Six Texas Commununity Colleges Beat Odds on Transfers

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As they prepare to go to college and search for ways to save money in the process, many youths convince themselves that they’ll start out at a community college and then transfer to a four-year university.

But not many youths achieve these dreams and instead find themselves stuck in remedial education courses, ultimately dropping out without earning a degree.

Who’s to blame for this time- and money-wasting trend? The individual youths themselves? Their prior K-12 education? Or is it the community colleges they attend?

No one can downplay or dismiss the role that individual determination plays in achieving an academic goal. And, of course, a superb K-12 education can only lead to better outcomes for youths once they enter the post-secondary world.

However, when it comes to making the leap from a two-year college to a four-year university, community colleges cannot be let off the hook. And there are things that community colleges -- which are expected to play a critical role in the Obama Administration’s goal of getting more American’s to earn college degrees – can and should do to help make sure that leap is a successful one.

Those are among the implications of a new report from the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education entitled Bridging the Gaps: Promising Practices for Promoting Transfer among Low-Income and First-Generation Students.

The report is billed as an “in-depth study of six exemplary colleges in Texas,” in large part because these colleges emerged as frontrunners when researchers examined their transfer rates.

According to the report, the campuses of these colleges all share three characteristics: a “structured academic pathway” that leads to a four-year college, a “student-centered culture” and “culturally sensitive leadership.”

And those are just the broad characteristics. There are other things the report credits for the colleges’ high transfer rates, including flexible scheduling, four-year university plans for all students whether they plan to transfer to a four-year university or not, and staff representatives from four-year universities on campus to help guide students to and through coursework that will enable them to make the transfer to a four-year college.

Chandra Taylor Smith, director of The Pell Institute and a co-author of the report, acknowledges that none of these is exactly novel. And she concedes that the campuses happen to be small – something  that may enable them to be more successful at what they do – but still says that size is not the only thing that’s enabling them to send more students on to a four-year college.

“Yes, these campuses are small, but larger institutions should still take note,” Taylor Smith told Youth Today.

The community colleges that emerged as leaders in the Pell Institute’s report are: TCCD Southeast Campus, Trinity Valley Community College, Northeast Texas Community College, Laredo Community College, Victoria College and Southwest Texas Junior College.

With the exception of TCCD, all of the community colleges had large populations of low-income students, but still had higher-than-expected transfer rates of roughly 17 percent to 22 percent – in comparison to their predicted rates, which ranged from 11percent to 17 percent.

Taylor Smith says while many community colleges have some of the elements of these six Texas community colleges, what made the Texas colleges stand out is that they were more deliberate about incorporating those things into the campus culture.

“A lot of community college presidents say, ‘We have these things,’ ” Taylor Smith said, “but with these colleges, it was the way they had them configured on campus.”

She also said the successful schools, all of which she and her fellow researchers visited, had a heavy emphasis on viewing students at “customers.”

“It was a little uncomfortable at first,” Taylor Smith said of the corporate speak she encountered. But it still represented the opposite of other campuses where she said students are not held in high esteem.

“You go to some campuses and it’s almost like the students are supposed to serve them,” Taylor Smith said.

At the same time, her report acknowledges that there could be some drawbacks to the amount of attention that students get at community colleges that create a student-centered culture. Among those drawbacks, the report says, is that students may become too accustomed to the “hand-holding” they get at a community college and might be in for a rude awakening once they get to a four-year university.

And there are unanswered questions that Taylor Smith says she and her fellow researchers plan to investigate over the next year. Chief among those questions: What are the outcomes for the students who transferred from a two-year to a four-year college?

After all, making the leap from one institution to another is one thing. Carrying on afterward is an entirely different thing.