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Community Colleges

Taking Top Honors

Honors colleges and other special programs at two-year schools educate the brightest students while improving transfer rates.
University Business, Sep 2006

The spotlight of attention has swung right toward community colleges in recent years, thanks in part to high-level public mentions. Yet as more people look to community colleges to churn out students-particularly those from low-income and minority backgrounds-some logistics need to be ironed out, including how to improve transfer rates between two-year schools and elite four-year institutions.

A study sponsored by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and the University of Southern California found that less than 1 percent of incoming students at the nation's private elite four-year schools transferred from community colleges in 2002. Another project, Equity for All, also explores transfer rates. Of more than 400 under-represented minority students eligible for transfer at one California community college, less than 20 percent did so.

Honors colleges can provide opportunities for lowincome
families with academically talented children.

Improving transfer rates remains in the interest of two-year and four-year institutions: Community college leaders see helping students obtain degrees as part of their mission; administrators at four-year institutions want to increase the numbers of low-income and under-represented minority students at their schools. Talented community college students provide the perfect pool of future leaders. Honors colleges and special programs at two-year schools can help in that endeavor.

For example, Houston Community College, one of the largest two-year systems in the country, is introducing an honors college that will maintain rigorous academic standards and provide scholarships as well as intensive guidance to students.

For admission to the honors college, students need a minimum 3.5 GPA and an 1800 score on the newer three-part SAT. The college will be modeled after one at Miami Dade College, which has been recognized nationally and sent graduates on to such prestigious institutions as Cornell, Yale, Johns Hopkins (Md.), and Middlebury College (Vt.).

"Traditionally, community colleges have taken everyone from a GED graduate to someone who has been in the workforce and wants retraining," says Maria Straus, director of learning initiatives at HCC. "Honors has never been an area of development, but I think it's time now." These programs offer an opportunity for low-income families who have academically talented offspring but can't afford four years at a private university.

In launching its honors college, HCC is ramping up its efforts to work with potential transfer destinations, such as the University of Houston and its honors college. HCC deans will meet with UH faculty to discuss forming a seamless transition between the two schools. That type of collaboration needs to take place more often, says Alicia Dowd, an assistant professor at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California and co-principal investigator for the Jack Kent Cooke study (titled "Threading the Needle of the American Dream").

A perceptual barrier keeps four-year school leaders from understanding and valuing the academic credits that community college transfer students bring. "There's a lack of familiarity about how the curriculum differs or is the same, and how pedagogy differs or is the same on the two types of campuses," Dowd says.

Aid officers from two-year and four-year schools should also interact to give potential transfers the most accurate information possible. "Students can be misadvised about their opportunities and the costs and potential benefits," says Dowd.

Honors colleges are rather new to community colleges, and more schools are developing programs that guide students through the transfer process. In both cases, private donations support program funding and scholarships.

South Texas College is a prime example. The school of 17,000 for-credit students serves two primarily low- and middle-income counties adjacent to the border with Mexico. STC has implemented a scholarship program to draw in talented students and encourage them to complete degrees.

The Valley Scholars program focuses on financing students' education and providing them with guidance. Students in the program-between 40 and 60 each year-cannot drop a class, withdraw, repeat courses, or change majors without approval from the academic excellence advisor or the Valley Scholars coordinator, according to Helen Escobar, coordinator of Public Relations for STC.

Valley Scholars Coordinator Marie Olivarez takes students on trips to four-year institutions, where they participate in meetings with admissions representatives, students, and administrators. Valley Scholars have transferred to 20 different institutions, including Texas A&M University, the University of California, Los Angeles, and Emerson College (Mass.). STC's faculty now includes Valley Scholar graduates who completed advanced degrees and returned to teach at the institution.

Funding-about $2,000 per student -comes from community members and individuals employed by the college. When the program launched in 1997, Michael Metke, then vice president for Instructional Services, and Ramiro Casso, a political leader and physician, took people out to lunch to discuss the benefits of helping students. Now STC employees can donate to the Valley Scholars via payroll deductions. "The funding is important," says Juan E. Mejia, who currently holds Metke's position, "but we also want to see the retention rates and we want to see them continue to additional degrees."

Honors colleges and scholarship programs can provide valuable pathways. But in today's competitive admissions environment, how can administrators ensure that low-income and under-represented minority students not get left behind?

Community colleges should monitor the proportion of their students who are "transfer ready" (or close to it) and actually make the transition, says Estela Mara Bensimon, director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California.

Building a diverse pool of students who transfer remains a goal of many IHE leaders.

Community colleges can also recruit people who are dedicated to helping students get from two-year schools to four-year institutions. In her work on the Equity for All project, Bensimon has seen that the most important factor in transfer rates is the presence of individuals who take responsibility for helping students through the process. These "transfer agents" can be faculty members, counselors, administrators, or community members.

Shirley Levin, a college admissions counselor and president of College Bound in Rockville, Md., knows from working with many immigrant families that a community college can be an ideal place for promising students. "Community college is an easier, more comfortable transition for the children of many of these families. But the goal, in terms of the best route to the future, is the same no matter how they start off. The goal is the bachelor's degree."

Equipped with funds as well as opportunities for collaboration with four-year institutions, programs such as Houston Community College's honors college will likely help boost transfer rates between two-year schools and elite institutions.

The ball is already rolling: The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation announced in March the investment of $27 million for eight elite four-year institutions to improve access for low-income community college students. That helped USC, for one, establish a transfer partnership with East Los Angeles Community College and Los Angeles Trade-Technical College.

In Maryland, the Maryland Transfer Advantage Program is flowing more students from Prince George's Community College and Montgomery College (both of which serve large numbers of minority students) to the University of Maryland.

And in Virginia, a new program smooths the transfer process for community college students.

Watch these efforts, and more, to see how higher education can offer greater access to promising students from all kinds of backgrounds.

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