Both national political contexts and more localized patterns of educational access make studying the role of community colleges in the educational pathways of California's African American and Latino communities vital for those interested in equity within higher education. Community colleges play a disproportionately large role in the educational pathways of Latino and African American students. Nationally, students under-represented in higher education in general are over-represented in community colleges. Although community colleges enroll only 39% of all students in higher education, they enroll nearly half of all minority students. However, compared to their White counterparts, disproportionately fewer African American and Latino students use the community colleges to transfer to four-year institutions (Cohen and Brawer, 1996). At the same time, recent changes in admissions policies that restrict access to four-year institutions for minority students, especially in California, Florida, Washington State, and those areas affected by the Hopwood decision, further raise the importance of community colleges as potential bridges to the baccalaureate for members of under-represented communities.
National enrollment patterns hold true within California, where both African Americans and Latinos constitute a significantly higher proportion of community college enrollments than their presence in the general population would suggest. Orfield's 1988 study of college access on the part of under-represented students in the Los Angeles basin remains a highly informative examination of the college-going experience of African American and Latinos in southern California (Orfield, 1988). Orfield found significant differences in the college-going patterns of Los Angeles area students. While 70% of African Americans and 73% of Latinos attended community colleges, only 63% of Whites and 54% of Asian Americans did so. Success rates (as measured by the obtaining of the Associates degree and transfer to four-year institutions) differed markedly as well, with precipitous drops in the number of Latino and African American students completing community college, as measured by the above indicators, between 1976 and 1985. Transfer figures reveal a similar story: in 1984, 3.3% of community college transfers to the University of California system were African American, and 9.6% were Latino (Orfield, 1988). Clearly, community colleges play a vital yet uncertain role in the educational careers of African Americans and Latinos both nationally and in the Los Angeles area.
For some educational theorists and researchers, community colleges are an essential bridge between high school and the rewards of post-secondary education, especially for students often under-represented in four-year colleges and universities (Cohen and Brawer, 1996). For others, community colleges serve as a detour at best and as a dead end at worst for the educational plans of under-represented groups (Clark 1960, Brint and Karabel, 1989). The current study, which examines the perceptions of community colleges held by a selected group of Los Angeles area African American and Latino high school students and their counselors, attempts to contextualize the debate on the utility of community colleges for minority students. It is our hope that the current study, by offering an in-depth examination of the attitudes of stakeholders in California's higher education system, will yield new insights on the complicated process of college-going on the part of African American and Latino students.
Theoretical Framework and Research Questions
Pierre Bourdieu's theories offer an integrated framework for understanding how rational, thinking, and goal-directed individuals pursue their interests yet manage to create and recreate social structures. Bourdieu's concepts of cultural capital, habitus, and field analysis can be used to illuminate the role of community colleges for under-represented students in their social mobility. …