California’s Community Colleges Partner With HBCUs, Opening More Higher Learning Options for Students

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When she was 18 years old, Ayeisha Gipson wasn’t sure college was the right move for her. She was apathetic about school, despite her mother’s passionate urging that she matriculate to a university. Gipson enrolled at San Diego City College to appease her mother, but she didn’t really know what she wanted to pursue. She thought becoming a radio DJ might be fun.

So, in 2009, Gipson met with a counselor at San Diego City College ­— but it was an unfortunate encounter. Instead of receiving guidance, she received discouragement. The counselor told her a radio jockey job was unattainable for a Black woman.

Gipson does not remember the name of the counselor whom she met with that day — and he no longer works at San Diego City College — but she does know that her relationship with higher education went downhill from there. It wasn’t until 2015 that she felt compelled to try school again. 

Ayeisha Gipson earned an associate degree from San Diego City College and a bachelor’s degree from Grambling State University. Gipson will begin studying for her master’s degree at Teacher’s College of Columbia University this fall.Ayeisha Gipson earned an associate degree from San Diego City College and a bachelor’s degree from Grambling State University. Gipson will begin studying for her master’s degree at Teacher’s College of Columbia University this fall.“I finally said, 'I want better for me,'” said Gipson.

She returned to San Diego City College. And she found that something important had occurred during the six years of her absence.

In 2010, California law established a direct transfer agreement between its community colleges and four-year state schools, like California State or University of California system universities. The legislation allowed for the California Community Colleges (CCC) to create a separate degree path called an Associate for Transfer Degree that guaranteed transfer for students with a minimum of a 2.5 GPA. In theory, students spend two years at community college and two years at a four-year institution, graduating with both an associate and bachelor’s degree.

Bob Quinn, a specialist at the CCC chancellor’s office, says he could see that “the students most impacted and made successful by this [new agreement] would be those with lower transfer success rate within our system. Of the students that have indicated an intent to transfer, only 40% do it. For our Black students who indicate intent to transfer, the number is only 35%.”

Black students make up about 6% of the CCC student population, but Quinn says it “made sense” to lift these students. He started looking nationwide for partnerships and realized there was great potential in historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

In 2013, Quinn drafted a proposal to the California government, and it was approved. From that moment on, HBCUs were invited to join the California Community Colleges Transfer Guarantee Agreement to Historically Black Colleges & Universities. By 2015, it was approved, and nine HBCUs had already signed on.

For Gipson, that partnership opened a doorway she had never been able to see herself walking through. Even though she hadn’t always been sure about going to college, there was something special about the idea of going to an HBCU. She transferred from San Diego City College to Grambling State University in Louisiana, a place and experience she called “a Black utopia of unity.”

There are no HBCUs in the state of California. Any student wishing to attend one must contemplate out-of-state tuition costs and the prospect of moving across the country, potentially leaving them unsupported. The CCC transfer program aims to change that. 

“The matriculation for students can be challenging — just the stress of moving far away and in addition to the culture shock, this is tough for anyone, let alone a 20-year-old,” says Quinn.

The CCC Transfer Agreement now has 39 participating HBCUs with room for plenty more, Quinn says. 

Most students who enter a community college with the intent to transfer don’t. According to data collected by the General Accounting Office, students lose about 13 credits, or 43% of their earned college credits when transferring. Direct transfer agreements look to side-step that issue, creating alignment between the courses taken at a two-year institution and the required courses at a participating four-year college.

What can be even more difficult, according to the Community College Research Center, is tracking the progress of transfer students. Some students wish to be independent and choose not to engage with the counseling office to transfer, which can make providing support difficult. That’s why Quinn and the CCC partnered with National Student Clearinghouse to find the best ways to assess their success.

Students meet with HBCU representatives at a career fair. Each fall, California Community Colleges and HBCUs partner for a road trip up and down California’s coast to spread the word about their opportunities.Students meet with HBCU representatives at a career fair. Each fall, California Community Colleges and HBCUs partner for a road trip up and down California’s coast to spread the word about their opportunities.“One thing we did find is that the persistence [at HBCUs] was really good one year after. Analysis of last year’s [transfer class] was 86% persistence. That was a really good number to see,” says Quinn.

Despite the CCC and HBCU efforts to connect with as many students and institutions as they can, some still don’t know the opportunity exists. California has recently increased grant funding for the transfer partnership, and Quinn is hoping to use the money to spread the word about this opportunity across the state of California, and maybe across the nation, about the successes of their students. Some 400 at least have matriculated to an HBCU thanks to the agreement.

The project is helmed at El Camino Community College in Los Angeles by Dr. Arynn Auzout Settle. She is now the project director for the CCC/HBCU transfer agreement, but she started as the relationship coordinator, building connections with HBCUs across the country and following up with her students, making sure they have connections on their chosen HBCU campus. Working on this project helped to open students’ and counselors’ eyes to HBCUs, Settle says, “even though these campuses have been in existence for 100 plus years.” 

Settle is an HBCU graduate herself, just like her mother before her. Settle was born in Los Angeles and was, at first, hesitant to cross multiple state lines to follow in her mother’s footsteps, but she decided to attend Fisk University in Tennessee. Even though she was far away from home, conquering her hesitancy was worth it “to know you’re going into a space that is welcoming, nurturing, fully accepting of who you are and what you bring.”

Settle’s time at Fisk “was an amazing, life changing experience, and when I share my journey with students, staff, counselors, they’re able to connect with that,” she says. She utilizes her background in psychology as she meets with her HBCU transfer students, asking them deep questions and encouraging them to think hard about what environments they feel most able to thrive in.

Finding the right fit

Students are encouraged to apply to multiple HBCUs and California state schools so they’re best able to compare offers and scholarships. Settle and her counselors help students with the trickier aspects of FAFSA or scholarship applications to make sure their students can get the best offer. Regardless of what scholarship might be presented, however, the students are guaranteed admission. 

Those California students who move to Louisiana, Texas and Georgia will find a strong Californian community already there waiting for them, says Settle, as a large number of CCC’s transfer students choose to attend Clark Atlanta University, Grambling State University and Texas Southern University (TSU).

Dr. Brian Armstong, the executive director of outreach services for TSU in Houston, Texas, says that part of that reason so many Californians come to Texas is because the climates are very similar; students don’t have to deal with hard winters in Texas or California. 

“We are one of the closest HBCUs to California, so they don’t have to go too far,” says Armstong. “And we’re in a big international city.”

TSU engages with several transfer partnerships in the state of Texas. But, says Armstrong, one of the best things about the CCC agreement is its simplicity. Instead of having to manage each individual community college relationship, there’s one simplified process for all of California’s community colleges. 

The first nine HBCUs to sign with CCC jokingly called themselves “the divine nine,” says Quinn, a reference to the divine nine Black sororities and fraternities. Dillard University in New Orleans was one of those original nine. Its president, Dr. Walter Kimbrough, says that making the decision to sign the agreement was easy.

“California [enrollment] is always number one or number two for out of state,” says Kimbrough.

One reason for Dillard’s large number of out-of-state students is the migration patterns out of the deep South during Jim Crow. 

“You had a lot of African Americans in the 1930s and 1940s who went to school in the South. When they graduated though, they couldn’t get jobs. So, they went north, and they went west,” says Kimbrough. “ … A number of [CCC transfer] students have come through, particularly those interested in our pre-law program [and] are now going to law school. That might be the purest pipeline for those students.”

Jesus Murillo used his transfer opportunity as a ladder. He went from working on the weekends in the walnut fields of Visalia, California, and making $20 a bucket, to the College of the Sequoias, to Fisk University in Nashville and now to Harvard. Originally, he had envisioned himself at UC Berkeley, and in fact had already utilized his Associate for Transfer Degree to gain admission there, when he happened to stop at a college fair on campus. There, he met two Black men in “three-piece suits” representing Fisk University. They offered him a full ride, and Murillo accepted: “I told them, ‘You gave me this amazing opportunity. I promise I won’t squander it.’”

Murillo went on to re-establish the NAACP charter at Fisk University, earning it the award for most active branch in Tennessee. Murillo directly cites the support he received from Fisk’s faculty as being the thing that pushed him toward success — his professors not only knew his ambitions to enact social change, but they also knew his personality. They were able to guide him in applying to Harvard, where he is now attending divinity school.

Toenisha Hudson is photographed in front of the president’s office at Dillard University. Hudson, not interviewed for this article, has participated in the debate and mock trials held by Dillard University.Toenisha Hudson is photographed in front of the president’s office at Dillard University. Hudson, not interviewed for this article, has participated in the debate and mock trials held by Dillard University.Brandon Aninipot is a senior at TSU — he’ll be graduating in December 2021. When he started at TSU, Hurricane Harvey was approaching, which devastated the Houston area with flooding. The latter half of his time at TSU has been marked by COVID-19. Yet in spite of these experiences, Aninipot says he “loves, loves” TSU.

Going to a community college before transferring to an HBCU was, what he called, one of the best decisions of his life. When he graduated high school, he says he wasn’t sure yet what he wanted to do with his life, and he lacked the maturity that he has now. Plus, he says, if he hadn’t gone to a community college first, he would never have known what an HBCU was.

“My father is Filipino, my mother is Jamaican, so I struggled with my identity growing up,” says Aninipot. "When I went to TSU, I realized that there are people just like me. It made me more comfortable with myself and my skin, with myself in general. It really taught me I can be myself; I can thrive."

Settle and Quinn say that they hope, as the transfer agreement continues to be successful, more HBCUs will sign on to join them. Settle and Quinn want to spread the word to more high schools, more counselors and more students. Settle runs an annual caravan with several HBCUs; she and participating HBCU representatives pile into a chartered bus and travel down the coastline of California, visiting college fairs and high schools.

Ayeisha Gipson knows just how important the connection can be between counselor and student. It stopped her from truly trying to succeed at college; now, good counseling from Settle and other mentors has propelled her all the way to Columbia Teacher’s College. She will start earning her master’s degree there in the fall, working to become a counselor.

Gipson says she will make sure that students never have the negative counseling experience she experienced but instead feel as supported as she did during her time at Grambling State University.

“I don’t think I’d have been able to do this without the transfer agreement,” she says. “I wanted the Black college experience. It was the best decision I ever made as an adult, best decision ever. Changed my life for the better.”   

This article originally appeared in the August 19, 2021 edition of Diverse. Read it here.