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Answers on Community Colleges, Part 4 — New York Times

November 19, 2009 | General

Kay McClenney, who trains community college presidents, is answering questions. Each day this week, the Guidance Office — the forum on The Choice where readers ask questions of education experts — is featuring answers about community colleges by Kay M. McClenney. Dr. McClenney is the director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement, a research and service initiative of the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin.

Here, Dr. McClenney discusses readers’ concerns over the often knotty transfer process to four-year colleges, as well as the inclination of some two-year colleges to strike “community” from their names.

Dr. McClenney is no longer accepting questions for this feature, but you can comment on her answers by using the box at the bottom of this post. Her final set of answers will be published Saturday. Questions and answers have been edited for style, length and other considerations. —Jacques Steinberg

Q.
Transfer requirements are so complex in many states, but especially in my state of California. It is simply not reasonable to expect first-generation college students to be able to figure them out. Worse, there is no way a student can keep his or her options open because the requirements are different at each university, even for the same major. Are any states doing a good job of simplifying the transfer requirements for students’ sakes?
—Vivian

Q.
I am a student at one of the local community colleges in northern California. I already have a B.A. from the lovely U.C. system, which I went to directly out of my high school and was well prepared for the rigors of university life. Now, I am working on a second baccalaureate in a different subject than my first. I am concerned that it will be more difficult or impossible to transfer to finish the second degree. What are your thoughts?
—Aly

A.
Several questions and many comments on The Choice this week have focused on issues regarding transfer from community colleges to four-year colleges and universities. A lot of the posts have been from current or former students who have attested to positive experiences at their community colleges and great preparation for their subsequent baccalaureate and graduate studies.

Other posts have decried the challenges too often encountered, like lost credits and the complexity and inconsistency of transfer processes. Then others ask why there isn’t better or more consistent data about community college transfer — how many students who want to transfer actually do, for example?

All these comments reflect reality, of course, and the conversation is increasingly important as large numbers of students begin their college careers in community colleges — and as leaders from the White House to the state house, as well as the business and philanthropic communities, are citing the need for America to produce larger numbers of college graduates.

Too often, the transfer process has rested on painstakingly developed agreements struck between individual community colleges and individual four-year institutions. This is an area, though, where state policy can really make a difference. Lots of states are trying to strengthen individual transfer agreements between pairs of institutions, but what’s really better for students are the policies that are establishing statewide patterns that students can follow and be assured that they will get transfer credit at all public universities in the state.

Some states are making progress in that regard in two areas: establishing one common core of general education courses that will transfer as a block to all institutions; and defining sets of prerequisite courses for specific majors that students can take at community college that will qualify them to transfer into that major as fully prepared juniors at all public universities. Some states are going even further and creating associate degrees for transfer in specific major fields.
The states that are making good progress in simplifying transfer pathways for students usually do so with strong leadership from the governor and/or the legislature because colleges and universities have a lot of strong traditions that make them protective of their own curricular requirements.

Because many of the comments have come from Californians, I particularly recommend a new report from the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy: “Crafting a Student-Centered Transfer Process in California: Lessons from Other States”. [pdf]

While acknowledging the large numbers of California community college students who do transfer, the report cites the state’s (and students’) need for a less complex and more consistent process. Unfortunately, the challenges in California and elsewhere are compounded in the current economic environment, as some universities are considering caps on the numbers of transfer students (as well as freshman applicants) they will accept.

Comments about the difficulty of getting good data about transfer are very much on target. The issues (including data sharing, data quality and even the definition of a “transfer student”) are genuinely complex. College-by-college data are available in some states; but comparisons across states are problematic. Still, it is reasonable for students, parents and the general public to raise these issues; and they should expect their local college and state system to be able to provide clear answers.
As current discussions about higher education performance and accountability proceed, we can all hope to see better answers to legitimate questions.

Based on current data, I would confidently offer two observations: (1) very large numbers of students who graduate with baccalaureate and associate degrees would not have done so were it not for the opportunity afforded by community colleges; but nonetheless, (2) the numbers who hope to transfer are far larger than the numbers who do so successfully — which means that there is a lot of work yet to be done.

The responsibility rests not just with the community colleges but also with their university colleagues and with state policymakers.

Q.
My story as a community college student started in the fall of 2007,
when I walked into CUNY LaGuardia Community College. Because I graduated in another country, I did not know the difference between an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree. However, I became an active student. Now I am the 2009-2010 international president of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, a CUNY Leadership Academy Fellow, and a member of the Achieving the Dream committee at LaGuardia Community College.

My question is, since community colleges are such a great resource for the people, why are many of them dropping the word “community,” when they should be taking pride in the work they do?
—Edgar Romero
A.
Edgar, you have shared a great story — and also asked a great question! Clearly you have affirmed the critical role that community colleges play, in New York City and across the country, as an entry point to higher education and to a lifetime of increased opportunity.

In response to your concern, I can assure you that hundreds of colleges across America take pride in their identity as community colleges and in their trademark responsiveness to the needs of their local communities and widely diverse student populations.

It’s true, as you point out, that some colleges are changing their names, dropping the word “community.” Generally that is happening as some colleges begin to offer baccalaureate degrees; but it is fair to note that they do see the addition of those degrees as an important service to their communities, including individual students as well as local business, industry and public school systems.

It’s also true, by the way, that some of the country’s strongest community colleges have never had “community” as part of their name, even though their priorities and programs clearly reflect their deep commitment to the community college mission.

Keep telling that story, and please keep asking that question. We all need to hear it.

New York Times
November 19, 2009
Education – The Choice
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