In Texas, A Collaborative Approach to the Two-Year to Four-Year Transition
The road from a community college to a four-year college or university can be a fraught one, filled with bureaucratic red tape and logistical difficulties. The North Texas Community College Consortium (NTCCC)—founded in 1989 and now comprising twenty-one community colleges collectively attended by some 200,000 students—has created a common guided pathways template, in concert with a senior affiliate, the University of North Texas, for students seeking to transition from community colleges to four-year institutions. Part of the GEMs Pathways project, the NTCCC’s work is an attempt to address some issues commonly faced by students as they move from one institution to another. GEMs Pathways is an AAC&U project that focuses on creating coherent and meaningful educational pathways from two-year to four-year institutions and grew out of AAC&U’s earlier GEMs (General Education Maps and Markers) project, which developed a set of principles to guide the next generation of curricular reforms in general education.
Roadblocks on the Path to a Bachelor’s Degree
The NTCCC project got its start in 2015 at AAC&U’s Institute on Integrative Learning and the Departments, attended by administrators from the NTCCC and several of its member institutions, as well as University of North Texas administrators. At the institute, the goal of the Texas team was to “identify specifically the ways that we could align and smooth transfer pathways for a particular group of students, in this case students completing Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degrees at community colleges,” says Christine Hubbard, president of the North Texas Community College Consortium. This degree had long been considered a “terminal” degree, equipping students who attain it with the skills and knowledge to enter the workforce. Many students have found, however, that moving to a higher career level requires a bachelor’s degree, leaving them with the options of either stagnating professionally or starting over in a four-year college or university program.
Despite having compelling reasons to complete the bachelor’s degree, many students struggle to make the transition to four-year institutions. Even though Bachelor’s of Applied Arts and Sciences (BAAS) degrees, a potential next step for AAS recipients, have existed for many years in Texas universities, “there was a low level of awareness of availability of these programs among students and faculty at both community colleges and four-year institutions,” says Hubbard.
Even for students who knew about the existence of BAAS programs, institutional obstacles made earning a bachelor’s degree logistically difficult. Texas doesn’t have “a statewide community college system,” says Joe Butler, associate vice president of academic outreach at Collin College. “We have some forty community college systems around the state. Not having that overarching statewide system creates a lot of different institutions that do a lot of things that are very similar but different. Universities are left to try to figure out, ‘Okay, how do we fit in this AAS degree from Collin College and this one from North Central Texas Community College, which, though similar, are not the same?’” Without a clear-cut and universal template for how to support community college graduates as they pursue bachelor’s degrees, four-year institutions handled the logistical challenges facing students with AAS degrees in varied ways, leading to confusion and difficulties.
One significant impediment for AAS students was that many of their credits didn’t transfer to bachelor’s programs. “When they were trying to go to four-year institutions, they were often told that in order to pursue a BA or BS, they’d have to start over,” says Hubbard. “None of those technical credits could be applied to degrees.” In some cases, this was an issue of taxonomy; Celia Williamson, vice provost for transfer affiliation at the University of North Texas, points to the example of American Sign Language, for example. An introductory course in American Sign Language is considered an academic course, but a class in interpretation of American Sign Language, because it arose in response to a workforce need, is considered a technical course, and therefore is not eligible for credit toward a bachelor’s degree. “It’s harder to interpret a language than to speak a language,” says Williamson. “It’s not about rigor or deep thinking or ability to bridge conceptual divides—it’s about where the course happens to fall. What we’re suggesting is that we need some mechanisms to build the bridges, to say, ‘These are legitimate courses to be accepted into a degree plan.’” The vast majority of AAS students complete a signature project as a degree requirement. AAC&U, as part of its new LEAP Challenge initiative, has recommended that all students have the opportunity to do these kinds of integrative signature projects. But this particular instance of signature work poses a problem for transferring students in Texas, as many of these capstone projects are in technical fields and the credits may not transfer to a four-year college or university.
Another hurdle for those with AAS degrees is that they have often fulfilled the specific requirements of a major or area of focus, but not the broader general education requirements of a four-year degree. Their college trajectories, then, may invert the traditional four-year approach, in which students take general education courses at the beginning of their studies and then choose an area of focus after the first year or two. Recognizing this hurdle, AAC&U has recommended as one of the GEMs principles a movement away from this design and toward a more “vertical” design for general education courses intertwined with major courses. Without such a design, however, many students with AAS degrees find themselves needing to take a substantial number of general education courses, but often lacking the time or financial resources to do so. Community colleges often serve first-generation college students, many of whom come from low-income families and are eager to join the workforce. These students “may not choose to attend school full-time because of the cost,” says Hubbard, leading to a delay in earning a four-year degree.
Easing the Transition from Community College to a Four-Year Institution
In response to the challenges facing AAS degree-holders, the NTCCC created a common guided pathway template to be used by all community colleges in the consortium. Butler describes the template as “the defining of a very specific pathway for students to follow for their completion of an associate’s degree and bachelor’s.” The template, to be used by students and advisors at the beginning of their undergraduate careers, tracks two years at a community college and two years at a four-year college or university; it is divided into semesters, with slots that the student and advisor can fill out to indicate which courses will be taken when, and what requirements those courses will fulfill. Butler says that the template will “hopefully help to show the students what their entire path through college will be like, set them on that path, and … get them to the finish line with the minimal number of credits taken.”
Hubbard says that now that the NTCCC team has met its first goal—the collaborative creation of a common guided pathways template—it has set itself up to be sustainable moving forward: the group has created a schedule of triannual meetings to review and update the template and other work.
Many involved with the project consider its improbability one of its most striking aspects. Eleven four-year institutions are now involved with the project, along with the twenty-one community colleges that compose the consortium. “Bringing together universities that are traditionally competitive rather than collaborative is quite a success,” says Hubbard. The initial team that attended the summer 2015 Institute on Integrative Learning and the Departments recognized the team’s unusual nature right away, and named it appropriately. “Because it was a multi-institutional team that included community colleges and [because team members] were working on this partnership between technical programs [and bachelor’s programs], they really didn’t fit in in a clear way with the other” teams at the institute, says Hubbard. “They realized they were very much like a platypus, an animal that has fur and a beak and lays eggs, but that that uniqueness is actually a strength, because as a group Team Platypus has something we can share, because we are doing things that are a little bit different.”
This kind of collaborative work between community college systems and four-year institutions is essential, especially in Texas: the state recently implemented a new strategic plan called 60x30, the goal of which is for 60 percent of the state’s population between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-five to have a postsecondary education credential by 2030. Meanwhile, many expect that community college enrollment is only going to grow in coming years. “The number of students going to community colleges is going to increase, and we just need to make that pathway better for students who go from community colleges to universities,” says Butler. Ultimately, the guided pathways template is attempting to bridge the divide between what Williamson calls a “bifurcated” system—one in which it is “expected there would be a few elite students who get one kind of education and the rest another,” says Williamson. “The GEMs Pathway is about building bridges back across that divide in hopes that eventually the divide may begin to fade.”
Visit AAC&U’s website for more about General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs) and the GEMs Pathways Project.