SEATTLE – Since its inception  three years ago, the National College Advising Corps  has dispatched recent college graduates from about a dozen states to help low-income and other disadvantaged students in their communities enroll in four-year institutions. In most participating states, however, advisers primarily reach out to high school students applying to college. At this week’s meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges, an Alabama professor explained how his state is focusing on community colleges in rural, high-poverty areas of the state.
Stephen G. Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, noted that even though all community colleges are experiencing enrollment growth, community colleges in rural areas are growing the fastest. For example, 46 percent of the 2.2 million enrollment growth in the nation’s community colleges between 2000-1 and 2005-6 occurred at rural community colleges. And Katsinas said these colleges are, above all, “transfer institutions” that award large numbers of degrees to students seeking four-year degrees. That's true, he said, even though “transfer in the rural context often means physical relocation” or leaving a hometown to attend a baccalaureate institution.
Alabama faces the steep challenge of trying to “simultaneously dramatically expand access and success,” Katsinas said, noting that the state is 44th out of 50 in baccalaureate degree attainment. Such change can only be made, he continued, if the state can boost its traditionally low transfer rate between two- and four-year institutions. In 2004-5, for example, less than 4 percent of the more than 120,000 students at Alabama’s 21 community colleges were new enrollees at the state’s 14 public four-year institutions by the next fall.
The Alabama College Advising Corps, making use of recent graduates from the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, was one of the original 11 state programs funded by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation grant that created the national umbrella organization. The state efforts were encouraged to work on the ground at K-12 institutions, community colleges or both. The Alabama group was the only one to focus solely on community colleges . The remaining institution partners worked solely in K-12 institutions, with the exception of those from the University of Missouri at Columbia, which agreed to work in both sectors.
Katsinas said that “transfer is a place-based activity,” adding that only when advisers and other advocates can meet disadvantaged students where they are will the state’s abysmal college transfer rates improve. Matching community college students to an ideal four-year institution in a state that has 32 is often problematic, he noted.
For instance, the state’s two premier research institutions, the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and Auburn University, take 43 percent of the state’s transfer students. This, Katsinas said, calls for diversification. He would like to see that percentage go down while the number of successful transfer students goes up.
This is where Alabama’s advisers come in.
“Each adviser takes three or four institutions to become the expert on,” Katsinas explained. “So, if you were majoring in audiology and you were down at [Lurleen B. Wallace Community College] in far south Alabama, and let’s assume, for sake of argument, that the best program was at the University of North Alabama – not Alabama or Auburn. Then that’s where we want to encourage them to go. They would talk to the transfer adviser at the community college in that part of the state who knew the context inside and all of a sudden information comes through.”
The advisers helping students in Alabama, like in most states, are recent graduates, and move to the rural areas they serve. They receive a stipend and health insurance for their work; if they stay through a whole year of service, they earn $5,000 to put toward graduate education or student loans.
Katsinas praised these advisers for the connections they make with underserved students.
“A young student would probably listen to someone who looked more like them than someone with a bunch of gray hair and a balding spot on top like me,” Katsinas quipped. “I think there’s some truth to that. … This is worth remembering, though: Whatever systems we put in place, getting transfer and degree completion is like missionary work, and you save them one at a time.”
Though acknowledging that Alabama’s advisers were serving in some of the highest-poverty areas of the country – 16 percent of the state’s residents are below the poverty line, compared to a 12 percent national average – Katsinas commended the high regard in which many rural residents hold their local community college.
“I love this about rural community colleges,” said Katsinas, citing an anecdote he often hears from advisers. “If I go to the diner of your town and they talk about ‘the college,’ they mean their college. I think that’s a wonderful thing.”
Julie Irvin, a 2009 graduate in elementary education from the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, is the transfer adviser at Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, a rural town in the northern part of the state where nearly 22 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Most of the students who pass through her office, she said, cannot even conceive of attending a four-year institution.
"None of them want to transfer," said Irvin in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. "None of them want to go too far from home. Their ambitions just aren't that high. I think it's just small-town life. They just don't think about college or advanced careers. For instance, you don't see too many pre-med majors around here. They see what their parents do and that's about it."
Despite their low expectations, Irvin encourages these community college students to pursue the subjects in which they excel at a higher level. She said she encounters many students who face financial difficulties and are deterred from transferring because of a lack of awareness of financial aid and scholarship opportunities. Though she's held her position less than a year, Irvin already has a few success stories.
"I've had a few students get big scholarship offers that have allowed them to go on to a university," Irvin explained. "I had one girl who really wanted to transfer out, but she just didn't have the money to do so. Money was a big deal for her. So, we worked and eventually she got accepted at Alabama A&M [University] and was given a full ride with everything covered."
Irvin said she plans to stay on for another year; she is using the funds from her work to pay down student loans while she pursues a graduate degree in education from the University of West Alabama.
After its first full year of operation, following one of planning, the Alabama College Transfer Advising Corps has achieved at least some of its aims. The goal for the year was to have advisers personally interact with 8,000 students; this goal was exceeded by more than 1,700 students. Advisers met with more than 2,000 students in one-on-one counseling sessions, more than 1,200 at sessions on filling out transfer applications and the remainder at a mixture of larger workshops about individual institutions and the transfer process. Katsinas and other officials from the corps were unable to provide figures on how many students actually transferred the fall after the project's first year, 2008-9.
Katsinas has hopes that the program – and perhaps others like it – could have a real impact on rural parts of the country.
“We need to educate funders to see rural community colleges as leverage points to dramatically improve degree completion,” Katsinas said. “Our work demonstrates clear differences across community college types.”