Community College STEM Students Face Transfer Hurdles on the Path to a Four-Year Degree
STEM fields are struggling to attract and retain students, particularly those who are economically disadvantaged and ethnically diverse. Many students with less available funds for college choose to go to a community college due to lower tuition costs. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, 4-year, public, in state institutions charge an average of $9,139 per year in tuition and fees, while in district community colleges charge an average of $3,347. 38% of community college students receive federal grants as financial aid, and 58% receive financial aid of some kind. Despite community college students making up 46% of all US undergraduates, they account for 61%, 57%, and 52% of Native American, Hispanic, and Black higher education students respectively. Only 50% of community college students identify simply as White. However, students who start at a community college and then transfer to a 4-year institution face a series of challenges which traditional 4-year students are not exposed to. These issues include administrative issues with transfer credit, difference in instruction and culture at 4-year institutions, and problems with dual-enrollment systems. Since a major goal of almost all STEM reform movements is to promote the success of the ethnically diverse and the economically disadvantaged, it is imperative to improve cooperation between community colleges, 4-year institutions, and government entities in order to remove roadblocks and ensure a smooth transition from community colleges to Bachelor’s degrees.
While many people choose to analyze these issues using big-picture statistics, it is important not to lose sight of the individual students. As part of STEM Central’s intention to get the student perspective, we interviewed students who attended community college about their experiences, as well as utilizing available statistics and the perspectives of faculty members.
To begin, I spoke with Stacey Kiser, a biology instructor at Lane Community College in Eugene, OR, to get the faculty perspective of the community college system and how it differs from a 4-year institution. According to Stacey, one of the primary differences between the two types of institutions is that the student population in a community college contains a lot more non-traditional students and students without a traditional family support structure. Of the former community college students I spoke with for this blog, one was living in a group home in foster care at the time he decided to go to college, and another said she grew up “very poor” with lots of “hand-me-downs, food boxes, and bundling up instead of turning on the heat.” All interviewed students indicated that cost was a primary factor for why they decided to attend community college.
Stacey has experience teaching in both types of institution, and she stressed that students at a community college can access staff with much less difficulty than at a 4-year institution due to smaller student-faculty ratios. Stacey said, “We do a lot of coaching, informal advising, and things like that.” She added that the faculty at a community college are focused solely on instruction and on getting the students where they want to go next. When I asked whether this culture was not prevalent at 4-year institutions due to professors being focused on their research, Stacey pointed towards larger class sizes rather than the research culture, citing the example of the University of Oregon hiring non-tenure track faculty to teach their introductory biology sequences. The former Lane Community College students I spoke with were all huge advocates for the school, saying that the learning environment they experienced there was very helpful for their student experience. Amorina, now 30 and attending graduate school in Portland, OR, said, “At LCC [Lane Community College] I felt that the instructors cared, and the classes were small enough that I could get to know them. I mean, I am friends with one of my instructors on Facebook!” Jeremy, a 26 year old current veterinary student, agreed, saying, “LCC allowed more tailored education and because of small class size it was much easier to have subject oriented discussion in class.”
Both Jeremy and Amorina felt that their experiences at a four-year institution were less conducive to learning than what they had experienced at LCC. Amorina described many of her instructors at the four-year institution as “checked out” and did not feel that they made an effort to connect with and teach the students. Jeremy stated that he felt the learning environment at LCC was “one of the best available” and praised it for the student to instructor connections and smaller class sizes: things that the four-year institutions typically lack.
The students I spoke with both felt academically prepared for their transition to four-year institutions, but had issues ranging from minor to major with the administrative side of things. Jeremy took an organic chemistry sequence at LCC, which was considered a 300 level sequence at Oregon State University, where he wanted to transfer. In order to get the credit he needed, Jeremy had to take and pass an exam. This being his only required test, Jeremy was not terribly inconvenienced. However, community college transfers are not always so lucky. In some cases, a multitude of tests may be taken, or the class may need to be retaken at the university.
Community colleges frequently offer dual enrollment programs, which are designed to ease the transition to universities. One of the students from Oregon who interviewed with me had a terrible experience with her dual enrollment program, stating that despite the fact that the program was supposed to be expedient for her and ease her into the university, it caused all sorts of administrative problems. These issues forced her to spend hours in the Office of the Registrar and ultimately delayed her grant money, preventing her from paying her bills on time. These issues occurred within a dual enrollment program, which inherently forces close cooperation between the two institutions who are geographically close to one another and are used to working with one another; imagine the difficulties with dealing with a transfer between institutions without this level of familiarity.
Stacey Kiser spoke of the difficulties associated with transfers, saying, “unfortunately, its still at the level of personal reputation. At some schools there’s no contact between the faculty of the university and the community college, and that hurts the students in the long run.” She has pushed for a mechanism that does not rely on these personal connections between institutions. One of the specific elements she advocated for was setting statewide learning outcomes for classes, which would allow a smoother transition between institutions. Stacey said, “20 years in, I’m a bit tired of it being personal, even though my students do well.”
In addition to the students from Lane Community College in Oregon, I also spoke to students who had transferred from community colleges in Texas to Texas A&M University in order to see how the community college system worked in other areas of the country. One major trend that jumped out at me was that all of the Texas students were non-traditional in some way. Josh, a graduate of A&M who enrolled in community college at age 23, only entered college after working to pay tuition for his wife. Colton, who was 25 when he enrolled in community college, went back to school while working 70 hours a week for Pepsi in order to have the possibility of promotion within the company. His work schedule forced him to drop down to part time enrollment. A third Texas student, Krishnamurthy, is an international student who came to the United States and dual-enrolled at Blinn Community College and Texas A&M. These students highlight the wide variety of backgrounds that community college students come from, as well as the potential challenges that community college students face; traditional college students typically don’t need to balance their education with a 70 hour work week, and definitely not the adjustment to a new country.
One major difference between the Texas students and the Oregon students was the ease of dual-enrollment between Blinn Community College and Texas A&M University. All of the students I spoke with reported no administrative issues in the transfer between institutions. Krishnamurthy even reported that 60 of her credits from India transferred over, although due to a requirement from US medical schools that medical prerequisites be taken in the US or Canada, she had to take these classes again anyways. However, she had no issues whatsoever with the dual-enrollment between Blinn and A&M, reporting that all of her credits transferred without issue.
Under the direction of Timothy Scott and Sara Thigpin, Texas A&M offers a program to promote community college transfer success, which is funded by an NSF S-STEM grant. It encourages good study habits by promoting responsible time management, as well as connecting each student to mentors. The students have monthly meetings to ensure they are meeting their goals, and provide the necessary resources to assist them if they are not.
Community college students are more likely to be disadvantaged from the start due to economic status and background. Elements of our current system are placing frustrating roadblocks in front of these students and making it more difficult for them to advance their careers, which is impacting both the total number of STEM graduates produced and the diversity numbers of the STEM fields. Some overcome these obstacles like the students I interviewed, but many others are dissuaded by the challenges they face. In order to better serve these students, programs to support transfer success, such as the program at Texas A&M, must continue and expand. Improving our STEM system requires that we make every effort to remove these obstacles and allow access to STEM for everyone.