Cecilia Rios-Aguilar: New HERI Director Looks Forward

Scholar of diversity hopes to inform policy and practice around community colleges’ value for immigrant and underserved students.

As the new director of the Higher Educational Research Institute at UCLA (HERI), Cecilia Rios-Aguilar oversees the nation’s largest study of new college students, The American Freshman. She now looks forward to expanding the scholarship on community colleges, which have been less recognized in educational research.

Rios-Aguilar, who has studied all levels of education, from Pre-K through graduate school and transition to the labor market, underscores the importance of community colleges for historically marginalized groups of students.

“Community colleges represent to me the place where diversity is best represented in the widest sense,” she says. “You have recent high school graduates, low income students, returning adults, and veterans, all in one space. It happens that community college is where they start a college education, if they start one.”

Rios-Aguilar seeks to debunk the myth that immigrant and low-income students prefer community colleges over traditional four-year institutions, pointing out that they are often tracked into them, and also get stuck in them due to low academic preparedness.

“It’s not so much they have a choice,” she says. “Sometimes [community college] is the only path they’ve been tracked into. That’s part of all the inequity of it – they get trapped into it. The research says that when you ask students if they’d like to transfer, the majority say yes; they have the intention. The problem is the path to transferring can be very complicated. Students might start in remedial courses and they just get stuck there.

“There is a lot of research about remedial education, how we can improve that process,” Rios-Aguilar says. “Right now, there is a lot of conversation as to how we place students using placement tests. We’re realizing that these may not be the best predictors, so we’re trying to help students improve the way they access community college and college courses so they can transfer at faster rates.”

Rios-Aguilar says that the placement of community college students is often complicated, as well as their experiences with discouraging or inaccurate counseling.

“It’s a complex institutional system – it doesn’t just depend on the students,” she says.

Another factor is the label that English language learner (ELL) that some students acquire in elementary and secondary schooling – a label that is shed when they enter college. Rios-Aguilar, who co-authored a paper titled, “English Learners and Their Transition to Postsecondary Education,” says that this has caused a vacuum in the research on ELL students and their struggles in college.

“How we follow ELL students into higher education is still a big question,” she says. “[These students] get lost – literally – in higher education because their label will change. They may be placed [erroneously] in ESL programs. The support they were getting in high school ends because the law doesn’t provide for that support for college students as it does for K-12. They may be placed in ESL programs. Students who need language support are different from students who speak two languages at home.”

Rios-Aguilar states that community colleges are also an asset for more students beyond the low-income, academically underprepared stereotype.

“Now, it’s the place where a lot of people start a college education,” she notes. “They prepare students for the labor market, and serve a lot of populations that might not get into any other colleges. So their mission has been changing a lot, and it is constantly in flux.”

The rising cost of a higher education has also been a factor for many students, although Rios-Aguilar points out that community college is not always necessarily low-cost.

“College has gotten very expensive and people find a cheaper route in community college, but even now, the costs have gone up,” she says. “It is less expensive but that doesn’t mean that people can always afford it. State funding has been cut a lot from community colleges. They have not increased financial aid to accommodate the increase in living expenses for students.

“It’s not only about getting financial aid – it’s about maintaining the aid,” Rios-Aguilar says. “A lot of these students have many burdens on them. Most of these students are financially independent [or estranged] from their parents, but they have to prove that to get more financial aid. Some of these forms require parental signatures. The rules are inflexible. They favor certain family [structures] that don’t exist anymore.”

Veterans who are transitioning from service to academic life have also become an area of community college research interest, according to Rios-Aguilar.

“Returning veterans is another area where data is very scant, and research is very limited,” she says. “But we do see colleges making a big effort in opening offices to support them. It’s a very different type of population. They may not necessarily voice their needs or know how to ask for help. It’s a whole new area that we need to pay close attention to.”

Rios-Aguilar hopes that her leadership of HERI as well as her own research agenda will come together to inform Pre K-12 teachers and administrators on how to better prepare their students for the rigors of college.

“When you ask teachers in middle school, ‘Do you think your students are going to graduate?’ They say, ‘Sure.’ When you ask teachers in high school what are the chances their students are going to graduate, they say, ‘None,’” she says. “There is a clear disconnect depending on what sector [teachers] work for. I don’t blame teachers. They have so much pressure in their everyday lives that it’s impossible to… think of college for their students when they’ve been pressured to teach kids and perform well with testing and Common Core.

“We need to make a better effort in being mediators and translators of higher education research into K-12 and even Pre-K. The role of scholars like me should be to facilitate that transition and to help teachers see that there is a trajectory and that whatever happens early on is going to affect their [students’] chances later. We think and say that starting early on is better, but to put that into practice and help people really think about that and make even small changes – that’s where I see the greatest need.”

Rios-Aguilar says that she looks forward to working with HERI and establishing the research institute as a go-to source for educators and policy makers.

“I’m definitely thankful for the opportunity and very honored that UCLA has trusted me with this institute that has traditionally had so much success in collecting data and making it useful for colleges and for other [stakeholders] to make decisions,” she says. “I wish to continue that trend [with] the newest technologies and big data.

“How we’re going to collect data is changing very fast. I think HERI can play a big role in helping college leaders, students, policy makers, and everyone who needs to make decisions about helping students succeed, says Rios-Aguilar. “I think they’ll find in us a place where they can knock upon our door and say, ‘I have these groups of students – how can I help them accomplish their goals?’ I see HERI as being that place where we can facilitate that happening for all colleges, including community colleges and four-year institutions.”