Just three months after Roxbury Community College opened in 1973, realizing a long-held dream of the city’s black community, it was already in crisis mode. The president was fired without explanation, casting the campus into turmoil and exposing rifts between college and community leaders.
The early dissension was a sign of things to come. Born in controversy, the two-year institution has never escaped it for long.
Caught in political crosscurrents, the school spent years in old, cramped buildings, fighting off attempts to close it. Time after time, audits found fiscal chaos, and presidents resigned in scandal, most recently in 2001.
Now, after years of relative stability, the school again finds itself under scrutiny, as federal and state officials investigate allegations that it failed to report serious crimes on campus.
The inquiries, along with revelations that the college was late in sending out financial aid checks this year, have raised speculation that the president’s job is in jeopardy and that state officials will again consider merging the school with Bunker Hill Community College in Charlestown.
The many supporters of the president, Terrence Gomes, say the recent allegations should not overshadow the gains the college has made in recent years, citing increases in graduates, grants, and partnerships with businesses. They say Gomes’s steady, accessible leadership during his nine-year tenure has given the college a clear sense of direction.
“The college has been thriving under President Gomes’s leadership,” said one top administrator who, like several others at the school, did not want to be identified by name because of the ongoing controversy. “We’re doing lots of positive things, and many of our students are going on to four-year schools. We’re very proud of our record.”
Gomes, who has not publicly addressed the investigation, declined to comment.
For critics, the recent allegations speak to broader problems that have plagued the school for years and show little sign of abating.
Several years ago, alarmingly low graduation rates sparked calls for reform at the state’s community colleges, which provide a vital path for teenagers to enter the workforce. In 2010, the last figures available, the rate had improved only barely, to 6.5 percent, the lowest in the state.
Among community colleges statewide in 2010, the graduation rate was 16 percent. Nationally, the figure is about 20 precent.
Amid doubts about the quality of Roxbury Community College, many students in Roxbury and Dorchester are bypassing the school in favor of other destinations, particularly Bunker Hill. In 2002, 197 students from Roxbury enrolled at Bunker Hill. By last fall, that had risen to 435.
The number of Bunker Hill students from Dorchester nearly doubled in the past decade, from 724 to to 1,414.
At Roxbury Community College, the number of students from Roxbury has held steady during the past three years, while the number from Dorchester has climbed modestly.
Overall enrollment has dropped slightly since 2009 to 2,744. Classes cost $153 per credit, and full-time students take at least 12 credits.
Sam Acevedo, who directs the Boston Higher Education Resource Center, a college readiness program that focuses on students from low-income and immigrant families, said students and guidance counselors consistently see Bunker Hill as a better option.
“If you don’t have a structure in place to encourage students to go through the process, you’re going to be at a disadvantage,” Acevedo said. “Success stories at RCC are absolutely possible. Unfortunately, they are not the norm.”
Bob Giannino-Racine, who heads ACCESS, a Boston nonprofit that helps students find ways to afford college, said students often wave off the suggestion of attending Roxbury, even when its Roxbury Crossing campus is far more convenient than other schools.
“You have kids right in the neighborhood that are shunning the school,” he said. “It’s incredibly convenient for them, but it’s just not something they are interested in.”
Among them was Anna Alabi, a first-year-student at Bunker Hill. Alabi first applied to University of Massachusetts Boston, but was told she needed to get some college courses under her belt. Just a short walk from her house, Roxbury Community College seemed the logical choice.
But her contact at UMass suggested she would have a better experience at Bunker Hill, she said. Having heard negative things about the school, she agreed.
“They discouraged me from going there,” she said. “It’s too bad, because I could have easily walked there.”
Yet administrators say that Roxbury Community College has markedly improved in recent years and that statistics do not convey the good work being done. They say graduation rates, the percentage of first-time, full-time students who complete their program within three years, are a misleading measure that fail to account for the bulk of their students, who take courses around their work schedules and family responsibilities.
“Just because they aren’t finishing, that doesn’t mean it’s a failure,” said another college administrator. “Many students take a few courses they need, then move on to the workforce, and others transfer once they have enough credits.”
The number of degrees awarded climbed from 212 in 2009 to 311 last year, college records show. Administrators say that has pushed the graduation rate to more than 10 percent among students who first enrolled in 2008, gains that will be made official in the coming months.
Sterling Giles, who has coordinated many of the school’s efforts to improve student perfomance, said the college is taking a hard look at why students drop out and has adopted programs to tackle the problem. Remedial courses have been streamlined, and advisers are working more closely with new students in hopes of finding a career path.
“If students have a real and realistic sense of purpose, they are much more likely to stay in school,” he said. “They need to have something to keep them committed.”
Giles and other administrators say the college is trying to make the students feel part of the campus through study groups, tutors, and advising so that school is not crowded out by the rest of their lives.
“Our students are older, they have more responsibilities, they work longer hours, they have more people depending on them,” he said. “We have to give them reasons to commit to this.”
But outside observers say the figures attest to fundamental flaws in how the school is run, from general operations to support for students, many of whom arrive with a history of academic struggles and must take remedial courses for no credit.
Community colleges generally have poor records of graduating students, although a number of factors distort the numbers. Some students transfer to four-year schools before graduating, for instance, while others set out to take only a few courses.
Tyler Kimball, who graduated from Roxbury this spring, said advisers helped her through every step of the transfer process, and she will be attending Bentley University in the fall. Her time at Roxbury helped her focus academically and discover an interest in pursuing a business career.
“I definitely wouldn’t have been able to get there straight out of high school,” she said. “I needed a second chance.”
But critics say such success stories are rare, and that graduation rates provide a more complete picture of how well community colleges are preparing high school graduates for work or a four-year school.
At Roxbury, for instance, fewer than half of all students return the following year, and just 5 percent transfer, according to government statistics.
College officials say that many students drop out because they are not prepared for college work.
“There is a growing concern at all levels that students placed in developmental education courses are pre-destined to fail,” according to a 2011 report that is part of the Patrick administration’s education reform efforts.
In January, the governor called for greater oversight of the community college system in an effort to unify the campuses. Critics have long held that the system is too fragmented, leaving colleges subject to little direct oversight. Critics also say colleges are not doing enough to prepare students for skills-intensive careers. The plan is now before the state Legislature.
For students who have always had a hard time in school, who are still learning English, or who cannot afford more expensive schools, the figures have vast implications. Community colleges are often their only option, Acevedo said.
“It’s a lifeboat for these students,’’ he said. “They are sharp and motivated, but they need a strong community college as a bridge.”
Peter Schworm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.