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Community college transfer programs face challenges both at their home institutions and at the institutions to which students want to transfer. Add STEM to the equation and the challenges grow. Xueli Wang, a professor of higher education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, explores those challenges and the way students meet them in On My Own: The Challenge and Promise of Building Equitable STEM Transfer Pathways (Harvard Education Press). The book follows 1,670 community college students for four years as they transfer to four-year institutions.

Wang responded to questions about the book via email.

Q: The title of your book, On My Own, suggests that the students who succeed do so because of their own attitudes. Is this what you wanted to convey?

A: The meaning of On My Own is actually more nuanced and multifaceted, although it indeed highlights the students as agentic individuals. My book details four different trajectories transfer-aspiring students landed on four years after they enrolled at their two-year institutions: linear upward, detoured, deferred and taking a break. As these trajectories suggest, not all students “succeeded” if we look at transfer as a simplistic yardstick. However, the students across all trajectories were remarkably motivated and resilient. They often held on to their high aspirations, strong sense of agency and perseverance, which are also a complex manifestation of pre-existing tendencies of self-reliance and hesitance in seeking help, especially among many students of color and first-generation students. This is the internal facet to On My Own.

However, there is also an external facet to On My Own. The students did describe positive experiences with individual advisers and instructors, but over all, they received limited intentional, on-point institutional support that translated into a clear path toward a baccalaureate STEM education. Numerous external structural challenges (described below), on the part of transfer-sending and transfer-receiving institutions alike, plagued students’ journeys. Altogether, my book reveals that the students were pushing through external friction points, fueled for the most part by their own motivational momentum, a testament of the incredible talent pool these students represent. But to fully realize the STEM transfer promise, the external On My Own must be disrupted, so that the internal On My Own can become an asset if needed, instead of these students’ sole lifeline.

Q: What are the main problems facing STEM students at a community college who want to transfer?

A: Community college students often navigate a number of structural issues when seeking transfer. First, the students I studied encountered a lack of clear articulation in courses that applied to specific STEM majors. The vague alignment between course and major requirements made it difficult for the students to match up the right courses with program requirements. This usually left them with excess credits that did not count toward their intended STEM major. Second, there were no clear course pathways that fit students’ scheduling needs in light of life and other school obligations. This is a prominent concern for STEM transfer, as STEM subject matter courses tend to be offered in a granularly sequenced, time-constrained manner. This works against community college students’ need for greater flexibility in course options and availability, leading to a prolonged or even derailed transfer path.

Third and perhaps most concerning, financial support for transfer students was sorely absent, compounded by a lack of articulation agreements between public institutions. This left transfer-intending students with no affordable choices but a few options with expensive private four-year institutions -- options that were simply out of question because of their high price tag. All of these structural issues fed into one another to present enormous challenges for the students, many from low-income backgrounds who needed to work and ultimately were forced to make the difficult choice between transfer and work. These were just a few of main problems the students faced. I lay these and others out in greater detail in my book.

Q: Based on the students you studied, do they receive good academic advising?

A: The short answer is yes and no. Yes in the sense that some students did encounter supportive advisers here and there, but in a highly incidental, individual and unsystematic way. No because largely, the students still felt they were on their own, and the information and resources at their disposal varied widely. Largely owing to an untenable advising load, there were limited time and space, with only small pockets of students able to access and use advising services. These issues were further compounded by pre-existing and lasting disparities in the students’ backgrounds and needs, which inequitably shaped their advising experiences. This, however, is not to place fault on individual advisers, who are often overworked, trying to meet the needs of a diverse student population faced with myriad options. My book highlights a set of systemic issues that pose real challenges that constrain advisers from fulfilling their role in sustainable ways. This hearkens back to larger issues of limited state and federal support for community colleges, resulting in an underfunded, underresourced advising system that must be remedied.

Q: What should programs do to make it easier for community college students to transfer into them?

A: I want to preface my answer by calling program leaders and faculty at transfer-receiving institutions to be an equal, active and proactive partner in supporting transfer students. The students in my book were deeply impacted by both ends of the process of wading through articulation and transfer. Transfer is not a community college concern alone. It takes the entire postsecondary sector to pave the transfer process. First, both transfer-receiving and -sending institutions must actively and collaboratively flesh out institution- and program-specific articulation agreements. They are best positioned to account for changes in requirements and other regulations.

Second, program faculty at both of these institutions are equally responsible for equally important areas and stages of learning. They must engage in co-creating learning objectives, streamlining courses across institutions and aligning course requirements, especially as they share the common desire to be responsive to their students’ success. For baccalaureate programs that attract a lot of transfer students, faculty and advising roles and responsibilities should explicitly include transfer efforts.

Third, programs should revisit academic scheduling to address narrow access to transferable STEM courses and programs. Optimize scheduling based on when students can actually take them instead of what was always done in the past. One option is block scheduling, which would allow students to attend several classes during a concentrated time window. This can make more efficient use of their time and reduce transportation barriers and conflicts with external commitments. Last but not least, STEM programs might reconsider their current structures and sequences. For example, does math have to be the first “gatekeeper”? My research suggests that STEM transfer-aspiring students would benefit from the opportunity to first explore the STEM subject matter of their interest, followed by math offerings. Allowing space for this kind of intentional flexibility would broaden access to transferable courses and embrace the multifaceted lives and interests of the students.

Q: What does a good transfer opportunity look like?

A: A good transfer opportunity first consists of making transfer an integral part of the financial aid system without full-time enrollment strings. That way, students from diverse backgrounds are intentionally served and can choose both school as well as work and family. Second, clear and collaborative institution and major-specific articulation agreements can ensure seamless transfer of credits that count toward both major and degree completion. Third, access to transferable STEM courses with flexible program sequencing to account for the many life contexts and realities of community college students would be in place. Fourth, students would have equitable and easy access to well-informed guidance about all of the above.

Structurally, a good transfer opportunity is made possible when transfer support spaces are broadly and collaboratively conceived and constructed, spanning both the transfer-sending and -receiving ends, and blurring the “boundaries” between advisers and faculty. Operating from this collaborative approach, transfer support includes early, regular contact and setting clear paths from the onset. It also entails carefully built genuine relationships with faculty/advisers equipped with relevant knowledge and skills to empower students to succeed. Of course, there are additional societal and external structural issues that require disrupting to further realize equitable STEM transfer opportunities, which I discuss in length in my book.

Q: You wrote your book before the crisis of COVID-19, but are there lessons from your book for institutions trying to serve community college students or transfers?

A: Much as I was excited about the upcoming release of my book, in the wake of COVID-19, any personal accomplishment I feel as an education researcher seems so trivial. The unprecedented crisis of COVID-19 poses extraordinary issues of concern, and I did find some lessons within the book that have magnified the implications for institutions serving students during this turbulent time. In general, I encourage institutions to consider the following two questions as a guide to their quickly evolving efforts.

First, how do the efforts we are developing affect our most vulnerable students? Protect the most vulnerable students, including low-income, students of color, students with mental health issues, students with varying learning abilities, immigrant and undocumented students, and international students, among others. During any other occasion, these students’ On My Own tendencies are to be admired, but they remain problematic as discussed in my book. In times like these, vulnerable student populations undoubtedly experience exacerbated challenges, and On My Own is simply not an option.

Second, who are our partners in these efforts? The very unique nature and strengths of community colleges lie in their close ties to the community. Many have extensive connections with and contributions to industry, community organizations, outreach and resources, as well as relationships with other education sectors. This is where colleges must appeal to communities, industries and other institutions to identify crucial partnerships toward fulfilling important education, health, economic and broader societal needs.

Starting from these two principles, below I offer a few more specific directions based on my book, highlighting some useful resources and examples that have rapidly emerged. But let me first start by stating that community colleges are remarkably agile social institutions, historically known for their adaptability and responsiveness to emerging social challenges. I know firsthandedly, leaders at the research sites covered in my book have been working around the clock, showing up to this massive challenge. What is being done at community colleges should be highly publicized and lauded, as these institutions, albeit imperfect, are among the most socially responsive and innovative ones.

To begin, the COVID-19 crisis has propelled many two-year colleges to move their instruction online, and this shift came with major consequences. Immediately urgent is that many students have very limited financial means, often without access to high-speed internet or a computer at home. Institutions need to ensure that such resources are accessible to students who have no other option. The library at Owens Community College in Ohio remains open for this reason.

Another solution would be providing or loaning laptops to students. Foothill College in California has an emergency relief fund for students to request up to $1,000 for a laptop and Wi-Fi hotspot. Columbia Gorge Community College in Oregon has computers available for checkout. Plus, collaboration with business entities to offer low-cost or no-cost computers and internet services represents a viable option, especially for two-year institutions with strong ties to particular industries. The North Carolina Department of Information Technology provides a list of internet and mobile providers offering free or affordable services across the state.

Online instruction also places a heavy constraint for STEM courses that require labs, workshops and other hands-on learning experiences not immediately suited to a virtual environment. These activities may need to be modified with increased cleaning and distancing students in rooms. But as the pandemic quickly evolves, this may change and caution must be exercised. Institutions will have to view this as a learning process as they adjust for each course and its individual context, and possibly consider simulations and other modified activities.

Beyond learning, we must not forget that students are humans first and foremost, and many are balancing multiple obligations, trying to make ends meet even during “regular” times. In the current crisis, these challenges are further aggravated as hundreds of thousands have lost jobs, and this number continues to grow with each passing day. The Hope Center at Temple University compiled a guide that provides valuable recommendations and resources with regard to access to health care and food, emergency aid due to unforeseen expenses and/or loss of wages, housing arrangements, along with financial and instructional considerations. These challenges can be amplified for students with mental health issues and/or learning disabilities, as I found in my book. This makes the suggested supports and services even more crucial during a time of social distancing. As an example, Leeward Community College in Hawaii continues to offer counseling services via phone and Zoom. Without these services, students’ well-being can be put at risk.

Let’s also remind ourselves that the community college often becomes one of the most stable and consistent facets of students’ lives. During this time of crisis, it is crucial that institutions stand by all their students but especially those from minoritized backgrounds. This is especially poignant with the blatant bias, racism and xenophobia related to COVID-19. Institutions need to send a strong and clear message, like Columbia Gorge Community College in Oregon, that such behavior is not acceptable and where to report incidents of bias and harassment.

As for transfer, the process may be further disrupted during this crisis, leaving students in need of support, flexibility and extended timelines. How institutions, especially those on the transfer-receiving end, respond to and account for transfers is paramount. Are they looking at these students as limited defined enrollment numbers, or are they seeing the whole student and the incredible talent they can help cultivate through a baccalaureate STEM pathway?

The COVID-19 crisis points to the urgency in developing STEM professionals to address the societal, community and health needs. The consequences of this pandemic will arguably impact education, technology, the economy and society profoundly in the years to come. Community colleges and their students are primed to rise to the occasion and come up with creative and innovative solutions. Community colleges and their students know, represent and respond to the community the best, as illustrated by the many STEM transfer-intending students in my book who were entrenched in and geared up to serve their local communities with the education they need. There has never been a greater or more critical need to enroll and support STEM transfer students. Now is the time.

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