When Community Colleges and Universities Collaborate, Everyone Wins


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Earning an engineering degree is hard work, however smart, talented and motivated a student may be. Among all engineering students, only 41 percent graduate. The numbers are lower for women and minority students. Yet improving these numbers is neither insurmountable nor magical. It takes clear planning and a methodical approach, particularly when students start their education in community college and must transfer to a four-year institution.

And it often depends on schools creating smart partnerships that provide practical guidance and ongoing support for young students who eye the prize, but can be distracted or derailed by mismatches between the work they did in high school, the credits they accrued in community college, and the subsequent expectations and requirements for the four-year degree.

Recognizing these challenges, it is worth reflecting on a simple, but powerful collaboration that has yielded winning outcomes. It gives credence to the benefit of partnership building and the goals that underlie it: In short, the more community colleges and their four-year counterparts collaborate to prepare, guide and support students, the more successful these transfers (and these students) can be.

The Motivated Engineering Transfer Students program (METS) might be something of a misnomer, since not everyone who has prospered in it started as a motivated engineering student. But that is part of the point: Arizona State University engineering professors like Dr. Mary Anderson-Rowland (who established the METS program) visited community college math and science classrooms that included students who were unsure about their major and career but wanted guidance.

Their advice included staying at the community college as long as they could take courses toward an engineering degree. Then student visits to ASU provided practical information about financial aid, scholarships and deadlines, conversations with mentors and successful previous transfer students, in addition to contact with other engineering professionals. Sometimes it took several visits before the community college students felt comfortable in transferring.

These transfer students were typically first generation, with less knowledge of how things work in college and with only a short time before graduation to properly prepare. Programs like the METS program helped them get up to speed quickly and efficiently.

And the results? With backing from the National Science Foundation for scholarships and a METS Center to provide continuing support, daily contact with other transfer students, and study and networking space, a group of nearly 100 students achieved a graduation rate exceeding 95 percent. In addition, nearly 50 percent continued directly onto graduate school, compared to a national average of about 20 percent. This group included 61 percent that were female and/or underrepresented minorities.

In addition to such impressive outcomes for students, the community colleges extended their engineering programs and recruiting efforts while the university gained more community college transfer students. It was a “win-win” collaboration.

Of course, this is only one example, but it is meant to underscore how important it is for community college/university partnerships to create a manageable framework for students as they navigate their often circuitous paths.  Consider another alliance, involving Northern Arizona University and nearly two dozen community colleges. Students can gain early admission into NAU while attending community college. In some cases, they may actually live on NAU’s campus, benefitting from that four-year university experience, while heading off-campus to take classes.

This joint admission program enables students to take more affordable community college courses, bone up on their academic weak spots to be more ready for university, get academic guidance from the beginning toward a bachelor’s degree, enjoy the knowledge that they have already been accepted, and reduce the chances that they will either duplicate credits or expand the time necessary to finish their degree because of a bumpy transfer.

Over the years, in building STEM Pathways with Science Foundation Arizona, our principal challenge has been to get students interested in engineering and related careers and put them on a path toward the degrees and the credentials they need. This begins in K-12, of course, but our community colleges are frequently the critical environments from which STEM potential can be transformed from a vague idea (or, perhaps, a general passion) into a concrete, achievable career.

We have seen this transformation happen, again and again. It is always inspiring—and the reason for doing this work. But the odds of reaching that career goal, always at risk of detour, are always highest when our community colleges and our universities work closely together.

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Caroline VanIngen-Dunn is the Director of Community College STEM Pathways for Science Foundation Arizona.  The National Science Foundation has funded SFAz to work with community colleges (Grant #1450661), particularly those that are designated Hispanic Serving Institutions and those in rural communities. The opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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