What a Class Barrier Looks Like

Students who start California community colleges as first-time students hoping to get a certificate, a degree, or transfer to the four-year college sector have only small chances of success: approximately one in four degree seekers beginning community college in 1999-2000 completed their program in six years (Moore and Shulock, 2007, p. 7). And the prospects are worse for those who start in pre-collegiate courses. These students may not even get to the transfer-level courses in those fields, much less actually graduate or transfer. According to the Center for Student Success, “Only one-quarter of students initially enrolling in a reading fundamentals course in community college ever enroll in a transfer-level English class, and only 10 percent of students beginning in a basic math course ever enroll in a transferable math course” (2005, cited in Moore and Shulock, 2007, p. 12).

Indeed, most of our SPECC colleges cite a figure of around 10 percent who move successfully from the lowest level precollegiate course to a transfer level course. Beyond dimming students’ outlook for completion, the inability to successfully complete the most basic level courses also has tremendous implications for literacy and numeracy more generally. Although the SPECC campuses focused on pre-collegiate programs for this project, it is clear that all programs, including technical and vocational programs, benefit when their students are able to read well, communicate clearly in writing, and handle basic calculations.

Listening to Students About Learning, Andrea Conklin Bueschel

As the cliche goes, we don’t talk about class in the U.S. because we believe that everyone is equal. Or, at least, everyone is given an equal chance to succeed or fail on their own merits. It has never worked that way, of course, because all sorts of things can give you an advantage, big or small.

Our main conduit of opportunity, and so in many senses the source of the great fog obscuring our social and economic system, has long been post-secondary education. There’s nothing false in the idea; people with college degrees make much more money than people who don’t. It’s that simple.

What’s less obvious is the way that our post-secondary education system, with it’s complicated hierarchies and multiple points of entry, is also a barrier. The number cited in this California study are remarkable. As many as 90% of the students who enter community colleges never take transferable classes.

That’s only a measure of success insofar as we define success in terms of a four year degree. That may not be true in every case, of course. But it is still a good indication of the strength of a class barrier. What’s the solution, according to the authors? Listen to the teachers and students.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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