LONG A STEPPING STONE TO higher education for low-income and first-generation students, community colleges will become more important to a wider variety of students if the combination of a weakening economy and increasing tuition continues.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2003-2004 nearly one out of five students who enrolled for the first time in a four-year institution were transfer students. With the encouragement and support of state leaders and nonprofit organizations, administrators at higher education institutions are working hard to improve the process.
“Four-year institutions have to make clear their doors are open,” asserts Emily Froimson, director of higher education programs at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. “There is only so much community colleges can do without knowing their students will be well received.”
The foundation gave grants to eight selective four-year institutions to encourage programs and policies that support student transfers. Using those funds, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill created the Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program (CSTEP) in partnership with Alamance Community College, Durham Technical Community College, and Wake Technical Community College. “People are realizing [transfer students] have a lot to add to our campus,” says Rebcca Egbert, director of C-STEP at UNC. The grant’s aim was in line with Director of Admissions Stephen Farmer’s interest in transfer issues, she notes.
Egbert and her counterparts at Alamance say communication at all levels is important for a successful program. “If you have a program driven by one partner, it won’t work very well,” says Janyth Fredrickson, executive vice president at Alamance. The original steering committee worked to define the application process, student recruiting and qualifications, the support services students would receive, and the role of each institution at each stage of the process.
Fredrickson says it is critical for staff assigned to the program to develop working relationships with admissions office staff at the partner institution so they have someone to call if problems arise.
Creating opportunities for faculty members to meet is as important as having administrative contacts. “[Faculty] are the ones who know what is happening in the class,” points out Kevin Dougherty, senior researcher at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. “They are the judges of course content.” If there’s time for faculty members to share pedagogical practices, faculty at the four-year institutions can better receive and teach the transfer students.
Aligning core course elements places community college students on the same playing field as native university students. “We had to find out what was required and what to add in [to our calculus classes],” explains Perry Hardison, co-advisor for C-STEP at Alamance. He points out that whereas calculus has always been offered, enrollment has risen partly because of the improved transfer culture.
The North Carolina institutions were a step ahead in aligning courses; all the community colleges in the state developed a common course numbering system in the 1990s. “A lot of states don’t have this, and it isn’t easy,” says Fredrickson.
Dealing with 58 different course numbers for freshman composition can dampen any administrator’s enthusiasm. “Community colleges have been very responsive to the concern about transfers,” says Michelle Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, adding that policies have to align at the institutional, state, and federal levels to be successful. IHEP oversees the National Articulation and Transfer Network, a consortium of minority-serving institutions that are working together to create effective transfer pathways. NATN also supports a website with links to state information and a portal for guidance counselors and students.
Many states are setting up websites to provide transfer information as well. Statewide agreements can help smooth the way if the goal is to have transfer agreements with more than just one institution. But it is important to have institutional buy-in so the agreements are not sidestepped.
In Missouri, before some recent reforms, the department of education learned some four-year institutions were accepting a larger number of lower division credits from other four-year institutions than they were from two-year institutions. Now justification has to be provided when credits are rejected.
In some cases it is better to align courses at the program level, rather than individual courses, points out Don Doucette, provost at Ivy Tech Community College (Ind.). That way if one institution covers all the calculus topics in three classes and the other uses two, the student still meets the requirements. He explains that although Ivy Tech is one institution that covers the entire state, each branch campus refines details of the statewide agreement with the local Indiana University branch. “My own perspective is that it is in the best interest of the state — to have the most transparent and predictable system possible.”
“Our most recent initiative goes beyond common course numbers,” says Robert Stein, Missouri’s commissioner of higher education. “We are legislating to get common agreement of the competencies of the first course in key subjects in general education—English, science, math, and humanities.” Students are encouraged to complete a single general education program, which they can then transfer to a new institution.
Yet administrative changes won’t matter if students aren’t prepared. “Less than 30 percent of students who want a BA get a BA,” says Cooper. Ensuring students receive advising and guidance support is another important part of a successful program. (Some successful programs were discussed in the May 2007 Community Colleges column “Paving the Way for Persistence,” by Caryn Meyers Fliegler.) “If students feel set and ready socially, they will perform better academically,” says UNC’s Egbert. Introducing community college students to the UNC campus, peer mentoring, and other social events are all integral parts of the C-STEP program.
In Missouri, the appeals process was revamped so that transfer students don’t have to stand up to their new institution alone—they can appeal to their sending institution to act as their advocate, Stein says. Policies are also in place that allow sending institutions to appeal without a student complaint; receiving institutions can protest if many unqualified students are passed along.
Advising will become even more crucial as cash-strapped students qualified for four-year schools look to community colleges. “The transfer resources might be finite,” says Dougherty. “As these students who might have started at a university start at a community college, who are they crowding out?”