A new report by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education may provide clues on how best to shepherd students from two-year to four-year institutions.
The findings come at a time when the Obama administration has put out a clarion call to community colleges to educate an additional five million students by 2020, as part of his broader goal of increasing the proportion of Americans who are college graduates.
"In order to achieve the president's goal and the goals of so many others, like the Lumina Foundation, you have to tap into this population," said Chandra Taylor Smith, the institute's director. "Community colleges are a critical component to achieving the goal of educating more people."
Every year, thousands of students enroll at community colleges with the intent of transferring to a four-year institution. But many of them languish in developmental-education classes and eventually drop out. The situation is especially acute among minorities and low-income students.
The report, "Bridging the Gaps to Success: Promising Practices for Promoting Transfer Among Low-Income and First-Generation Students," highlights the work of six Texas community colleges with higher-than-expected transfer rates among their students.
The institutions in the report include Laredo, Northeast Texas, and Trinity Valley Community Colleges; Southwest Texas Junior College; Tarrant County College-Southeast Campus; and Victoria College.
The programs and policies the colleges have put in place help ease the economic, cultural, and academic barriers that usually limit students' ability to transfer to four-year institutions.
The report found that the colleges shared three main characteristics: structured academic pathways that aptly prepare students to enroll at four-year colleges, a student-centered culture that emphasizes personal attention, and culturally sensitive leaders who understand the backgrounds of their students.
Breaking Down Barriers
Two-year colleges that built successful pathways to four-year institutions had robust credit-transfer agreements with those institutions, and promoted dual-enrollment programs between their colleges and high schools.
Such relationships between two-year and four-year colleges not only helped get students on track for transfer to a four-year institution, but also helped within specific subject areas. For example, a partnership between Trinity Valley Community College and Texas A&M University at Commerce allows students to transfer up to 85 credit hours toward a bachelor of applied arts and science degree. Students then need to complete only 36 hours on the four-year campus.
Dual-enrollment programs, which allow students to earn college credits while in high school, are heavily emphasized at the Texas colleges highlighted in the study. Students can typically graduate from high school with 12 college credits, although they can take up to two courses each semester for a total of 24 possible credits.
The study found that early exposure is critical to ensuring a successful transition to college, especially for students who are from low-income families or are the first in their families to go to college. Such students are likely to be unfamiliar with higher education and what it will take to earn a bachelor's degree.
The two-year institutions in Texas created student-centered cultures by offering specialized advising, flexible scheduling of academic and support services, and first-year seminars.
The seminars usually went beyond campus tours and included strategies on note taking, test taking, and navigating campus services.
In addition, the colleges have one-stop shops, where services such as registration and financial aid are placed together in one central location. Victoria College removed physical barriers, replacing a tall customer-service counter with desks to make the interaction between students and staff members more accessible and personal, the report said.
The colleges in the report also made an effort to engage students in campus life by offering clubs and organizations, and some also set aside an hour each day when no classes were scheduled to further encourage participation.
Having a college president who comes from a similar social, economic, and racial or ethnic background provided the colleges with insight about how best to structure their campus environment in order to maximize student success, the report said. In terms of diversity, the colleges in the report recognized the importance of employing faculty and staff members of similar backgrounds to their students.
At Laredo Community College, 97 percent of the faculty is Hispanic, just like the student body. The president at Tarrant County College-Southeast Campus instituted a policy that mandated that one-half of all staff be ethnically diverse, and one-half be male, as part of a districtwide effort to hire more-diverse staff and faculty, the report says.