Guest Opinion: Finding a college fit right in your own backyard
Students who are successful in Radu Toma's highest lane math classes at Palo Alto High School go on to Stanford, UC Berkeley, Harvard, Princeton. Daniel Raburn was one of those students.
Daniel was gifted, one of his strongest students, recalls Toma, head of the Paly math department. After receiving a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley, Daniel went on to earn a Ph.D. in plasma physics from Princeton. But before he got to Cal and Princeton, Daniel started his undergraduate studies as a full-time student at Foothill College, right here in our own backyard.
This is the time of year when families of our Palo Alto school district Class of 2012 whittle down the list of college applications. In a community where academic expectations and achievement appear to know no bounds, Foothill College in Los Altos Hills and its sister college, De Anza in Cupertino, are often overlooked as options. In fact, every year between 11-16 percent of Palo Alto school district graduates go straight to Foothill and De Anza. An additional number attend sometime during their undergraduate career as part of their journey to earning a four-year degree.
So while local community colleges may not typically appear on senior year wish lists of colleges, our students have reaped significant academic benefits from this Foothill-De Anza support network. Their families also reap significant financial savings.
A student today who follows Daniel's path of combining two years at Foothill with two years at a UC would pay tuition and fees of approximately $27,000 over four years for a UC degree — about $1,170 a year at Foothill and an average of $12,150 a year at UC. Tuition and fees for all four years at UC would run about $48,600. Mike Scott, a 2008 Palo Alto district grad and outstanding student-athlete, parlayed his Foothill experience into an even better deal. After spending two years as captain of the Foothill football team, he transferred to the University of Idaho, where he is playing wide receiver on full scholarship.
Cost savings, however, is not the sole reason Palo Alto students choose Foothill and De Anza. For those who want certainty about their next educational step, Foothill and De Anza offer Transfer Admission Guarantee agreements (TAGs) with a number of public and private four-year universities. TAGs guarantee students admission as juniors to a particular university if they meet specified course and grade requirements. Foothill and De Anza have TAGs with seven UC campuses — Davis, Irvine, Merced, Riverside, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz.
Another route is the one taken by Catherine "Cat" Chiang, a 2009 Palo Alto district graduate. Initially a student at Tulane, Cat came home after one semester and enrolled at Foothill with a goal of transferring to UCLA, where she is now majoring in political science. As a participant in Foothill's Honors Institute and its Transfer Alliance Program (TAP) with UCLA, Cat maximized her chances of landing a coveted spot at UCLA the moment she set foot on the Foothill campus. "If you just follow the instructions," she explained, "it is almost always a sure thing."
While not a guarantee of transfer admission, the UCLA TAP program is open to students who participate in Foothill's Honors Institute. Last year, 82 percent of those participants who applied through the TAP were accepted to UCLA for fall 2010.
The Honors Institute provided Cat with excellent transfer preparation. "The work was challenging and professors actually gave you one-on-one attention," she said. Her Foothill honors instructors required participation and active thinking in class while small classes allowed for more long assignments and papers.
Cat suggests that more students consider attending community college for their first two years before transferring. "The only thing preventing people from going to Foothill is the stigma around community college, which is so unfortunate," she said. "I met some of the smartest people at Foothill and in the end you will be at a university you really love."
Caitlyn Kozelka is another Palo Alto district graduate who, like Cat, came to Foothill after a brief stint at a four-year college. Today Caitlyn is attending UCLA where she is pursuing a combined linguistics and psychology major. "A large contributing factor to my experience at Foothill, and in the honors program in particular, was how much the professors care about you doing your best work, and how much they are really willing to help you succeed," Caitlyn said. In hindsight, she added, "Entering Foothill really gave me time to figure out what my academic goals really were.''
Caitlyn found inspiration and support from outstanding professors. Two Foothill political science professors particularly challenged her to become a better student — Fulbright scholar Dr. Meredith Heiser, a Stanford graduate with a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Dr. Joe Woolcock, a Stanford Ph.D. whose instructional strategy for teaching American government is featured in a New York Times toolkit. For another Palo Alto district grad, it was award-winning astronomy Professor Andrew Fraknoi, a Harvard and Cal grad who contributes frequently to NPR, serves on the SETI Institute board and was Carnegie Foundation's 2007 California Professor of the Year.
Daniel, Mike, Cat and Caitlin are not alone in their success. Some 80 percent of students who entered Foothill College directly from Paly and Gunn since 2004-05 either completed preparation for transfer or successfully transferred to a university.
In fact, Foothill-De Anza ranks No. 1 among California's 72 community college districts in the number of students who transfer to a UC campus. In the words of Michael Kirst, president of the California State Board of Education, "Community colleges play a key role in America's economy, and Foothill-De Anza sets the gold standard."
Many high school grads are still searching for that sweet spot in their quest to fulfill their hopes for a successful, meaningful and rewarding life. Foothill's open access and the accessibility of its professors offer a rare opportunity for students to find their way in a hurry-up, high-stakes world.
Brian Martin, a 1992 Gunn graduate, took 20 years to find his way back to Foothill. A two-time Olympic medalist, Brian first took courses at Foothill as a high school student-athlete. After a successful career as a professional athlete, he is now back in Palo Alto, immersing himself in classes with Professor Fraknoi and contemplating a new focus on geophysics.
We as a community should join leaders like Michael Kirst and Brian Martin in savoring the educational opportunities available at Foothill and De Anza for PAUSD graduates and their families.
Betsy Bechtel is a trustee of the Foothill De Anza Community College District and the former mayor of Palo Alto. Barbara Sih Klausner is a Palo Alto Unified School District parent and a current district board member.