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A person dressed in all black, head bent looking at a phone, walks past a concrete ccc Contra Costa College 2600 Mission Bell Drive sign with blue lettering on a white low wall, trees behind it, mulch and a sidewalk in front of it.

Costs cut education short for many Contra Costa community college students

on December 26, 2023

When Adamaris Cabrera was in high school, she was in “boss mode,” taking classes at Contra Costa College and working multiple jobs to become a first-generation college graduate. She wanted to make her immigrant parents proud. College was her ticket to success. Or that’s what she thought. 

“As a first gen, all we hear growing up is, ‘Go to college,’” she said. “That’s the only way out.”

But after a particularly challenging anatomy test, Cabrera decided she had had enough. She told her parents she was dropping out of CCC in 2020 to start her own skin care business. 

Cabrera’s decision to withdraw is common. At CCC, most students end up leaving — two-thirds after their first year — according to the U.S. Department of Education. And at the county’s three community colleges, only 1 in 10 students transfers to a four-year university.

Dozens of Contra Costa College and Diablo Valley College students interviewed by Richmond Confidential said that while free education cleared the way for them to enroll, outside financial pressure clouds their generally positive academic experience. And some struggle to find the resources meant to help them transfer to universities.

“I’ve kind of been doing everything on my own,” said CCC student Puthsavanh Douangphrachah. “I’m supporting myself.” 

A head and shoulders shot of a woman with curly shoulder-length brown hair, wearing a pink and white button-down top opened at the color under a black blazer.
Mojdeh Mehdizadeh

Mojdeh Mehdizadeh, who was recently appointed chancellor of the Contra Costa Community College District (4CD), said, “There’s just a lot that happens in the lives of our students.” 

“I think about success from the perspective of meeting each student where they are and helping them reach their particular individual goals,” she added.

However, Mehdizadeh said, it’s hard to determine if students are meeting their individual goals, which is why the county is implementing new software to track students’ journeys. 

“We have to be so much more intentional about understanding what gets in the way of our students being successful completers and ensuring that we put resources in place to keep them,” she said. 

Recently appointed CCC President Kimberly Rogers agreed. “If you’re looking at just the quantitative data, it’s missing that student’s story.”

Rogers is referring to Cabrera by everything but name. While she is one of the withdrawal stats, it’s hard to see Cabrera’s story as anything but a success.

Three years after leaving college, she’s a licensed esthetician with her own skin care business in Point Richmond and a regular stream of clients.

Richmond’s median annual individual income is $60,000 — Cabrera said she earns four times as much. She just bought a house in Vallejo. She turns 23 this month. 

“College doesn’t guarantee you your dream life,” she said. “You are the creator of your own life.”

Charts showing that 28% of Contra Costa College students graduate after two years and that 67% return after their first year.
Contra Costa College 2021-22 school year data, U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard

Still, the students sitting in the same classes Cabrera did in high school are already planning for college. Several sophomores at Cabrera’s alma mater, the much-lauded Middle College High School on CCC’s campus, said they plan to go. Many have their sights set on UCs and CSUs. 

Student Morgan Adams said she hopes to go to Cal or UC Davis, “but if worse comes to worst, I might be back here again,” meaning CCC. 

Adams’ classmate Jannez Babista said she doesn’t want to burden herself or her family with the cost of college, and that the ability to enroll dually in CCC classes was an opportunity to chip away at college credits while still in high school. 

“I’ve always been very financially aware,” she said.

Paying for college

Of the two dozen students interviewed, most pointed to the free tuition as a significant factor in their decision to enroll in community college. Many are their families’ main wage earner. 

“I’m the main provider for my family,” said Ashley Alvarez Camelo, student body president at Diablo Valley College. “That’s why I went into community college — it gave me more financial help.” 

Christopher Whitmore, who leads the nonprofit Richmond Promise, said affordability is the most pressing issue. “Students are asking themselves: ‘What are the short and long-term costs to me going off for four years or even longer, not only for myself but for my family?’” 

Attending community college in Contra Costa County is free for California residents who enroll in 12 units per term, which is one of the school’s most attractive qualities. And 20% of 2022 West Contra Costa Unified School District high school graduates were attending a 4CD college in the 2022-23 school year, according to a study provided by 4CD. 

But you have to be a full-time student to qualify for free tuition, which means fewer  income-earning hours.

Chart showing how much students pay based on include: $4,086 for income of $30,000 or lower: $5,107 for income of between $30,001 and $48,000; $6,019 for income between $48,001 and $75,000; $10,239 for income between $75,001 and $110,000.
Contra Costa College 2021-22 school year, U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard.

Rogers said that taking advantage of free education leads to a quicker return on investment. “Delay your gratification,” she said. “Delay the necessity of work to complete and then transfer.” 

For some students, this means very long days. 

Lucas Silva, who is studying psychology at CCC, works 30-plus hours a week as a manager at Domino’s and carries a 12-credit class schedule. “It’s hard,” he said. “But I can do it. I can manage.”

He’s in the minority. Fewer than 1 in 3 students at CCC is enrolled full time, according to the U.S. Department of Education. 

Still, California’s community colleges are the most affordable in the country. And while most students are local, Alvarez Camelo traveled from Colombia to attend DVC. She had hoped to go to college in Colombia but said, “They don’t have as much financial help as they have here.” So she opted to return to Contra Costa County, where she had lived for the first few years of her life. 

Alvarez Camelo says her classmates are underestimated — “the community college students are hungry to succeed and be in top positions.”

She believes that community college gives people “that time and that space to really grow into the people they want to grow into.”

The transfer process

Students at CCC and DVC said that while there are resources on campus to help with the transfer process, it can be challenging to access them.

CCC student Camiko Adams said transfer support does exist but students don’t know where to look. “It’s kind of hidden,” he said. “People like to suffer in silence. It’s hard to ask for help.”

Douangphrachah, who is a student ambassador in CCC’s Career and Transfer Center, said, “It doesn’t feel like there’s much guidance.”

That’s why she got involved at the Transfer Center.

“I’m trying my best to help out students because I know that feeling of feeling alone and not getting the support,” she said. 

Alvarez Camelo said that from what she’s observed at the district level, students need more academic and transfer counselors. She and Douangphrachah were working on their transfer applications to four-year universities. 

Returning to Richmond

Deysi Chacon, who also grew up in the West Contra Costa Unified School District, says that when she was a student, there was a “very specific narrative that was pushed. It was either you go to college and you make it out, or you stay behind.” 

Today, she’s working to change that mentality. 

Chacon is the education justice manager at RYSE Youth Center, where she helps young people plan for their futures, within and outside of the education system. 

“My job is not to push them in any way,” she said. “My job is to provide them the resources and the knowledge to navigate those resources so they can make decisions for themselves.”

And she says the narrative about “making it out” is changing. 

“Young people are so much more connected to the community,” she said. And many of them are telling her, “I’m going to go to college so I can come back and continue the work that I started.”

She said, “That’s probably one of the most beautiful things I ever get to hear.”

(Top photo by Marion Apio)

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