One Degree: Collaborating with Community College Partners for Student Success

In 1909, Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) was a comprehensive community college serving a diverse regional student population with a range of academic and vocational goals. SBCC offered associate’s degree and certificate programs, as well as transfer programs that provide the first two years of study toward the baccalaureate degree. Dedicated to the success of each student, the SBCC mission was to provide “students a diverse learning environment that inspires curiosity and discovery, promotes global responsibility, and fosters opportunity for all.” By fall 2017, Hispanic/Latinx students made up 40 percent of SBCC’s total enrollment, and SBCC is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) since it has an enrollment of at least 25 percent Hispanic students and satisfies other student financial eligibility requirements.

Founded almost a century later in 2002, California State University–Channel Islands (CSUCI) became the newest institution of the twenty-three-campus California State University (CSU) system. CSUCI is founded on a student-centered mission of emphasizing learning within and across disciplines through integrative approaches and community service, with multicultural and international perspectives. CSUCI began as a transfer-majority institution, welcoming transfer students in fall 2002 and admitting its first freshman class in fall 2003. In fall 2017, 49 percent of total enrollments were transfer students and 50 percent were Hispanic/Latinx students. Of all undergraduate students, 49 percent came from low socioeconomic-status backgrounds and 60 percent were first-generation college students. As an HSI, CSUCI collaborates with community college partners such as SBCC to serve a regional and diverse student population.

“One Degree” Philosophy

Receiving an HSI (Title V) cooperative grant in 2014 created new opportunities for a cross-institutional partnership between SBCC and CSUCI that spurred dialogue about transfer success and degree completion. Through our partnership, we share students, a large population of overlapping faculty, and a common purpose as two HSIs in our commitment to student success and equity for all students. For example, a group of SBCC faculty also work as part-time lecturers at CSUCI. As such, they have the opportunity to shape students before they come to CSUCI and welcome students as they start their educational pathway at CSUCI. Yet, part-time lecturers at SBCC and CSUCI often have the least access to professional development opportunities. Students in our region often attend two or more community colleges before transferring to CSUCI, and some continue taking community college courses while enrolled at CSUCI. Together, both institutions provide the coursework for which the baccalaureate degree is awarded.

The fact that both institutions are partners in this one degree anchors our approach to our General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs) Pathway project through the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). Our GEMs Pathway partnership intentionally focuses on improving transfer pathways, building a unified vision for shared pedagogy, facilitating student engagement through high-impact teaching and high-impact practices (HIPs), and increasing successful transitions to baccalaureate degree completion through peer mentoring (Kuh and O'Donnell 2013).

In 2016, a team from CSUCI and SBCC attended the AAC&U Institute on General Education and Assessment. The guiding question that framed our experience at the institute was, “How do community colleges and universities have a conversation about general education across institutions, and in our case, across systems?” We learned that under current general education models at both CSUCI and SBCC, the burden is on students to integrate coherent learning experiences as they move through general education courses within and across our institutions. Our action plan theme, “aligning to one degree,” recognizes that credits earned at different institutions are wrapped into one baccalaureate degree. The action plan identifies opportunities for changes to institutional structures and practices to explicitly focus on educational equity in the transition from community college to the first year at a university. Shared commitment to equity outcomes is especially important for Hispanic-Serving Institutions, where HSI designation is a function of enrollment with few incentives to ensure that all students, especially those of Hispanic/Latinx heritages, successfully complete a baccalaureate degree (Schneider, Kelly, and Carey 2010).

Our action plan is equity-minded by design, requiring responsive actions to address barriers to transfer and inequities in educational outcomes among transfer students. The plan focuses our efforts on a threefold strategy:

  1. Explore alignment opportunities: Build on prior learning experiences for success within the students’ program of study.
  2. Promote engagement and equity-minded pedagogy: Invest in faculty development to expand the integration of HIPs in the general education curriculum at both SBCC and CSUCI.
  3. Examine successful transitions: Connect students and faculty across institutions through information and data sharing to increase understanding of inequities in the transfer experience from both student and institutional perspectives.

Our theme of “aligning to one degree” set the expectations for our partnership. We embraced a culture of collaboration and innovation centered on designing equity-minded practices by aligning curricular pathways, teaching pedagogies, and the transition from SBCC to CSUCI. We identified three practices already on each campus to focus our efforts on: learning communities, peer mentors, and HIPs training for faculty teaching general education courses.

Through funding from HSI grants at both institutions, CSUCI and SBCC faculty have created learning communities consisting of general education courses with embedded peer support. The curriculum in these courses is designed around various HIPs and engaged-learner pedagogies, both of which are supported by faculty development. Collectively, these practices build a sense of community, help students integrate their learning, and support them as they move towards completing a baccalaureate degree.

At CSUCI, the first-year experience (FYE) integrates three HIPs: first-year seminars, learning communities, and embedded peer mentors. CSUCI students enrolled from 2011 to 2016 in the FYE persisted to the second year at an average rate that was 6 percent higher than first-year students who did not participate. For racial and ethnic minority students, the average second-year persistence rate was 6.3 percent higher for FYE participants. The SBCC iPath, a program designed to ease the transfer process, offers general education courses that are led by instructors trained in the use of HIPs. This integration of multiple HIPs addresses affective barriers and equity gaps at our respective institutions.

At both institutions, HSI grants offer professional development opportunities responsive to affective barriers of belongingness, noncognitive and social-emotional learning, and structural inequities in the academic experience. By sharing cross-institutional high-impact practices, CSUCI and SBCC faculty have access to common engagement and equity-minded pedagogical strategies. Each campus has designed faculty development programs open to all faculty—part-time, full-time, lecturer, and tenure-track—that promote engagement and equity-minded pedagogies. SBCC faculty, particularly those who teach in the iPATH program, participate in the Faculty Experiential Learning Institute. Similarly, CSUCI HIP faculty fellows explore a range of teaching pedagogies that are responsive to inequities in the educational experience.

Data from a CSUCI transfer student survey give us insight into the cultural and structural barriers that impede transfer success. We have a better understanding of how cross-institutional communication and pre- and post-transfer peer mentoring impact transfer to CSUCI and increase student understanding of expectations within majors.

Learning Communities. Both CSUCI and SBCC create learning communities by linking general education courses focused on basic skills with other general education courses. Students in these linked courses are supported with embedded peer mentors or tutors.

CSUCI first-year seminars are critical- thinking courses that are linked with other general education courses in a variety of first-year learning communities. Learning communities are aligned with different aspects of CSUCI’s mission, fostering a sense of belonging among new first-year students through a cohort model and culturally relevant pedagogy. For example, the Michele Serros Multicultural Living-Learning Community—named for the late nationally recognized Chicana author and poet who was from the local city of Oxnard—engages students in critical dialogue on educational empowerment, creativity, community advocacy, multiculturalism, social justice, and equity. This learning community fosters a sense of family and support for the students in its two linked courses, First-Year Seminar and Chicana/os in Society. Students in this learning community also share common housing. Other examples of CSUCI learning communities include international learning communities, the undergraduate research integrative learning community, and the outdoor adventures learning community, which links the first-year seminar with an environmental science course engaged in service learning. These learning communities provide faculty with space to experiment with curricula that will become thematic general education pathways similar to SBCC’s, iPath pathways.

SBCC has also created learning communities that pair required general education courses with a college-level math or English course. Students in iPATH general education courses benefit from peer support, shared curriculum in the form of contextualized assignments and readings, and close faculty collaboration with embedded tutoring in each learning community. Similar to CSUCI learning communities, iPATH courses have a smaller than average class size and emphasize student success. Each iPATH course features an embedded peer tutor and interactive learning and engagement using HIPs. Additional support services, such as academic counseling and career counseling, are built into the program. These courses are linked by instructors working to solve equity issues in the classroom by practicing high-impact teaching and learning strategies to include noncognitive/social-emotional learning.

Peer Mentors. Peer mentors from various programs (SBCC’s tutors, CSUCI’s outreach mentors and embedded peer mentors) facilitate successful transitions between our respective institutions by providing wraparound support. Peer mentors engage with SBCC students in the first or second year, through matriculation to CSUCI, and until successful completion of the baccalaureate degree.

SBCC students have embedded tutors in each general education and major field course that is part of iPath. Tutors provide both in-class tutoring and appointment times in the Cartwright Learning Resources Center and/or the Gateway to Success Tutorial Center. Course completion rates and college persistence rates of students enrolled in courses with embedded tutors at SBCC have averaged 10 to 15 percent higher than sections of the same courses without embedded tutors.

Using a peer-led student empowerment approach, CSUCI outreach mentors (typically former SBCC transfer students) receive extensive training to facilitate successful transitions between our respective institutions before and after transfer. CSUCI’s student success campaign provides students with peer mentors to support them with social transition and engagement in university campus culture. In addition, the campaign seeks to create a culture of student success by providing opportunities for families to be part of the students’ academic support structure. Former SBCC students are paired with CSUCI peer mentors, often in their major, who serve as student success ambassadors. The first point of contact between SBCC students and CSUCI outreach mentors occurs at the SBCC annual university signing ceremony, where students who will attend CSUCI meet CSUCI staff and peer mentors. Other campaign elements include: Transfer Student Success Academy, a one-day outreach event designed to promote transfer pathways; CSUCI Transfer Bootcamp, in partnership with Academic Advising, which provides incoming transfer students with resources needed to successfully begin the academic year; ongoing coaching in academic success strategies; and drop-in peer mentoring services.

Three key courses are embedded within CSUCI’s general education curriculum: a first-year seminar, second-year seminar, and transfer-year seminar. All three courses feature trained, embedded peer mentors. These mentors are paid instructional student assistants who collaborate with faculty partners to empower students with tools to successfully navigate university campus culture and build support networks. Partnering and training with faculty in general education seminars, embedded peer mentors serve as liaisons between faculty and students, modeling engaged learning and faculty-student interactions inside and outside of the classroom and working together to validate the experiences and abilities of their students. They have a toolkit (named after our campus mascot, a dolphin) of over one hundred activities to use in seminars or in smaller group meetings called Dolphin Interest Groups (DIGs). Mentors tailor activities to their students’ needs, coaching them in academic success strategies, building self-efficacy and self-advocacy skills, troubleshooting challenges, and promoting a sense of belonging through culturally relevant pedagogy. In DIGs, mentors do community-building activities, model note-taking and critical-reading approaches, review time management strategies, and encourage participation in clubs, organizations, and events.

All CSUCI peer mentors (embedded and outreach) participate in extensive training to facilitate small and large group activities, listen carefully and manage difficult conversations, and refer students to services such as the Writing and Multiliteracy Center, Academic Advising, tutoring centers, disability services, counseling services, and career development services.

Professional Development. General education reform that includes efforts to retain and graduate students with diverse educational experiences requires institutional commitment to preparing all faculty to adapt their teaching practices in order to effectively teach all of their students.

In the CSU system, as of 2016, tenure density hovered below 40 percent. At CSUCI it is 29 percent. The likelihood that students in general education classes will be taught by tenure-line faculty is even lower for community colleges, where, according to a 2006 study by the American Association of University Professors, 79 percent of all faculty are contingent. (Schuster and Finkelstein 2006) As Witham et al. (2015) suggest, “appropriate incentives” need to be made available to adjunct faculty to reimagine equitable higher education so that they are “engaged co-constructors of a new institutional paradigm” (30).

Therefore, an essential part of pursuing equity at CSUCI is making equity-based faculty development available to all faculty teaching general education courses. Faculty (primarily lecturers, but some tenure-line) come to workshops with existing assignments and actual student work and design high-impact practices, learn to scaffold signature assignments, and apply common rubrics across a variety of assignments and teaching environments. Faculty also discuss the concept of signature assignments, in which students are asked to analyze and apply knowledge and skills from the whole of a course, and then convert and adapt existing materials accordingly to meet the needs of current students. When faculty are prepared to teach from approaches that make the most of our students’ lived experiences and funds of knowledge, we work together, regardless of status within the university or cultural background, to be agents of change (Witham et al. 2015).

The SBCC Faculty Experiential Learning Institute is a multiday faculty-led forum on developing teaching approaches to build community and promote student belongingness on campus. It invites faculty, staff, and counselors to be exposed to student equity issues and introduces faculty to noncognitive/social-emotional learning teaching strategies. In their classes, faculty incorporate the community cultural wealth (funds of knowledge) that students bring to the classroom. The program ties in the use of community-building technologies to help faculty explore the use of desktop or mobile apps that allow class discussions to be mediated on the cloud. This institute helps faculty develop signature assignments that prepare students to do work in higher-level courses upon transfer. These assignments must be assessable, collaborative, long-term, and inquiry-based projects with scaffolded sub-assignments that lead to an end-of-semester deliverable.


Like many institutions, SBCC and CSUCI face pressure from the completion agenda. With recent passage of the California state budget, California community colleges adopted a new performance-based funding model that provides additional funds based on performance outcomes. The CSU Graduation Initiative 2025 also calls for increasing two- and four-year graduation rates and eliminating equity gaps.

It is imperative that our work move beyond articulation agreements to aligning equity goals to better serve California’s increasingly diverse student population. The SBCC-CSUCI GEMs Pathway Partnership is reframing transfer pathways with our “one degree” philosophy by building on well-developed articulation agreements to create shared student experiences. With that in mind, this partnership has identified common aspects of general education on both campuses that advance practices aimed at achieving the full spectrum of learning outcomes for all students regardless of their backgrounds. With new student-centered and student-informed curricular practices, this partnership creates educational experiences across institutions that share learning communities and peer mentoring and shift campus culture through faculty professional development.

In the next five years, the number of HSIs could increase significantly with 492 HSIs identified in 2016–17 and 333 emerging HSIs nationally (Excelencia in Education 2018). HSIs like SBCC and CSUCI have an important role in reframing the college completion agenda to explicitly include equity. The success of students depends on a moral approach to college completion, an approach that casts general education with equity outcomes. When institutions do nothing to change their institutional structures and practices to meet the needs of increasingly diverse student populations, then historically underserved students are at greater risk of failing. Institutions must be intentional about cultural and structural changes to general education in order to advance equity outcomes.


Excelencia in Education. 2018. Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs): 2016−17. Washington, DC: Excelencia in Education.

Kuh, George D., and Ken O’Donnell. 2013. Ensuring Quality and Taking High-Impact Practices to Scale. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Schneider, Mark, Andrew P. Kelly, and Kevin Carey. 2010. Rising to the Challenge: Hispanic Graduation Rates as a National Priority. Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute.

Schuster, Jack H., and Martin J. Finkelstein. 2006. The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Witham, Keith, Lindsey E. Malcom-Piqueux, Alicia C. Dowd, and Estela Mara Bensimon. 2015. America’s Unmet Promise: The Imperative for Equity in Higher Education. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Geoffrey Buhl, Professor, Mathematics and Chair of General Education; Amanda Quintero, Executive Director, Student Academic Success and Equity Initiatives; Marie Francois, Director, University Experience Program; Michelle Pajka Hasendonckx, Assistant Director, Student Academic Success and Equity Initiatives; and Kathleen Klompien, English Program Faculty—all of California State University−Channel Islands

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