• by Josie Danini Cortez, M.A., and Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • May 2012 •Josie Cortez

There are memorable “firsts” in a child’s life: their first step, first word, first day in school. For a parent, every “first” is both celebrated and dreaded. You want them to have “firsts,” but you also want to protect them from harm. Above all else, you want your children to be happy and successful. These are fundamental beliefs and values.

Yet somewhere along the way, some educators, researchers and policymakers have come to believe that lower income, minority parents and families don’t share these beliefs and values, that they somehow want less for their own children. We see the manifestation of this myth in statements such as “They don’t see the value of an education,” and “They want their children to go to work if and when they graduate from high school,” or “They get in the way of their children’s future by insisting they not leave their hometown when they attend college.”

Our experience is that most parents – regardless of background – want the same things for all their children, at a minimum to be healthy, happy and successful at whatever they aspire to be, and, in many cases, to be better off than they themselves may have been. And education is almost always seen as the path to success – it’s the “one thing they can’t take away from you.” For children who are the first from their families to attend college – any college – the path is a very different one than those who have others in their families who have made that journey.

But many students, however, never make it out of high school. National studies indicate that, of those who enroll in college, many fail to graduate, and first-time-in-college (FTIC) students drop out in disproportionate numbers. IDRA recently researched the FTIC experience in a major urban community college and found that the reasons for non-completion lay primarily with the dissonance and incompatibilities between the institution and the student.

IDRA’s research is firmly grounded in our Quality Schools Action Framework, which shifts the focus from access and success for only a few to access and success for all students; shifts away from a culture of blaming to a culture of shared accountability for student success; and shifts away from isolated efforts in PK-12, higher education and communities to interconnected support for Latino success in prekindergarten through graduate school. These shifts are significant in the solutions that are sought and found – not in trying to “fix” students and their families, but rather in strengthening institutions, informed by students and their families and the assets they bring with them – assets such as a strong work ethic, a value of family and commitment, and a determination to succeed.

IDRA used a research design and mixed method approach that is based on the philosophical tenet that FTIC students have resources and assets that have yet to be tapped, and institutions of higher education need to adapt, align and coordinate their programs and services to ensure access and success for these students. Below are some of the study’s key findings and recommendations for FTIC success.

Key Findings

  • The “typical” FTIC is a young (22 years or younger) non-transfer Hispanic female.
  • The FTIC experience at community college almost always includes taking one or more developmental courses. FTICs in general are more likely to receive a productive grade (C or better) in English if they are over the age of 30. Everyone else has a one in two chance. The greatest percentage of FTIC students (about three out of four) are referred to a math developmental course. Slightly more men than women enroll in developmental math courses, but women tend to complete the courses more often than men and they earn Cs or better more often.
  • FTIC programs at the community college had some indicators of student success, but they tend to be program specific, non-uniform and do not distinguish FTIC and non-FTIC performance, nor are they readily available or routinely used to inform programmatic or institutional efforts.

“There is no way to know… no way to really measure that what you are doing is really working. 

– FTIC Support Program Coordinators

“About 98 percent need some form of remediation, usually math but some need all three levels. Students are coming out of high schools less prepared for what they need in college… So here we call it Grade 13.”

– FTIC Support Program Coordinators


Here are some of IDRA recommendations for college administrators and program coordinators as they work toward academic success for FTIC students.

  • Create a positive “FTIC” identity for students that is recognizable to all. Identify FTIC students from the beginning and throughout their enrollment at the community college so that programs, services and faculty are all aware of these students and their unique attributes so they can serve them more appropriately.
  • Create a common understanding of the diverse FTIC subgroupings and their unique characteristics. It is important to understand what those differences are and what is needed to ensure student success.
  • Create a comprehensive and centralized inventory of programs and services for FTIC students that is universally available, deeply understood by all faculty and staff, and regularly used by all staff and faculty serving FTIC students.
  • Create a structure and process that integrates programs and services with academics. FTIC students need a seamless system of support that bridges institutional services (such as financial aid) with programs and academics. FTIC support programs working in tandem can improve institutional efforts to improve persistence, course completion, productive grades, and graduation. But efforts will be more successful with active faculty engagement and coordination.
  • Regularly evaluate the use of technology to ensure that it is supporting FTIC students rather than creating barriers. Don’t assume that using technology automatically results in efficiency or effectiveness. Often, human connections transcend the benefits of technology used in isolation.
  • Create a uniform set of indicators of success for FTIC students that is created, understood and used by all program and administrative staff and faculty.
  • Assess program effectiveness using both quantitative and qualitative data that are reliable, valid and can withstand the scrutiny of an internal or external examination.
  • Create institutional tracking mechanisms that will identify FTIC students throughout their enrollment at the community college, including key information about the programs and services they have received from recruitment to graduation.

The study provided the community college with new information on the FTIC experience and has since been used to inform institutional reform strategies for improving the FTIC experience and their graduation rates. Learn more about this study in IDRA’s Newsletter Plus.

Josie Danini Cortez, M.A., is a senior education associate in IDRA Field Services.
Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is director of policy at IDRA. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at

[©2012, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 2012 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]