The challenges facing higher education are almost always analyzed in terms of four-year colleges and universities, even though more students attend community college than any other type of higher-education institution. In my career as a faculty member, dean, and president in New York, California, Kansas, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, I’ve found that colleges and universities too often pay only lip service to recruiting community-college transfers. Sadly, only 15 percent of community-college students earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. The reasons? Poor advising about how to take courses that will help at the transfer institution, lack of financial aid, and the cultural gulf between community-college students and the colleges and universities that do little to welcome them.
And yet, community colleges are essential to four-year institutions. Three reasons for this are particularly important: They provide an open door to college that is vital for many young people and that can rarely be duplicated by four-year institutions; they reach a far more diverse group of students than do most four-year colleges and universities; and they are essential for higher education’s goal of serving the national interest.
Providing an open door. For millions of young Americans, a four-year college or university is intimidating, especially if it involves living away from home, tackling challenging courses in the first semester, or taking on loans. Community colleges offer students a chance to taste college close to home, with the possibility of taking courses part-time or moving easily from part time to full time and back. Students who go to community colleges tend to take out fewer loans, even when one controls for the lower tuition. They are still trying out college. Many wisely are reluctant to take on debt, which is necessary today even at the lowest-cost public institutions, until they are confident that they can choose the right major and succeed academically.
This also makes them less of a risk financially than many four-year college leaders fear. Judith Scott-Clayton, a student-loan expert, says, “If not for students later attending for-profits, community college entrants would have lower default rates than public four-year entrants.”
Reaching diverse groups. The community college that Elizabethtown College works most closely with, Harrisburg Area Community College, is not only the largest community college in Pennsylvania but has more veterans among its students than any other higher-education institution in the state. The proportion of its student body that receives Pell Grants is more than twice as large as Elizabethtown’s. Enrollment of black and Hispanic students, too, is generally much higher at community colleges than at four-year institutions. Thus, if four-year colleges want their student body to resemble the nation, recruiting community-college students is essential.
Fulfilling the nation’s goals. College graduates are a crucial asset for our society to compete in an increasingly technological world and to provide the professionals we need in a wide range of fields. Without partnerships between community colleges and four-year institutions, the United States will never produce the number of college graduates that we need. We once led the world in the percentage of college graduates in the population. No more. We send millions of high-school graduates to college, yet too many leave without degrees. And it is doubtful that the proportion of high-school graduates going directly to four-year colleges is going to increase significantly. To increase the number of college graduates, we need to make it easier for many more of the millions of community-college students to transfer to a four-year college and earn their degrees.
Are there risks to four-year institutions if they accept many more community-college students? Certainly. Many four-year college leaders fear that weak transfer students will hurt their institution’s reputation, and may only set these students up for failure. The risks, however, can be overcome.
When I was a dean at the College of William & Mary, a highly selective public institution, I found that community-college transfers went through much of the same adjustment as first-year students. Typically, their first semester was their weakest. Nonetheless, with hands-on advising and strong transition programs, their learning curve was much more rapid. By the time they graduated, they performed nearly as strongly as four-year students. Yes, it cost more per student to recruit and advise these students than the average first-year student. But it was often less costly and ultimately more successful than doing so for at-risk students who came to college as first-year students.
The transfers were more mature, confident about their major, able to handle the culture shock and financial-aid concerns, and certain that they wanted to get a four-year degree. Programs created to recruit at-risk first-year students and help them succeed are often excellent. If we want to contribute to a better-educated future for America, we should adapt these kinds of programs to help community-college transfers as well.
What most helps community-college students? Some obvious strategies are still essential: articulation agreements that clarify course and major requirements for all students; financial-aid packages that are as robust as those for first-year students; and teamwork between advisers at both institutions to demystify transferring. Yet more creative strategies are still needed:
- Open-campus visit days with instant acceptance decisions for transfer students.
- Financial-aid counseling customized for community-college students.
- Specially designed “test drive” courses at the four-year college at community-college prices.
- Pipeline programs connecting a community college to a four-year college, like the one at Gwynedd Mercy University near Philadelphia, which offers guaranteed admission to students who have earned degrees at specified community colleges.
- Designated advisers who are sensitive to the needs of community-college transfers, commuters, nontraditional students, veterans, and students with family obligations.
It is essential that faculty and staff at four-year colleges get to know students, faculty, and staff at their partner community colleges. Too many well-intentioned transfer programs have failed because of cultural and bureaucratic misunderstandings. Just as important, continuing-education programs at four-year colleges and universities should be enlisted to help community-college graduates earn their degrees while working full time. Many of these transfer students will never take courses full time. At Elizabethtown College, evening, weekend, and online classes in our School for Continuing and Professional Studies are the only way many transfer students will ever complete a bachelor’s degree.
Community-college students deserve a chance that they may get only if we in higher education commit ourselves to rethinking our practices, removing barriers, and replacing ignorance with insight. All of us — and the country — will benefit.
Carl J. Strikwerda is president of Elizabethtown College.