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Community College/Four-Year Partnerships

A proposal about the intersection of today's and tomorrow's student marketplace
University Business, Mar 2011

Do you believe that some of the best and brightest of the next greatest generation of college students will begin their higher ed experiences at a community college? Well, we do. That is why we reallocated over $7 million of scholarship funds and operating support at Bucknell University (Pa.) for a period of six academic years to facilitate the Bucknell Community College Scholars Program.

Supported by a significant grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation's Community College Transfer Initiative, the program has been a tremendous success for our students and the Bucknell community in general. It has opened our thinking as a university community to how the lessons learned through this experience might be leveraged to provide these important learning opportunities to more students and more four-year campus communities across America.

These are times of rapidly changing national and global demographics and economics. It could be said that community colleges are where the current and future student markets and higher education intersect. Millions of these students are pursuing their higher education on a full-time basis; others are cobbling together academic programs around work and family schedules.

Community colleges could be invaluable partners for four-year schools seeking to reshape enrollment.

Depending on institutional interest and strategic plans, we believe community colleges could prove to be invaluable partners with four-year schools (particularly private colleges and universities) seeking to enroll the best students available and reshape their enrollments to reflect our changing nation and world.

We propose a national network of interconnected regional consortia to encourage and facilitate access and greater choice for highly-motivated and accomplished community college students to four-year institutions. This would be a truly collaborative effort, leveraging the resources of each participating institution and being supported by a combination of public and private funding.

How can this be done? What would a national network of regional consortia look like? The details of the proposed organization, some of which are listed below, are still in the works, but in essence, each regional consortium would be coordinated by a central regional office that provided all the services of a robust transfer center one might find at a large institution that enrolled significant numbers of transfer students.

Some examples of the responsibilities of the regional office include: 1) identifying prospective students who fit best at the member four-year schools, 2) assisting member institutions with the policies (e.g., articulation and course equivalency agreements) that accompany these arrangements, 3) establishing active working relationships between institutions and students to ensure that the transition for each student is as seamless as possible, and 4) providing fundraising support to keep membership expenses to a minimum.

Once the basic structure is put into place, each regional office might work with subsets of the membership for specific programs such as STEM grant opportunities for schools with strong pre-Engineering and Engineering programs.

The concept is based on the following assumptions:

The practice of comprehensive enrollment planning and management must consider the complete life cycle of a student-alumnus/a;

  • CC students must be seen as another pool (somewhat untapped to date) of highly qualified students from which institutions can draw;
  • CC students must be viewed as an integral part of the institution's enrollment and student life plan, not simply as individuals to fill seats;
  • CC students, as with first-year students, must be viewed as potential alumni who will have a lifetime affiliation with the institution;
  • CC students will enrich a campus community with their life experiences and perspectives. These students will provide institutions the opportunity to begin shaping their campus communities to reflect the changing 21st century demographics; and
  • Because they have proven themselves in college classrooms, CC students, with the careful mentoring provided by the program, will diminish concerns about potential academic success.

It was for these reasons Bucknell officials decided that successful community college students would become an integral and integrated characteristic of our overall enrollment plan.

The current program has the following attributes:

  • Partnerships with five community colleges;
  • Collaboration between Bucknell and each CC partner in the identification of potential scholars;
  • Defined entrance qualifications;
  • Facilitation of the pre-Bucknell experience to minimize bureaucracy;
  • Active faculty and peer mentors to ensure a smooth transition for each student; and
  • Collaboration between Bucknell and CC faculty and staff regarding aspects of the program, including team teaching during the summer program.

Why should Bucknell and other institutions like it make the extraordinary commitment and effort to identify, enroll, and support community college transfer students? The answer is both simple and complex: because the future, complete with demographic changes, economic concerns, and increased competition for the best and brightest students to fill our classrooms, requires us to do so.

What was once a social justice argument (which, by the way, we both still believe) has become an economic imperative?we must prepare our students to enter into a world that is increasingly multicultural and international if we desire to remain relevant. Our workforce at all levels continues to experience tremendous change and the current global economy is certain to impact students' lives, America's place in the global market, and our nation's standing internationally.

While community colleges are not the singular answer to our ability to remain robust and relevant institutions, these partnerships can make significant contributions in our efforts to shape the course and assure the vitality of American higher education in the 21st century. Further, these partnerships represent ways in which four-year institutions could enrich and strengthen the educational experience for all their students.

There are many examples of successful transitions based on traditional articulation agreements, dual admissions programs, and the like. The data suggest that community college students who transfer to four-year schools earn their Bachelor's at a very healthy rate. However, at present, there just are not a representative number of opportunities for these students at four-year schools, particularly the most selective of these institutions.

Our experience at Bucknell suggests that close attention to building and nurturing strategic alliances optimizes our expenditure of institutional resources and provides benefits to our campus community. We believe that these opportunities can be replicated in such a way to increase the number of options available and enrich the experiences of all involved through institutional cooperation. To compete, we must first cooperate.

We believe, for both educational and business reasons, community colleges are very strong potential strategic alliances for many four-year institutions that currently focus predominantly on the traditional high school market. It is difficult, focused work?work that is different from what most of us in the admissions/enrollment profession have done in recent years?but we are certain that the results will make these efforts worth it.

Brian C. Mitchell served as president of Bucknell University from 2005 to 2010. Kurt M. Thiede is Bucknell's current vice president for enrollment management.