Pathway to a Degree: Report Explores Community Colleges with High Transfer Success Rates

Nov 20, 2009

The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education recently released a study of six community colleges in Texas with higher-than-average success rates in transferring students to 4-year universities. The study seeks to highlight the qualities that make these schools stand out in order to promote greater access to bachelor's degrees among low-income and first-generation students across the country.

Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education

A Supportive Environment

Community colleges and other 2-year institutions play an important role in making a bachelor's degree accessible to a larger portion of the population. Many low-income and first generation students don't have the skills or support system to start at a 4-year college, but community colleges can provide the training and structure to bridge that gap. However, many students at 2-year schools who start with the intention of transferring end up stuck in development-level courses or simply dropping out. Seeking a solution to this problem, the Pell Institute looked at six Texas community colleges with high transfer success rates to find out what they're doing right.

Community Colleges Transfer Success Rate

The performance measure, actual vs. predicted transfer rates and average student socioeconomic status (SES) of the six schools reviewed in the study. From Bridging the Gaps to Success, the Pell Institute report.

As the table above indicates, all six schools had high transfer success rates, and most had much higher than predicted. In trying to determine what makes these institutions so successful in transferring students to 4-year universities, the Institute found that all six schools shared three crucial characteristics that 'cultivate a culture of transfer:'

  1. A structured academic pathway. While the schools offer a wide variety of academic and vocational training programs, they all maintain high expectations regarding their students' ability to transfer. Incoming students all develop a realistic 4-year degree plan upon enrollment regardless of their final goals. The colleges also all have close relationships with 4-year institutions to help create a smooth transfer not only between schools but also within a single subject. For example, a student intending to earn a bachelor's in biology may be able to seamlessly transfer their introductory science credits from community college to university. Another important part of the academic pathway at these institutions is the dual enrollment plan for high school students. In addition to helping young students earn college credits, these plans provide invaluable exposure to the college environment for low-income and first-generation students who may not otherwise have that experience. Finally, the colleges all encourage academic rigor within their own institutions through developmental coursework initiatives and active learning programs that give students the academic training they need to successfully pursue a bachelor's degree.
  2. A student-centered culture. The schools create a much more accessible environment by focusing on service, personal attention, community and collaboration. In order to guide students comfortably through the education and transfer process, an emphasis is placed on excellent customer service and close student-staff relationships. Many of the schools' presidents cite their trio of student support services (SSS) as a key factor in their high transfer success rates. These programs target low-income, first-generation students with services like tutoring, study skills workshops, supplemental instruction and guided campus visits to universities. SSS programs also help students develop an academic community that provides a crucial support network. Other key aspects of the student-centered culture include specialized advising programs, subject-specific learning centers, flexible scheduling, first-year college skills seminars and high levels of student engagement in campus life.
  3. Culturally-sensitive leadership. When college presidents and other school leaders come from the same social, economic or racial/ethnic backgrounds as their students, they're better able to understand their students' lives and hardships. This helps administrators develop a campus environment that meets students' unique needs and encourages them to take an active role in their own education. This is typically accomplished through strategic planning, student-faculty role model relationships and community outreach programs.

Graduating Students

Strategies for Success

After examining the factors that lead to a high transfer success rate at the six studied colleges, the Pell Institute developed a series of recommendations to help other schools develop the key practices described above. Their suggested strategies include:

Data-based decision making.

Before schools can even begin to develop a transfer strategy, they must identify the challenges their students are facing. Schools must collect and utilize data to inform strategic, operational and budgetary decisions.

Collaborative campus programming.

Rather than relying on motivated individuals to improve transfer-success rates, schools need to work as a community to develop the aforementioned 'culture of transfer.' This includes creating academic and social support systems as well as a school-wide strategy for student transfer.

Supportive administrative offices.

Part of building a student-centered culture is focusing on service. Schools need to make administrative offices welcoming, accessible and supportive.

High faculty engagement.

Instructors play a crucial role in preparing students academically. By engaging faculty in the transfer process, schools can enlist their help with developing the right curricula and forging important mentor relationships.

Valuing students.

Students interface with many different individuals during their day-to-day campus experience, including faculty, counselors, administrators and other staff. All of these people should deliver the clear message that they believe in the students' potential to transfer. Schools can promote this environment by rewarding people in all offices who demonstrate valuing and supportive attitudes toward students.

A culture of performance and accountability.

None of the schools that the Pell Institute studied were surprised by the visit because they were all conscious of creating high standards of performance and accountability amongst both students and staff. Schools with high expectations will work harder to achieve high success rates.


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