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Community College is Just the Beginning

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As an active participant in the national dialogue on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) higher education, I often attend meetings alongside college and university STEM faculty, all of whom have a vested interest in diversifying the STEM pipeline at their respective institutions and across the country.

Although often enlightened on diversity theory and practice, including innovative learning environments, when faculty think about what it will take to widen the STEM pipeline, many leave community college students out of the equation. 

There exists a false belief that future research scientists are trained solely within the walls of the nation’s four-year research institutions; yet this is not necessarily the path most traveled, particularly when considering underrepresented students seeking STEM degrees. 

The population of underrepresented minority, first-generation to college, and low-income students entering higher education at the two-year college level is substantial. According to the American Association for Community Colleges (AACC), a full half of the nation’s community college students have transfer aspirations and one-third of the two-year college population are from underrepresented minority backgrounds. 

Another AACC report outlines some of the reasons why students are choosing community colleges at increasingly higher rates. Motives include community college outreach and marketing, new construction and thus increased capacity to receive students, enrollment caps at four-year schools, and the comparably low cost of community college versus four-year institutions. 

Underrepresented groups may be even more inclined for economic reasons but also for the accessibility of community colleges. Open-access enrollment means students can start their coursework at any time. And the majority of common first-year coursework is offered in the evenings, which appeals to students who must work to finance their education or face competing priorities such as family commitments. 

It is widely held that national postsecondary completion goals will not be met without the success of community colleges and the entrance of underrepresented populations. The fact that so many underrepresented students enter higher education at the two-year level is a fortunate concurrence. By strengthening community college education, we can also strengthen the educational success of underrepresented groups. 

Taken one step further, strengthening two-year STEM education will further contribute to minority student success in these fields and the subsequent widening of the STEM pipeline. If higher education can successfully transfer more underrepresented students in STEM fields, we will no doubt see the number of STEM bachelor’s degrees increase. 

With this reality in mind, America’s four-year institutions must not only be prepared to receive greater numbers of transfer students, their STEM faculty must recognize the viability of these students to contribute to STEM disciplines with the expectation that many will also continue past the baccalaureate. 

Given their civic mission, public four-year institutions must work with their two-year counterparts on the issue of articulation for STEM coursework. Having an articulation “policy” is not nearly acceptable. Both parties need to be in agreement on the nature of first-year STEM coursework so that students who start at community college are assured they will receive proper course credit once accepted to a four-year school. University faculty concerned about the “quality” of two-year freshman STEM coursework could benefit the field by helping to supply the nation’s community college professoriate and offering professional development support.

A good model to start with is that of Oregon State University, whose master’s program in mathematics provides the West Coast with a substantial number of math community college faculty. University faculty should further reach out to promising community college students in the same way they reach out to high school juniors and seniors. A student’s choice to start their education at a community college should not mean exclusion from entering and succeeding in STEM fields.

Our expectations of aspiring transfers should be the same as those who start at four-year schools: Baccalaureate completion with the option of continuing their studies if they so choose. 

Dr. Lorelle L. Espinosa is director of policy and strategic initiatives at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based independent, nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world.

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