels of poverty (Orfield & Yun, 1999), and they tend to be in schools with inexperienced teachers (Valencia, 2002). The persistent achievement gap between Hispanic and White students academic performance starts before kindergarten and persists throughout middle school and high school. Schneider et al. (2006) used National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data from the last two decades to show that Hispanics academic performance in reading and math continues to lag behind that of non-Hispanic Whites. In 2002, Hispanic fourth graders scored close to 30 points lower than their White classmates in reading. The situation for eighth graders is similar, and by 12th grade, the gap diminishes to 18 points (however, this decrease might be related to lower scoring Hispanic students dropping out at a higher rate). The results also show a persistent achievement gap in math for the last two decades between these two groups. In addition, Hispanics are less likely to take algebra in eighth grade than their White and Asian counterparts (U.S. Department of Education, 1990), which limits their ability to take higher level math courses. A smaller number take the Advanced Placement (AP) exams (College Board, 2004; Contreras, 2005), and their average SAT performance is below that of White and Asian students but above that of Black students (Schneider et al.).
COLLEGE ENROLLMENT AND COMPLETION
Despite the increase in their college enrollment rates, Hispanics lag behind all other racial and ethnic groups in the percentage who earn a B.A. In addition, there is some evidence that enrollment rates differ by gender. Hispanic males constituted the only group that did not increase their participation rate in postsecondary education in the last three decades (Hudson, Aquilino, & Kienzl, 2005). The results of Chapa and De La Rosa (2004) show that only 5.6% of Hispanics of Mexican origin attained a bachelors degree, compared with 17.7% of non-Hispanics. These differences were also present by subgroup, with Cubans and Hispanics of Central, South America, and Other regions attaining more than twice the percentage of degrees than Hispanics of Mexican origin. An alternative way to present college completion rates is to use the national longitudinal studies and compare the attainment rates over 10 years and 8 years after high school graduation. Melguizo (2003) compared the college completion rates of Hispanics with those of Whites in the 1980s and 1990s.6 She found that despite an increase in college completion, there was still a gap of about 20 percentage points between Hispanic and White students. Carey (2004) found a similar gap for a national representative sample of 1992 high school seniors. The completion rates of African American and Hispanic students were 47% and 46%, respectively (6 years after high school graduation), compared with about 67% for Whites. Vernez and Mizell (2001) concluded that after doubling their college completion rates between 1970 and 1990, Hispanics have made no further progress.
The previous results suggest that the Hispanic population will continue to grow at a higher rate than the non-Hispanic White population, that Hispanics are expanding and moving to nontraditional geographic areas, and that they constitute a heterogeneous and youthful group that, despite some academic progress, still lags behind non-Hispanic Whites in terms of educational attainment. The theoretical model described later in this section includes variables such as country of origin and generation status, which need to be included in any model of Hispanic academic persistence to account for the diversity of this group.
There is a long-standing debate over whether community colleges democratize education or whether they divert students from attaining a bachelors degree (Cohen, 1988; Karabel, 1972; Rouse, 1995). This debate has become even more relevant in recent years, given that about 50% of students (not only Hispanics) are choosing to start their college education at these institutions. The evidence regarding the impact of community colleges on the college completion rates of Hispanics is limited and mixed (Olivas, 1979, 1986). A number of studies claim that the odds of getting a B.A. decrease if Hispanic students start at a 2-year college (Ganderton & Santos, 1995; Swail, Cabrera, William, & Lee, 2004). However, recent studies that have corrected for the problem of selection or that have analyzed Hispanics in specific states do not find a negative effect (Gonzalez & Hilmer, 2006; Leimbach & Bailey, 2006). Using the HS&B, Gonzalez and Hilmer showed that for Hispanics, 2-year colleges do not reduce the average number of years of school that they completed or their probability of attaining a bachelors degree, unlike White and Black students.7 Leimbach and Bailey analyzed the 1990 freshmen entering class in the City University of New York (CUNY). They compared the enrollment and educational outcomes of native-born Hispanics with Hispanic immigrants in the CUNY system. They found that CUNY provided wide access to the Hispanic population, with native-born students benefiting more than immigrants. In terms of degree attainment, their results show that Hispanics have lower attainment rates, but they found no differences in attainment between those who started at an associates degree (A.A.) program or a B.A. program. They concluded that community colleges in New York are not diverting Hispanics who transferred into the CUNY from community colleges. In the next section, I describe the theoretical framework that has traditionally been used in the literature.
The following model was developed to examine what impact first attending a community college and then transferring to a 4-year institution has on the college completion rates of a sample of Hispanics who follow a traditional path of attendance. I use a variation of the traditional model of student persistence that has been traditionally used to account for the individual and institutional factors related to Hispanic transfer students college completion (Ganderton & Santos, 1995; Gonzalez & Hilmer, 2006; Lee, Mackie-Lewis, & Marks, 1993; Swail et al., 2004; Sandy et al., 2006; Tinto, 1993). The path followed by these students suggests that the traditional academic persistence model should be a good approximation.
The model described below is an expansion of the Lee et al. (1993) model for Hispanic transfer students (Figure 1). The model differs from the traditional model (Tinto, 1993) because it does not focus on the academic and social integration of students in the 4-year college. The main factors in the academic persistence of the students are individual factors that affect the high school academic preparation received and institutional- and state-level factors that are hypothesized to affect persistence and college completion. The main focus of the analysis is on examining what impact having first attended a community college and then having transferred to a 4-year institution has on attaining a bachelors degree.
As illustrated in the model in Figure 1, there are four main groups of factors related to college completion: (1) students background characteristics, (2) precollege achievement and academic preparation, (3) transferring to a 4-year college, and (4) institutional and state measures.
STUDENTS BACKGROUND CHARACTERISTICS
The first group of factors includes a set of variables to control for the diverse individual and background characteristics of the two cohorts of students. On the individual level, a dummy variable was included to control for gender: female, the omitted variable being male. This is a variable that has traditionally been included in models of educational attainment (Dougherty, 1992). As mentioned above, recent findings suggest that Hispanic males are completing less education than Hispanic females (Hudson et al., 2005; Swail et al., 2004).
A continuous composite variable of the students socioeconomic status (SES) is included. This variable, constructed by the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES), is based on the fathers occupation and education, the mothers education, family income, and material possessions, and is a simple average of the nonmissing components after each component score has been standardized.
As illustrated above, Hispanics are not a homogenous group; there are substantial differences in country of origin and year of arrival in the United States. To control for these differences, a dummy variable, Hispanic of Mexican origin, is included, the omitted categories being Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Other Latin American Countries.
The dummy variable first-generation Hispanic is included, and the omitted categories are second- and third-generation Hispanics. First-generation students are defined as those who were not born in the United States and have no parents born in the United States, or those who were born in this country but have no parents born here. Second-generation students are defined as those who were born in the United States and have at least one parent not born here. Third-generation students and their parents were all born in the United States.
Finally, there are two risk factors in particular that affect the college completion rates of Latinos (Swail et al., 2004). These are whether the student was bearing a child while in high school and whether any siblings of the student dropped out of high school. Given that we are dealing with two samples of more traditional students, even though these are relevant factors, they were not included in this model because they affect a very small percentage of our sample.
PRECOLLEGE ACHIEVEMENT AND ACADEMIC PREPARATION
An additional set of control variables relates to precollege achievement and characteristics of the students high school curriculum, activities, and personal expectations of getting a B.A. To control for academic preparation, the following variables are included: the 12th-grade test scores of the students, test scores, and a dummy variable for those students who did an academic preparatory program in high school rather than a general or vocational program. Two dummy variables related to participation in high school extracurricular activities are included as controls for students motivation: variables for students who participated in school government and/or an honorary club. These variables have been used before in studies on educational attainment (Kane, 1998) to control for student characteristics. Dougherty (1992) presented a review of the studies performed between the early 1980s and early 1990s that empirically tested the effect of community college attendance. All the studies included the academic preparatory program, and the most recent studies included the test scores. A small number of studies included other variables, such as hours spent on homework, hours spent at a job, location of high school, and racial composition of high school. This study includes the variables traditionally used in the literature because they constitute adequate controls and were available for most of the students. The model does not include controls for school-level characteristics. This decision is based in part on the fact that the methodological strategy used in this article and described below does not account for school-level factors. In addition, including additional controls will increase the missing values problem (see databases and sample).
The students intention to attend college was taken into account by including a composite variable of the students educational expectations. This variable included several questions asked of the students at different points in their high school enrollment about whether they planned to complete a B.A.
TRANSFERRED TO A 4-YEAR COLLEGE
The explanatory variable, transfer students, represents whether the student first attended a 2-year institution and transferred to a 4-year institution, as opposed to attending a 4-year institution initially. The evidence regarding the overall impact of 2-year institutions is mixed. Some studies have found that students who transfer from community colleges are at a disadvantage in terms of bachelors degree attainment compared with those who start at a 4-year institution (Alba & Lavin, 1981; Cabrera et al., 2005; Clark, 1960; Dougherty, 1992; Grubb, 1991; Karabel, 1972; Velez, 1985). Conversely, other studies have found that these institutions might even increase the academic persistence of specific groups. Lee et al. (1993), using the HS&B/So sample to compare a sample of transfer students with a sample of direct enrollees, concluded that the probability of attaining a B.A. was equivalent for the two groups. Moreover, Warburton, Burgarin, and Nuñez (2001) and Choy (1999) found that first-generation college students (from families in which neither parent has a B.A.) were less likely to drop out if they first attended a 2-year college. However, none of the previous studies corrected for the effects of self-selection, that is, of students choice to start at a specific type of institution. Students might select certain types of institutions more frequently, but their college completion rates might be related to unobserved characteristics of the students rather than specific institutional characteristics. The studies that corrected for self-selection found that community college attendance has a smaller negative effect than had been previously reported (Gonzalez & Hilmer, 2006; Rouse, 1995).
FINANCIAL AID AND INSTITUTION LOCATION
This model includes other control variables related to the financial aid available during the first years of college. It has been documented that a higher percentage of Hispanic students attend college on a part-time basis because they are more likely to need to work while attending school (Swail et al., 2004). Unfortunately, this model does not control for part-time work because such information was available for only a very small subset of the already reduced sample. An additional limitation is that the information on financial aid and work-study in these studies is incomplete. Two variables are included to control for financial aid: grants and loansthe financial aid received by the students between 1982 and 1986, in the form of grants and loans, for the HS&B/So, and the financial aid received between 1992 and 1994 for the NELS:88/2000 sample. The financial aid information is self-reported and is therefore only an approximation. Finally, the model controls for the state in which the student attended community college. Four dummy variables for the states in which Hispanics are traditionally overrepresented were included: California, Texas, Florida, and New York. The rationale for including these variables is to control for states like California that have a big Hispanic population who first attend community colleges. In addition, these variables are included because one would expect that states with well-established transfer and articulation agreements between their community colleges and 4-year colleges (by the mid-1990s, all these states had some sort of transfer and articulation policy) might have a positive effect on students transferring into 4-year colleges (U.S. DOE, 2005).
DATA AND METHODOLOGY
DATABASE AND SAMPLE
The HS&B/So and the NELS:88/2000 are two-stage probability samples in which schools are sampled first, and within schools, a random sample of students is selected. The HS&B/So surveyed about 30,000 high school sophomores in the spring term of 1980 (high school class of 1982) and conducted four follow-up surveys in 1982, 1984, 1986, and 1992. NELS:88/2000 surveyed 24,599 eighth-grade students in 1988 (high school class of 1992) and conducted four follow-up surveys in 1990, 1992, 1994, and 2000. Each of the surveys uses a nationally representative sample and gathers extensive background information, precollege educational experiences, high school transcripts, and achievement scores based on similar sets of standardized tests administered in the 10th and 12th grades.8
HIGH SCHOOL AND BEYOND/SOPHOMORE SAMPLE
This sample is composed of the Hispanic sophomores in 1980 who completed high school by 1982, then attended a community college, and then transferred to a 4-year institution (transfers), and those who attended a 4-year institution directly after high school graduation (rising juniors). The time to attain a degree is limited to just over 8 years; that is the maximum amount of time available for the 1992 cohort, and it is adopted for comparison purposes. A total of 220 early or on-time high school graduates had postsecondary transcript information that fit the criteria for Hispanic transfer students and rising juniors and had complete information for each of the control and explanatory variables included in the model.
NATIONAL EDUCATION LONGITUDINAL STUDY (NELS:88/2000)
The sample of students in the NELS:88/2000 analysis also refers to Hispanic transfers and rising juniors. The individuals were selected using the definitions given above, and they had over 8 years to finish their degree. A total of 140 early or on-time high school graduates had postsecondary transcript information that fitted the criteria for Hispanic transfer students and rising juniors, and had complete information for each of the control and explanatory variables included in the model.
Because of small sample sizes, this study has some limitations in terms of generalizing the results to a national representative population of Hispanic students. The fact that Hispanics were oversampled and that they are overrepresented in community colleges in a few states might be skewing some of the results. In other words, the results of this study may more accurately reflect the effects of attending community college in states like California, Florida, New York, and Texas, rather than the effects of attending community college in the United States.
A missing case analysis tested for differences in college completion between students with complete and incomplete information. The results suggest that the percentage of students who completed college and had incomplete records was smaller than the percentage for students with complete records. The missing data, therefore, are not random, and the results could be biased. One additional test assessed the extent of the missing value problem and its implications for the robustness of the coefficients calculated in this study. The models were estimated for the sample of individuals excluded (those with incomplete records) to see if the coefficients changed substantially. The results for the different samples from both HS&B/So and NELS:88/2000 show that the variables have the same sign and are comparable in magnitude, suggesting that even though the missing data are not random, the coefficients are consistent and therefore provide good approximations.
The appropriate method of analysis for a dichotomous dependent variable is logistic regression. This model uses maximum likelihood (ML) estimators.
The logit expression for this model is
The dependent variable is whether the student completed college within 8 years or not. The coefficient for the transfer student variable is the primary focus of the analysis. The model is estimated separately for Hispanics in the HS&B/So and NELS:88/2000 studies.
As mentioned before, the above estimations could be biased because of an omitted variable problem resulting from omitted individual characteristics, institutional characteristics, or both. Omitted individual characteristics stem from the possibility that highly motivated and hard-working students might be more likely to graduate from any type of institution that they attend. If more highly motivated students choose to apply and are admitted to a particular type of institution, this type of institution might seem to do a better job of graduating students, when the true cause is the institutions ability to admit students who are more likely to graduate.9 This is particularly problematic in this case, in which the majority of 2-year institutions have an open-door policy, whereas most of the 4-year institutions select their students. Students first attending a 2-year institution may be less likely to complete a B.A. as a result of their lower academic preparation, lower education aspirations, financial hardships, and the fact that they might need to work either full- or part timeall of which may negatively impact their motivation and persistence. These types of institutions would then appear to be less successful because only a small minority of students who transfer to 4-year colleges complete a bachelors degree there; in reality, these students would also be less likely to graduate if they had first attended a 4-year institution.
The most widely used corrections for this problem include adding proxy variables for the omitted variables and using instrumental variables (Barnow, Cain, & Goldberger, 1981; Heckman, 1979; Lee, 1983). This study generally uses the controls for observed characteristics and some proxy variables for the unobserved characteristics as proposed by Barnow et al. I argue that the magnitude of the selection problem in this study is ameliorated given that the comparison is between transfer students and rising juniors, as opposed to comparing individuals who first attended a community college with those who first attended a 4-year college.
As described in the descriptive statistics, despite some differences, these two groups of individuals do not differ significantly in terms of their observed characteristics (i.e., high school academic preparation, educational expectations, and financial aid). In terms of the differences in the unobserved characteristics, particularly motivation, the rationale is that the transfer students are extremely motivated given that they succeeded in navigating a cumbersome path. To substantiate this claim, I also tested whether the choice variable in this study, transfer student, was endogenous. The results of the test suggest that the variable is borderline endogenous; the test was only significant at the 10% level.
Nonetheless, I decided to use an instrumental variable approach to estimate the effect of being a transfer for the class of 1992. The variable that was used to identify the first equation was the distance between the high school that the student graduated from and the first postsecondary institution that he or she attended. The argument is that distance is correlated with the probability of enrolling in a community college, and therefore becoming a transfer (an endogenous variable), but is not correlated with motivation (an unobserved variable). One would expect that motivation is a characteristic that is randomly distributed geographically. In other words, one should not expect to have more motivated students in specific states or regions of the country. The results of these analyses (available upon request) suggest that the negative impact of first attending a community college might be underestimated (the coefficient was larger2.5 times less likely vs. 9% less likely), but the variable is not statistically significant.
The following criteria were used to select the sample in this study. First, the sample of transfer students selected excludes students who do not have expectations of attaining a B.A. and those who took fewer than 10 credits in the community college (experimenters). The sample is also restricted to students who transfer and take at least 10 credits in a 4-year college. Second, I compare the bachelors degree completion rates among Hispanics. Such comparisons within the same ethnic group might reduce the variation of unobserved characteristics, especially after controlling for country of origin and generation status. It has been documented that first-generation students have some characteristics that correlate with higher educational outcomes (Campuzano, 2004) but that this advantage declines in subsequent generations (Perlmann & Waldinger, 1997; Portes & Hao, 2002). By comparing groups that are relatively similar in their observed characteristics (see descriptive statistics below), bias is minimized. Third, the study addresses the self-selection and omitted variable problems by using the selection on observables approach developed by Barnow et al. (1981). The variables participation in honors and student government programs in high school and being first-generation control to some extent for unobserved characteristics of students such as motivation and hard work.
The simulation analysis is performed to break down the probability of baccalaureate attainment due to specific student and institutional characteristics. Specifically, Equation 1 is estimated separately for the 1982 and 1992 senior cohort of Hispanic students. After estimating the model for the 1982 senior cohort, the estimated coefficients are then used to conduct simulations on the 1992 senior cohort. The predicted value of the students college completion rates is estimated using the mean value for all variables for Hispanics in the 1980s and is then compared with the predicted college completion of Hispanic students using students mean values for all variables in the 1990s. This procedure reveals the effect of the difference in resources between the two groups of students (Carnoy, 1994; Fairlie, 2003; Oaxaca, 1973). The results of the simulation analysis enable us to identify whether the differences between the probabilities of completion between Hispanics in the 1980s and 1990s were the result of differences in their individual characteristics and high school academic preparation, or whether they were the result of a negative impact of attending community colleges, captured by the coefficient of transfer students. The logit coefficients are then converted into estimated probabilities using an approximation of the logit function in a probability function (see Equation 2).
TRANSFER AND COLLEGE COMPLETION RATES FOR 1982 AND 1992 SENIORS
The resulting descriptive statistics show a decrease in the college completion rates of Hispanics and a substantial increase in the transfer rates of students in the last decade (see Table 1A). The percentage of Hispanic transfer students grew over the decade, increasing from about 10% to about 46%. Sandy et al. (2006) reported that in the 1980s, about half of students who transferred to 4-year institutions began their education at community colleges. This is most likely the result of the very restrictive definition of transfer used in this study. In terms of attainment, although the overall college completion rates for Hispanics decreased from over 80% to 60% between the 1980s and the 1990s, the percentage of Hispanic transfer students attaining a bachelors degree remained constant at around 50% (see Table 1A). The accompanying decrease in the college completion rates of rising junior students in the 1990s had a negative impact on the overall completion rates of Hispanics. However, the results suggest that the attainment gap between Hispanic transfer and rising junior students decreased a decade later.
Table 1A. College Completion Rates of Hispanic Transfersa and Rising Juniorsb
The results suggest that the decreasing trend in the percentage of transfer students in 4-year institutions since the 1970s reported by Grubb (1991) and Lee et al. (1993) reversed during the early 1990s. As was argued above, this is probably related to the fact that by Fall 2000, most community college students were attending institutions in states with legislation on transfer and articulation (78%), cooperative agreements (89%), and requirements for reporting transfer data (90%) (U.S. DOE, 2005). Additionally, the Ford Foundation sponsored the Urban Community College Transfer Opportunity Program, and several states such as California and Florida put extra resources into increasing transfer rates (Dougherty & Kienzl, 2006; Ford Foundation, 1988).
CHARACTERISTICS OF HISPANIC TRANSFER STUDENTS DURING THE 1980s AND 1990s
The descriptive statistics suggest that there were some changes in the individual characteristics of Hispanic transfer students between the 1980s and 1990s (see Table 1B). The slightly higher percentage of transfer females is consistent with national trends for both decades. Female Hispanic transfers represented 61% of all Hispanic transfer students in the 1980s and 54% in the 1990s. The higher percentage of females has resulted in disparities between Hispanic females and males in enrollment and graduation from college (Freeman, 2004; Hudson et al., 2005; Peter & Horn, 2005; U.S. DOE, 2003; Zarate & Gallimore, 2005).10 There were also substantial differences between the socioeconomic composition of the population of Hispanic transfer students in each decade. Hispanic transfers in the 1980s were overrepresented in the mid- and mid-high socioeconomic quintiles. A decade later, there was a more even distribution among the five socioeconomic quintiles and a slightly higher percentage of Hispanic transfer students in the highest and lowest SES quintiles.
It has been documented that the educational outcomes for Hispanics vary by nation of origin and time of arrival in the United States (Campuzano, 2004; Portes & Hao, 2002). The composition of the Hispanic population changed over the decade. In the early 1980s, about 28% of Hispanics were of Mexican origin, and 38% of Cuban origin. A decade later, more than 65% of the sample was of Mexican origin. There were some changes in time of arrival over the decade. About 60% of the Hispanics were first-generation, slightly less than 10% were second-generation, and just over one fourth were third-generation. The percentage of first-generation students decreased a decade later. These results suggest that the populations of Hispanics in each decade were very different. In the 1980s, almost 40% were of Cuban origin, and over 60% were first-generation. The overrepresentation of Hispanics of Cuban origin in the sample in the early 1980s probably explains the above average educational attainment of Hispanics. In addition, the results mostly refer to the state of Florida, where Cubans have traditionally been concentrated. The composition in the 1990s is very different, with over 65% of Hispanics from Mexican origin and a much lower percentage of first-generation individuals, at 48%. The composition of the sample of Hispanics in the early 1990s also reflects the educational outcomes of individuals from Mexican origin in the state of California, where they have traditionally been overrepresented.
There were substantial differences in the high school academic preparation of Hispanic transfer students between the two decades analyzed. A much lower percentage of Hispanic transfers in the 1990s took an academic preparatory program in high school compared with their peers in the 1980s. In addition, the percentage of Hispanic transfers in the lowest composite test score quartiles increased over the decade. The percentage of Hispanic transfers in the early 1980s in the highest quartile was 33%, compared with 19% in the 1990s. Likewise, a slightly higher percentage of Hispanic transfer students in the 1980s participated in an honors program or student government activities. The educational expectations of Hispanic transfer students also decreased. This is worrisome when considering a sample of relatively traditional community college students, particularly as educational expectations for all other ethnic groups have continually increased. Despite the substantial differences in the socioeconomic composition of the population of Hispanic transfers between the two decades, a higher percentage of transfers in the 1980s received loans. This might be due to the widely documented shift in the form of financial aid from grants to loans. However, as reported in a previous section, the financial aid data have limitations.
The previous results illustrate the diversity of the Hispanic transfer population. It is worth noting that the characteristics of Hispanic transfers changed substantially in just 10 years. One of the most striking results of the descriptive statistics is that the academic preparation of Hispanics decreased between the 1980s and the 1990s, but the wide disparities in the academic preparation between Hispanic transfers and rising juniors in the 1980s decreased as a result of an equalization of the characteristics of Hispanic transfers and rising juniors in the 1990s. In the next section, logistic regression is used to control for all the different factors related to college completion in order to identify the impact of being a Hispanic transfer student (as opposed to a rising junior) on college completion for the two senior cohorts.
COLLEGE COMPLETION OF HISPANIC COMMUNITY COLLEGE TRANSFER STUDENTS IN THE 1980s
The results in Table 2 illustrate the differences between Hispanic community college transfer students and Hispanic rising juniors for the 1982 cohort after controlling for individual and (some) institutional characteristics. The results of Model 1 illustrate that the probability of completing a bachelors degree for Hispanic transfer students is about 27% lower than for Hispanic rising juniors, ceteris paribus. This result is in line with the findings of Sandy et al. (2006), who reported a marginal negative effect of attending a community college for the complete HS&B/So population of about 20 percentage points. However, this result differs from Lee et al. (1993), who analyzed the HS&B/Senior sample and found no differences in B.A. attainment rates between transfers and students who first attended a 4-year institution. A limitation of the Lee et al. study is that it compares a very small sample of transfers with a large sample of individuals who first attended a 4-year college.
Considering the factors affecting the persistence of Hispanic transfer students, the results suggest that socioeconomic status, participating in honors programs in high school, and receiving a loan have a significant positive effect on college completion, holding all else constant.
The results show some interesting patterns in terms of which state students first attended a community college. Even though none of the coefficients was statistically significant, the sign of the coefficient provides some insights. Being a transfer student in Texas and New York had a negative impact on student completion. Transfers in Florida were more likely to complete their degree than students in other states. There is no coefficient for transfer students in California; the variable was dropped from the model because it predicted completion perfectly.
Table 1B. Descriptive Statistics, Transfera and Rising Juniorb Hispanics
COLLEGE COMPLETION OF HISPANIC COMMUNITY COLLEGE TRANSFER STUDENTS IN THE 1990s
To illustrate whether the impact of first attending a 2-year institution on bachelors degree completion changed over time, we present the results for the 1992 cohort (see Table 2). The most striking result is that the coefficient for transfer students is no longer significant. This means that holding all else constant, there are no statistically significant differences in the college completion rates between transfer students and rising juniors in the 1990s.
The combined results of descriptive analysis and logistic regression suggest that after controlling for individual characteristics, high school academic preparation, and the states where Hispanics have been traditionally overrepresented, the college completion gap between transfer and rising juniors disappears for the 1992 seniors. In other words, even though there has been a decrease in the overall completion rates of Hispanic students in the last decade, the results do not suggest that this has been the result of a substantial increase in the number of Hispanics transferring from community colleges. These findings are in line with recent studies that have documented that the negative effect of community colleges in terms of degree attainment is much smaller than previously estimated (Gonzalez & Hilmer, 2006; Leigh & Gill, 2003; Rouse, 1995).
However, some caution in advised in generalizing this finding, given that, as clearly shown in the descriptive statistics, this effect might be driven by Hispanics in California. Californias master plan, with its tradition of transfer and articulation agreements between community colleges and 4-year colleges, along with the initiatives from the Ford Foundation, might be driving this result. The situation for Hispanics varies substantially by state, and the transfer route might lead to very different outcomes in other states.
Table 2. Logistic Regression for Hispanic Transfers and Rising Juniors
RESULTS OF SIMULATIONS FOR THE SAMPLES OF HISPANICS IN THE EARLY 1980s AND 1990s
This section presents the result of simulation analysis to identify which factors more strongly increase the probability of degree completion for Hispanics in the last decade. The descriptive statistics show that the completion rates of Hispanics decreased over the decade. As mentioned above, two factors that affect college completion are student academic preparation and the characteristics of the institution attended. Simulation analysis is used to test the effect of differences in resources on college completion between the two cohorts of Hispanics. The Oaxaca decomposition (see Equation 2) is used to decompose the effects of the means (resources) of the different individual and institutional factors on college completion.
EQUALIZING THE RESOURCES OF THE TWO COHORTS OF HISPANICS
The simulations estimate the completion rates of the 1992 Hispanic high school seniors using the individual and institutional characteristics of the Hispanic 1982 high school seniors. Because the completion rates of Hispanics in the 1980s were higher than those a decade later, the completion equations are reestimated for the 1992 Hispanics using the 1982 Hispanic students average values of the individual variables.11 This procedure estimates the effect of differences in either individual or institutional resources on college completion (see Table 3).
The simulated college completion rate for Hispanics using the mean values of their individual and precollege characteristics was 60%. The college completion rates were then simulated by including the mean values of the actual individual and precollege characteristics for the 1992 seniors. The completion rates rose to 72%, an increase of more than 12 percentage points.
The results of Table 3 present the contribution of each of the individual characteristics and of precollege preparation to the simulated college completion rates of Hispanics. A substantial portion of the difference in college completion is due to individual and precollege characteristics, such as country of origin, sex, test scores, participating in academic preparatory program in high school, and socioeconomic status. The contribution of the individual characteristics and precollege academic preparation was higher than the contribution of institutional characteristics. Of this increase, 11 percentage points is due to student characteristics, and none is due to institutional characteristics or financial aid. The contribution of the two types of factors is illustrated in Figure 2.
The results of simulation analysis are useful for understanding which factors had the greatest impact on the decrease in college completion rates between the 1982 and 1992 senior classes. The previous findings clearly show that if the individual characteristics and high school academic preparation of Hispanics had remained constant over the decade, this would have resulted in a 12-point increase in the completion rate. Most of the contribution was related to the composition of the Hispanic population. Females constituted a larger percentage of both transfers and rising juniors in the 1980s, and this is reflected in higher completion rates. In the 1980s, Hispanics of Cuban origin were overrepresented in the sample of transfers and juniors, and this could have also driven some of the results. This result is in line with Sandy et al. (2006), who also used the Oaxaca procedure to decompose the effect of community college attendance for three national representative samples of students in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s (NLS:72, HS&B, and BPS:90). They estimated the probabilities of completing a degree for students who first attended a 2-year college using the characteristics of students who first attended a 4-year college. They concluded that students who attend 2-year colleges are at a disadvantage primarily because of the less favorable background characteristics of the students rather than lower quality of 2-year colleges.
Table 3. Simulations Using the 1982 Hispanic Senior Students Characteristics to Estimate 1992 Hispanic College Completion Rates
Figure 2. Contribution of the Individual and Institutional Factors Using the 1982 Hispanic Student Resources to Simulate the 1992 Hispanic College Completion
The description of the characteristics of the two samples of Hispanic transfers and rising juniors in the past two decades shows an increase in the percentage of transfers and a decrease in the percentage of rising juniors. In terms of baccalaureate attainment, the completion rates of Hispanic transfers remained constant while those of rising juniors decreased. The findings of this study show that of this small group of Hispanics who followed a traditional path, just half earned a B.A. within 8 years of high school graduation. If these are the results for the most successful students, the prospects for the nontraditional transfer students are even gloomier. Descriptive statistics also illustrate how heterogeneous the Hispanic population is and how much its composition in terms of country of origin and generation status changed in just 10 years. Answering the question of whether transfer students are as likely as rising juniors to complete a bachelors degree is complex. The findings suggest that there was a negative and significant effect of being a transfer in the 1980s (one needs to remember that this result mostly refers to Hispanics of Cuban origin in Florida) but that this negative effect is no longer statistically significant a decade later. This finding suggests that transfer students were not worse off in terms of baccalaureate attainment than rising juniors in the 1990s (again, this result refers mostly to Hispanics of Mexican origin in California). Finally, the results of simulation analysis confirm that the differences in the individual characteristics of students, as well as the relatively lower high school academic preparation of Hispanics in the 1990s, constitute the major factor contributing to the decrease in their college completion rates a decade later.
These findings suggest that community colleges, at least in California, changed over the decade, strengthening their transfer mission and moving from just enrolling students to preparing and helping them to transfer to a 4-year college. These institutions decreased the alleged diversion effect and equipped students with the skills necessary to pursue a college degree. However, the reality is that despite the increase in the number of transfers, the actual percentage of students who first attend a community college and then transfer to a 4-year institution is very small. The current national transfer rates are very low, ranging between 20% and 25% (Wassmer et al., 2004). In addition, the range of recent estimates of transfer rates in California is even wider. Wassmer et al. (2004) provided several estimates for four cohorts of students in California in the mid-1990s. They estimated a lower bound of 6% when they gave students up to 3 years to transfer and a higher bound of 24% when students had up to 6 years between the time they first enrolled and the time they transferred. In addition, recent findings from Hagedorn and Lester (2006) for a sample of nine community colleges in California show that six semesters after first enrolling at a community college, less than 10% of the students were transfer-ready. These data suggest that the number of students who successfully transfer, even in states with strong transfer and articulation policies, is very small. This result, coupled with the increasing number of students first attending a community college, is worrisome. The good news is that there is no evidence of a diversion effect in the 1990s and that the number of transfer students has increased. However, there is still a long way to go to guarantee that all the students who first attend a community college have a good chance of transferring and successfully completing a degree.
Even though Hispanic transfers are as likely to attain a B.A. degree as direct attendees, this does not mean that Hispanics should be encouraged to attend community colleges. This is because the probability of transferring is very low, and Hispanics following this path are therefore likely to attain less education. Recent estimates in California suggest that, 6 years after enrollment, only 13% of Hispanics who entered a community college in the late 1990s transferred to a 4-year college (Shulock & Moore, 2007).
A number of policies at the state and institutional levels can be implemented to facilitate transfers. At the state level, there is a need to create or strengthen articulation agreements. States should encourage 2- and 4-year institutions to work together to develop a common transfer curriculum (Cohen, 1990). This would help students to navigate the system, and 4-year institutions would know that the courses taken at the community college meet their prerequisites. In addition, states can offer dual enrollment or automatic admission to state colleges for students on the transfer track. Boswell (2004) highlighted the need to maintain a common student database so institutions can follow the progress of students. There is also some evidence that a higher number of students who take orientation courses and receive counseling successfully transfer (Shulock & Moore, 2007). In states such as California and Florida, with substantial numbers of Hispanics, there should be funds allocated to orientation programs and additional counseling. Hispanic students can benefit from applying for federal and state financial aid that could enable them to attend full time, increasing their probability of success. At the institutional level, there are also a number of programs that community colleges can create to facilitate transfer. There is evidence that being part of a cohort with similar educational aspirations or belonging to a learning community might also help students persist (Tinto, Russo, & Kadel, 1994). In summary, community colleges can create programs that provide the support necessary for students to attain their desired outcomes.
Community colleges have the potential to become transforming institutions that open the doors to education and provide the resources and guidance necessary for Hispanics to persist and attain a B.A. The persistence path is complex, and many factors outside the control of community colleges affect persistence. Therefore, if the objectives of the educational system are to provide equal opportunities regardless of race and ethnicity and to eliminate the gap in college completion rates between Hispanics and Whites, it is the responsibility of the K12 system to provide the academic preparation necessary to persist in college. If Hispanic students continue to attend underfunded secondary schools with lower percentages of certified teachers and take a less demanding high school academic curriculum, then community colleges will still end up providing the equivalent of remedial high school education instead of the first 2 years of college-level courses that can be transferred and applied toward a bachelors degree. The increasingly diverse and youthful Hispanic population has the potential to benefit from high-quality education and contribute to the vitality of the economy. However, this can only happen with adequate policies, incentives, and resources to ensure that Hispanics develop their potential.
This research benefited from support of a grant from the American Education Research Association, which receives funds for its AERA Grants Program from the National Center of Education Statistics and the Office of Education Sciences (U.S Department of Education), and the National Science Foundation under NSF Grant No. REC-9980573. Opinions reflect those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the granting agencies. Preliminary versions of this paper were presented at the Latino and Education Speaker Series at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; the Economics of Education seminar at the Stanford University School of Education; the Education Workshop at the Steinhardt School of Education of New York University; and at the Community College Research Council meeting in April 2005 in Boston. Special thanks go to Susanna Loeb, Bridget Terry Long, Michael Olivas, and Sean Reardon for their insightful feedback. I would also like to thank Mariana Alfonso, Sara Goldrick-Raab, Greg Kienzl, Josipa Roksa, Pierre-Olivier Weill, and Liang Zang for their comments on an earlier version of this paper. I am further grateful for helpful comments from TCR editors and reviewers. Any errors are entirely the responsibility of the author.
1. Traditional refers to a sample of students, the majority of whom attended college immediately after high school and do not exhibit risk factors (e.g., being a parent before finishing high school, having dropout siblings, or being first-generation college students). In addition, the definition of transfer student used in this study (described below) suggests that this sample of Hispanic transfer students followed a more traditional path in using the community college as the main port of entry.
2. These are Hispanic students who entered a 4-year (noncommunity) college as freshmen and are now starting their junior year. They are native to the 4-year institutions.
3. Throughout the paper, I use Adelmans (2005) definition of transfer student. He defines transfer students as those who (1) begin in a community college, (2) earn more than 10 credits that count toward a degree at the community college before attending a 4-year college, and (3) subsequently earn more than 10 credits at 4-year colleges.
4. The population of rising juniors is defined as those students who (1) attend a 4-year college right after high school, (2) enroll for more than 10 credits the first semester, (3) earn more than 70 credits by the time they were supposed to start their junior year, and (4) report being enrolled in a postsecondary institution by their junior year.
5. These studies include Gonzalez and Hilmer (2006), Ganderton and Santos (1995), and Swail, Cabrera, William, and Lee (2004).
6. Calculations are based on the High School and Beyond/Sophomore (HS&B/So) and National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS:88) studies.
7. For a more detailed discussion of the democratization versus diversion debate and a recent review of the empirical literature for all racial/ethnic groups, see Melguizo and Dowd (2006).
8. For a more detailed description of the HS&B/So or NELS:88/2000, see U.S. DOE (1995, 2002).
9. For a more technical description of the self-selection problem related to empirical estimations of schooling transition models, see Cameron and Heckman (1998).
10. The Tomas Rivera Policy Institute hosted a conference, Latino Males and Higher Education, on October 17, 2005, inviting researchers to address the problem of the unacknowledged crisis.
11. For this methodology, see Oaxaca (1973) and Carnoy (1994). These studies simulated either earnings or achievement, so even though the methodology is applicable, the logistic function needs to be transformed. For a direct application in a limited dependent variable context, see Fairlie (2003) and Sandy, Gonzalez, and Hilmer (2006).
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