Overlooked Again -- Community Colleges and Science

NSF panel members are stunned to find impact of community colleges in producing math and science graduates.
June 2, 2006

If the government and the academy are serious about increasing the participation of underrepresented groups in science and engineering, they should do more looking to -- and less overlooking of -- community colleges, experts say.

Several members of the Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering, a Congressionally created group that advises the National Science Foundation, openly expressed surprise Thursday after presentations that shook their notions of community colleges.

Multiple members said that they had no idea that so many science and math bachelor’s and master’s degrees go to students who have taken at least one class at a community college.

According to NSF’s 2001 Survey of Recent College Graduates, 46 percent of bachelor’s and master’s degree recipients in 1999 and 2000 in “life and related sciences” had attended community colleges. Students who had taken a class or classes at a community college also accounted for 42 percent of computer and math sciences degrees at or above the bachelor's level, and 40 percent of engineering degrees.

And yet, community college administrators are often faced with incredulous colleagues when they talk about their successes and the need for articulation agreements. Charlene R. Nunley, the only community college official on the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education and president of Montgomery College, in Maryland, recalled a conversation with another commission member.

Nunley was telling Charles Vest, president emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that “you all should be more open minded” about taking community college transfers. “Vest said, ‘well, they won’t graduate if they haven’t completed our lower division courses.'”

“That’s funny,” Nunley said she replied, “because I know of 11 graduates we sent to your institution.” Nunley added that “they just don’t know this story,” referring to the way top caliber students can and do come out of community colleges.

J.K. Haynes, dean of sciences and mathematics at Morehouse College and a member of the NSF advisory committee, said that he “used to be one of those skeptics that didn’t believe good students go to community college,” he said. He said that he started changing his mind years ago, and that, after Thursday’s discussion, “my transformation is complete.”

Not only can students with community colleges in their background compete, they can excel, according to presenters at the committee meeting.

Alfredo G. de los Santos Jr., a research professor at Arizona State University tracked students who entered ASU in fall 2001 with community college credit.

First-time freshmen at Arizona State in 2001 finished the year with an average grade point average of 2.74. Students who came to Arizona State from the Maricopa County Community College District with less than two full years of credit averaged a 2.57 in their first year. Upper-division transfers from the district averaged a 3.0 after a year at Arizona State.

De los Santos also looked at graduation rates. Of freshmen who came straight to Arizona State in 1996, 51.8 percent graduated by fall 2002, and they did it with a grade-point average of 3.20. Fifty-seven percent of students who were lower-division transfers from Maricopa in 1997 graduated by 2002, with an average GPA of 3.13. Among upper-division transfers from Maricopa who came in 1998, 70.8 percent graduated by 2002, and their average GPA was 3.28.

Nunley acknowledged that “many [students who start at community colleges] don’t have 1400 SATs. But they’re mentored, they have internship opportunities” and they can emerge as well or better prepared for a four-year institution than their peers.

The bigger hurdle than their academic background, Nunley said, is their financial background.

She said that Montgomery’s tuition is $3,500 a year, and that the college “turned away students last year because we didn’t have the aid.... You can probably count on the fact that they probably aren’t going to college at all.”

Government and business leaders have been all ablaze in recent months – stoked by the National Academies of Science “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report, and Tom Friedman’s The World Is Flat – over what they cast as America’s impending economic showdown with India and China.

President Bush and powerful legislators have said that America must produce more science and engineering talent, and that one way to aid that effort is to bring more minority students and women into the science pipeline.

Nunley, Henry Shannon, chancellor of St. Louis Community College, and others at the meeting said that community colleges are already at work on infusing the pipeline with women and minority students, and yet many community colleges are watching the financial rug pulled out from under them.

Nunley closed her presentation with a photo of seven former Montgomery College students -- three women and four black men -- who are now at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She said that one of the students is at the Georgia Tech average with a 2.7 GPA. “The others are above,” Nunley said. “One has a 4.0.”


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