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Community college transfer programs on the ropes

There has been a lot of commentary written lately about the effectiveness of community college transfer programs. For all students who start at a community college and then transfer to a four year institution and graduate with a four year degree within six years, the national average is currently 16%. That’s one out of six students. Put another way, five out of six students who transfer from a community college to a university don’t graduate. Michigan’s successful community college transfer rate is only marginally higher than the national average – 17%.

Not surprisingly, fewer community college students are trying to transfer to a four-year institution. There could be multiple reasons for this, but it’s likely that community college enrollment declines have something to do with the declining transfer rate. It’s also possible that more high school graduates recognize that the likelihood of success with the “start here, get there” approach is extremely narrow. Further, the data show that students who start at a four-year school are more likely to graduate with a degree than students who started at a community college and transferred to complete a program of study.

Four year schools – especially the regional universities – are desperate for students, so why shouldn’t they at least try to divert students who would otherwise start at a community college into a four-year institution right out of high school? If direct admission is the route that’s more likely to be successful, why detour through a community college at all?

The “good” news is that community college enrollment increased nationally this year, but the enrollment improvements deserve a closer look. Among community colleges with a strong focus on vocational education, enrollment rose by 16%. Among community college students with a university transfer focus, enrollment rose by just 3%.

Occupational education programs outshine community college transfers

Community college administrators gravitate to community college transfer programs because they’re less expensive to run, and don’t typically require specialized equipment or classroom space. In theory, the community college should need only to provide academic advising for students who are serious about transferring to a university. Unfortunately, most community colleges don’t provide adequate academic advising. That ends up costing the transfer student the two things they don’t really have – time and money.

It would be really nice if community colleges like WCC devoted the appropriate resources to the development of occupational education programs. Instead, the administration diverts funds to non-academic priorities through decisions that are not easy to reverse. For example, the Health and Fitness Center at WCC has consumed literally millions of dollars to date and will continue to be a high maintenance facility for as long as it operates. It will continue to drain resources away from WCC’s academic programs every day its doors remain open.

That not only takes away from the students on campus today, but it also prevents the college from developing programs that train people for high-wage, high-demand fields. Decisions like the one to build the Health and Fitness Center mortgage the future of the entire community.

And for what? What long-term benefit has this community received from the Health and Fitness Center? This is not how public education dollars should be spent, especially when the county has already funded a comparably equipped recreation facility.

Think about the vocational and occupational programs WCC could have had if the Trustees had taken care of business at the college instead of building an unrelated side hustle that costs more than it makes.

What a waste.

Photo Credit: Russell Davies, via Flickr