Study Identifies Factors Behind Successful Community College Transfers

Having a structured academic pathway, a student-centered culture and culturally sensitive leadership are three conditions that can help community colleges successfully serve first-generation, low-income students, according to a study released today by the Washington-based Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

“Community colleges are critical gateways for those students so we’re looking for the best practices to help these students get through, persist and successfully move on” to four-year colleges, said Dr. Chandra Taylor Smith, Pell Institute director and vice president for research.

In “Bridging the Gaps to Success: Promising Practices for Promoting Among Low-Income and First-Generation Students”, researchers led by Taylor Smith focused on six Texas community colleges with large proportions of socioeconomically disadvantaged students, but still had higher than predicted transfer rates. Texas, with a large low-income, first-generation youth population, has taken an aggressive approach with its ‘Closing the Gaps by 2015′ initiative, which was adopted by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in 2000. The initiative seeks to improve participation and success in higher education by under-represented students.

The schools chosen for the study were Laredo Community College, Northeast Texas Community College, Southwest Texas Junior College, Trinity Valley Community College, Tarrant County College-Southeast Campus and Victoria College. Schools were selected based on several factors including the difference between actual and expected transfer rates of low-income students, the overall socioeconomic status of its student population and the student diversity. 

The schools had actual transfer rates that ranged between 18 to 25 percent, higher than the predicted rates of 11 to 18 percent. Their actual rates are higher than the state average of 20 percent. This is comparable to the national average of 25 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Researchers traveled to the schools on two-day visits and interviewed administrators, faculty and staff, as well as current and former students who transferred to four-year colleges.

The results of the study revealed students need a certain support system if they are to successfully transfer to four-year institutions. The first factor is having a structured academic pathway. This means the community college must actively pursue relationships with local high schools and four-year institutions to help students earn college credits in high school and create smooth transitions for students transferring out of two-year institutions.

“There’s accountability we were observing between the four-year and the two-year campuses that we saw,” Taylor Smith said. “The [community college] faculty had real academic credibility with the four-year colleges,” which helped four-year institution officials feel more comfortable and prepared to take transfer students.

“That kind of relationship between two- and four-year colleges is very important,” she said.

The second is having a student-centered culture, which means the college likely offers TRIO Student Support Services. For individual institutions, the federally funded TRIO Student Support Services program includes tutoring, supplemental instruction and other workshops, as well as specialized advising for students.

“It was wonderful to be on campus where the administrative offices reposition themselves … as the service centers,” she said. “The students aren’t searching around asking ‘Who can help me? They can walk in and feel welcome.”

The third factor is having culturally sensitive leadership among administrators. This means the faculty and staff should look like their students and there should be diverse role models for students, the report says. In addition, colleges must reach out to underserved communities to reach parents and students, and create strategic plans to better understand why socioeconomically disadvantaged students have trouble transferring so the difficulties can be addressed. 

Taylor Smith stressed that community colleges have gained considerable public policy attention since President Barack Obama announced in February to Congress he wanted every American to complete high school and at least one year of higher education or career training. By 2020, Obama declared the U.S. should regain the position of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

To reach this goal, institutions must change how they measure success, Taylor Smith said. 

“The measure for success for institutions has been enrollment rates,” she said. “What we’re moving to is actually the outcome, which means improving the retention ability of these campuses” and the transition process to four-year schools.