In 2005, Marcus Baker’s freshman year at a Christian university in North Carolina was short-lived. A series of what he calls “discipline problems” got him suspended and sent back home to Portsmouth, Va. Six years went by, but, at the urging of a good friend who convinced him to give college another try, Baker said yes.
Today, Baker, 25, is president of the Student Government Association at Tidewater Community College’s (TCC) Portsmouth campus; he’s striving and eager to channel his “passion for working in the community” into a job as a social worker. An excited Baker is about a year away from tackling a bachelor’s degree program in social work at the historically Black Norfolk State University in Virginia, but he is already getting a jump start on his university experience.
Baker, the father of two young children, is a regular visitor at Norfolk State, where he has begun to plot his academic track with faculty and advisers there and from TCC. And when he wants to attend cultural and sporting events at the university, Baker can flash the Norfolk State student activity card that he has been issued, although he hasn’t officially been admitted to the university.
This kind of early access and academic support are among the benefits Baker and about 325 other community college students are receiving through the HBCU-Community College Initiative, spearheaded by the African-American women’s service organization, The Links, Inc. This three-year, $500,000 program is aimed at channeling community college students to HBCUs while removing many of the barriers that often keep those at two-year institutions from graduating and transferring.
Like Baker, Elysse Greenwood, a 29-year-old nursing major, is one of 26 TCC students selected to be a “Links Scholar.” As she prepares to pursue her bachelor’s degree in nursing at Norfolk State University and inch closer to her dream of becoming a psych nurse, the doubts Greenwood once had about being “college material” and smart enough to succeed at a four-year institution are far behind her. But when she leaves TCC, The Links safety net and supports Greenwood has been given won’t go away.
“We’re not there yet, but I feel that we are already Spartans,” says Greenwood, referencing the Norfolk State mascot. Greenwood will be the first of the TCC-Links cohorts to transfer to Norfolk State in December, but when she gets there, she plans to build on the relationships she’s already forged through Links networking opportunities and step confidently into the courses that have been planned for her.
While Greenwood and Baker were already participating in TCC’s “Open Door Project,” a federally funded college success program, The Links transfer initiative represents added and personal resources for students for whom an HBCU education may be out of reach because of tuition costs and academic requirements, says Kay Williams, who directs TCC’s Open Door Project and The Links Scholars. Already, the university has waived the admissions application fee for students like Greenwood, who is on track to finish this semester, Williams adds.
“It’s good to know that I won’t be out there on my own when I transfer,” says Greenwood, a single mother who will also receive support with child care and things like books. Since The Links partnership began about a year ago between TCC and Norfolk State, Danielle Williams (no relation to Kay Williams), Norfolk State’s interim transfer director, has been helping the scholars “get a jump start on college while helping them stay motivated enough to graduate from community college.”
For Danielle Williams, that has included hosting information sessions in the university’s three-month-old Transfer Center along with individual meetings for TCC’s Links Scholars with university academic advisers, career counselors and financial aid officers, opportunities she hopes will ease their transition to the HBCU. And knowing that the partnership includes scholarship dollars at Norfolk State that are reserved for transfer students will help remove one of the biggest challenges transfer students face if they want to attend a four-year institution where tuition is higher, adds Danielle Williams.
“We want to give them enough to cover expenses and to be successful when they come here,” says Danielle Williams, while planning activities for the first annual Transfer Month in April and for a campus Transfer Expo in May. Norfolk State University President Tony Atwater, who is a product of both a community college and an HBCU — Virginia Western Community College and Hampton University — will be among her speakers.
“Our president represents the ultimate community college transfer student,” adds Danielle Williams. “Having them hear from Dr. Atwater helps remove the limits in their minds about what is possible to achieve as a community college student.”
These pairs of HBCUs and community colleges in five states have been selected for The Links initiative — Bluegrass Community and Technical College and Kentucky State University (Ky.); Hinds Community College-Utica campus and Tougaloo College and Jackson State University (Miss.); Fayetteville Technical Community College and Fayetteville State University (N.C.); Austin Community College and Huston-Tillotson University (Texas); Tidewater Community College and Norfolk State University (Va.); and J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College and Virginia Union University (Va.).
Although the notion of four-year institutions partnering with a two-year college isn’t new, data on the number of community college students who transfer to HBCUs aren’t tracked, according to the Association of American Community Colleges and the Center for the Study of Community Colleges. Those behind the new Links transfer partnership admit that most HBCUs have not been compelled to court community college students or make good on articulation agreements with two-year institutions in their state.
Ensuring a smooth transition for transfer students from community college graduates into four-year colleges is one of the things such agreements are helping to achieve. Typically, though, transfer agreements either guarantee that the associate degree will satisfy all freshman and sophomore general education requirements at the four-year university or specify a list of courses that will be treated as equivalent.
Earlier in her career as a university president, Dr. Dorothy Cowser Yancy says she was one of the “guilty ones.” She would “collect those same pieces of paper known as memorandums of agreement or articulation agreements,” but that was usually as far as the process of community college transfer went, recalls Yancy, who retired and returned to lead the historically Black Shaw University in North Carolina. In the past, Yancy says, agreements and alliances between HBCUs and community colleges may have existed, but they lacked ownership and the oversight needed to make them viable.
Today, Yancy, a member of The Links, Inc., is helping shape what she hopes will become a national model for community college transfer and degree completion.
“This project is a demonstration of how community-based organizations, education advocates and funding partners can be effective and successful in providing the key support required for the skills development that will enhance the lives of individuals and the development of the community,” says Yancy, who also chairs The Links National HBCU Initiative Committee. “We think that we are really on to something,” she adds.
With funding from the Lumina Foundation for Education and USA Funds, The Links turned to the United Negro College Fund, the UNCF Special Programs Corporation and to the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education to help develop a transfer program that builds strong ties between community colleges and HBCUs and focuses on college completion at the partner institutions.
Thinking nationally about the plight of Black college students, it was time for the 12,000-member organization to do more than award scholarships, says Dr. Jacquelyn Madry-Taylor, co-chair of The Links National HBCU Initiative Committee and co-director of the HBCU-Community College Initiative.
“Since community colleges and HBCUs tend to have the same student profile, we thought that they could work together and address the transfer issues and the graduation rates,” she says. But Madry-Taylor says partnerships between the HBCUs and the community colleges have historically been weak.
Loretta Edelen, director of Community Outreach at Austin Community College’s East Campus and coordinator of its Links Scholars, agrees. Most years, few of Edelen’s students transfer to the historically Black Huston-Tillotson University, largely because they don’t know that it’s there, she says. As most Austin students flock to two of the state’s large public universities — Texas State and the University of Texas — “HT has been a well-kept secret about what they have to offer them,” says Edelen. “It may be how they are marketed or not, as well as the cost factor. HT’s tuition is more expensive.”
With The Links HBCU-Community College program, says Madry-Taylor, “We are trying to bridge that gap.” For too long, HBCUs have missed “golden opportunities to reach out to community colleges,” institutions that today “could help keep their doors open.” But Madry-Taylor adds, “It’s getting better. I think that HBCUs now see that there’s a wealth of talent in the community colleges that they can pull from.”