“There are still many things to work on—the start, the transition, the finish. I am not just going to sit around and wait”
In that quote, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the Jamaican sprinter—the then-reigning Olympic and world 100m champion—was speaking about training for her event but she could just as well have been talking about the process of starting at a community college and graduating with a four-year degree from a university.
Although there are more than 12 million students currently enrolled in community colleges across the US, a very small percentage will complete an associate’s degree and an even smaller number will complete their baccalaureate degrees although a significant percentage state this to be their goal at the outset of their academic journey. One has to question why it appears to be so difficult to complete a path that should be fairly straightforward.
In fairness to both systems it is important to acknowledge the differences between them. Community colleges address a very wide range of missions, from being the first step to a college degree to workforce development and lifelong learning. They are fairly agile in meeting industry needs and their offerings are designed to meet the needs of their local economy, and thus are often guided by corporate input resulting in an applied approach that simulates the “real world.” In contrast, universities are focused on the initial development of a culture of knowledge and later specialized disciplinary education and research emphasizing, for the most part, academic knowledge rather than skills development. The modalities, pedagogies and approaches are thus often different.
Despite these differences, a large percentage of students aiming at the completion of a baccalaureate degree begin at community colleges due to geographical proximity and ease of access, flexible admissions standards and lower cost, greater individualized attention, and the option (often as a fall-back) of a career-focused pathway. While not every student who enrolls at a community college does so with the intent of completing a four-year degree, it is timely to question why the success rates in attainment of both associates and then baccalaureate degrees are as low as they are and what steps might be taken to enhance transferability to four-year degree institutions and degree attainment thereafter.
While not intended to be a list of steps that will guarantee success, the ideas listed below are provided to raise issues that need to be studied and addressed if we are to see the full advantages and effectiveness of the community college-university pathway as a means of enhancing student access and success.
1. Recognize that we exist to serve our students—this is not a competition to expand the scope of an institution’s mission or create artificial stratification.
In a number of cases, the focus on a student is lost in the economic competition to gain state funding or generate higher levels of tuition by blocking transfer or making it difficult to apply previous credits. These efforts come at the cost of enabling greater opportunities for degree progression. Similarly, the near automatic classification of students as higher- and lower-achieving based solely on choice of path flies in the face of research that shows little to no difference in the attainment of a degree if the quality of instruction is similar at both institutions.
2. Accept that there will be a difference in the experience gained through different environments and celebrate them
We need to remember that the four-year university experience is not homogeneous across all institutions—even in the R-1 group—although the end goal of degree completion, with the attainment of a knowledge set, is the same. In similar fashion, there may be differences in modality of instruction and pedagogy between community colleges and universities but this does not necessarily mean that students cannot make the leap from one institution to the other successfully.
Further, just as universities account for the jump from high school to a university through support services and advising, we need to assure similar, yet different, services to assist students transferring from community colleges to four-year institutions.
3. Understand the demographics of our populations, their desires and needs, as well as their abilities
While the freshman at a university still fits the definition of a “traditional” student, the transfer student population consists of a mix of those who continued their studies at a community college directly from high school and others who are more likely to be older, with experience in the workforce, and juggling responsibilities as bread-winner and care-giver with the desire to complete a degree.
Beyond the difference in age, the differences in experience and expectations must not only be kept in mind but also addressed. Those with experience in the workforce should not be treated as immature students and their expectations regarding timeliness of response, quality of teaching, and focus on gaining advancement through the degree need to be adequately addressed and met. It should be noted that these expectations are not unique to the older transfer student and should effectively be met for all students if we are to provide true value.
4. Ensure alignment of curricula and coordination of advising
If we accept the importance of transfer as a route for access and success we must ensure that courses taught at the lower division are not only articulated individually but that the entire curriculum and level of preparation are similar at community colleges and universities. Similarity does not necessarily mean being the same since the populations are different but it does necessitate equivalence in outcomes as related to preparation of students. A 2+2 structure is meaningless if the details make it next to impossible for a student to align courses to enable a fit between the sets of community college and university offerings. Simultaneously, the promise of articulation needs to be translated into reality through integrated and coordinated advising such that students are counseled to pursue the most direct path to a degree and are made aware of effects of diverging from the degree plan in terms of time to completion and cost to degree. It is thus essential that advisors serve not just as navigators but also as counselors and financial aid advisors.
5. Enhance communication between faculty and coordination in changes to curricula
While agreements between institutions signed by administrators are necessary, the efficacy depends on constant communication between faculty, sharing of curricula, student performance expectations and outcomes, and coordination so that curricula are continuously assessed, aligned, and revised in concert. It is also important that changes made in courses and in curricula at the university level do not leave students intending to transfer with a course that is no longer equivalent. We need to recognize that faculty-level conversations across institutional bounds is an essential aspect to ensuring the effectiveness of transferability and that articulation agreements by themselves without empowerment of faculty is counterproductive. The establishment of “hold harmless” periods similar to the guarantee of a catalog at a single institution is essential to smooth degree progression across institutional bounds to balance the need for agility in updating curricula on one end and assuring a path to degree completion on the other.
6. Be open to (and enhance) technology-enabled opportunities
Advances in technology provide the ability to not just share course content and lectures but to also develop modules that would assist students in transitioning between the two levels in terms of preparation, if needed, or to enable a level of equivalence even if physical resources at some feeder community colleges do not allow for the full set of preparation needed. The use of technology needs to be as an equalizer and enabler rather than as a substitute, but under the best of circumstances it can enable university-level expertise and curricula to be integrated with that at community colleges, removing potential barriers to ensuring performance and outcomes equity. It should be noted that these methodologies are just as powerful in enabling higher performance in lower-achieving students within the university itself and hence should not be viewed as necessary due to performance stratification but rather as an enabler to ensure better overall outcomes.
Transcending Territorial and Perception Biases
While aspects such as differences in mission, resources, and even the lack of a common course numbering system are often cited as reasons for the difficulty in ensuring ease of transferability between community colleges and universities, the real barriers may well be rooted in perception and territorial issues on both sides. We can all sign more articulation agreements and conduct further studies to prove, or disprove, the realities of stratification by performance as indicated by choice of path, but if we are to seriously address the issues in front of us of developing a better educated and qualified workforce and intellectual base for the nation, we have no option except to put aside differences, break down silos, forget artificial spheres of influence and work in integrated fashion, putting the success of students first.
At the University of Texas at Arlington, over 60 percent of the incoming class is comprised of transfer students. We’re one of the top recipients in the Carnegie R-1 Research University group of students from community colleges, and among the 63 institutions nationwide named to Phi Theta Kappa’s 2017 transfer honor roll distinguishing “excellence and success in community college transfer pathway development.” Our experience shows that this can indeed be done.