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Stefani Relles

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Part III: A blog series by Dr. Susan Twombly

The third in a six part series posts today. Susan Twombly is professor and chair of the department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Kansas. Her areas of research include community colleges, women in higher education and faculty. She is past-vice president of AERA Division J Postsecondary Education.

Mission Drift II: Stealing the brightest?

by Susan Twombly

Community colleges have always prided themselves on providing a second chance to those who somehow missed out on education or for doing well by those who need academic help to succeed in the educational system.

Recently, perhaps due to the economy, my colleagues in my department at the University of Kansas learned through a research project that recent graduates from one fairly wealthy nearby high school this year enrolled in higher proportions at the local community college than they have in past years. Many of these students would have typically attended a state university.

One of the ways community colleges can meet the presidents’ degree attainment goal is to recruit brighter students, the honors students, and then encourage them to complete associates degrees before transferring.

Certainly as tuition at state four year colleges and universities increases it makes some sense that students with high ACT/SAT scores and high grade point averages would seek out community colleges as places to begin their college educations. What are the implications, though, if this trend continues or even grows?  Is it really less expensive for the system and for individuals if large numbers of students who normally would have gone to four-year colleges attend community colleges? Will these students actually finish associates degrees and transfer? Will it take them more or less time to complete baccalaureate degrees? Or will many leak through the cracks in the transfer pipeline? There are certainly many individual success stories. The president of Mount Holyoke College tells of how she attended a two-year college before transferring to and graduating from Mount Holyoke.  Researchers William Bowen, Matthew Chingos and Michael McPherson (press.princeton.edu/titles/8971.html) make a convincing case that that students who do earn associates degrees are likely to graduate from four-year institutions – if they actually get to four-year institutions.

So, one question is what will happen to these students who go to community colleges instead of to a four-year college or university? The literature to date is pretty clear that starting in a community college reduces a student’s chances of earning a bachelor’s degree.

The second question I’d ask is what is the long-term effect of community colleges recruiting larger numbers of students with higher ACT/SAT scores and higher high school grade point averages on the community colleges? We’d all like to teach the best students. How will recruitment of these students affect how community colleges deploy resources? How will it affect community college’s relationship with state universities who also are seeking these very same students? One could write an entire blog entry about whether community colleges should be in the business of recruiting students at all, especially if their resources are already stretched thin.

The case mentioned above regarding my own institution clearly has long-term implications. Perhaps it will entice us to develop more seamless two plus two or innovative “transfer” programs like that Western Michigan University (WMU) has with Battle Creek Community College. WMU and Battle Creek Community College recently began a joint-admission program in aviation sciences in which students are jointly admitted. They take courses at both campuses, gradually shifting the proportion of courses taken to WMU as the students progress from freshman to senior year. What a good idea!

The good news is that high ability students themselves are likely to be the winners in the form of increased incentives to attend either community colleges or four-year institutions.

The bad news is that the two-year and four-year college and university sectors have a long way to go to learn how to work together in ways that promote the best, most seamless system for the good of all concerned.

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