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Community colleges aim for more respect

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 17, 2007



Mike Loughran doesn't want to meander through his education. The 35-year-old says he's gone back to school "hard core," taking night and weekend classes at Massasoit Community College in southeastern Massachusetts, the very place he dropped out of after high school to join the Marines.

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With their low tuitions and convenient locations, community colleges like Massasoit serve nearly half the country's undergraduates – everyone from second-career starters like Mr. Loughran to new immigrants to fast-track high-schoolers. But by some counts, fewer than half of community college students meet their educational goals, and that has a ripple effect in efforts to educate local workforces and make the United States more competitive.

Community colleges are becoming more aware of their shortcomings, experts say, in areas such as student advising, teaching methods, and the process of transferring academic credits. To address the latter, two-year and four-year institutions are collaborating on academic standards to ensure that key courses are transferable and are graded in a similar way.

Loughran wants to transfer from Massasoit and earn a master's degree within five years, but he wasn't thrilled with what his adviser told him when he first asked about four-year schools with business programs. One counselor recommended a public university 90 minutes away. As a husband and father of three, Loughran balked at the commute. The counselor still didn't get it, telling Loughran that room and board were very reasonable.

One trend in community colleges today "is to have a much more precise understanding of where their problems are," says Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University in New York. "They have always been very proud of their role of providing access, of opening doors to college for a broad range of students," but until recently, he adds, "there's been, frankly, less attention paid to what happens to those students once they get into college."

In southeastern Massachusetts, the CONNECT partnership brings together leaders and faculty from three community colleges, a state college, and a state university to better serve the students they often share.

The "transfer group," for instance, decided there should be full-time transfer coordinators at the four-year schools – the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and Bridgewater State.

Just when Loughran was getting frustrated, he found out about Sandy Christoun, the transfer coordinator at Bridgewater, where he plans to enroll this summer. "She's by far been the most helpful up to this point," he says. She gave him up-to-date guidelines and directed him to the counselor at Massasoit who was most familiar with Bridgewater's requirements. Loughran, who works at a software company, says he's gaining credentials in management in order to "not allow opportunities to pass me by."

A first-of-its-kind consortium

"CONNECT is the very first consortium in the state that represents [all three levels] of public higher education," says executive director Jane Souza. Because faculty meet to decide on common expectations and grading systems for subjects such as writing and math, "An A at Bristol Community College is going to be an A at Bridgewater," she says.

For professors, the added benefit is improved respect. "There's a lot of myth-busting," says Thomas Grady, an English professor at Bristol Community College (BCC) in Fall River, Mass. He is part of CONNECT's writing project, in which faculty share ideas to align and improve first-year writing courses. He and other community college professors have been reassured that they are indeed preparing students well for continuing at a four-year school.

And that, in turn, boosts the confidence of students, who sometimes arrive with the attitude that BCC stands for "Beer Can College." "I can tell my students that this course not only indeed transfers, but we're using the same language [on the syllabus]," Professor Grady says.

CONNECT has been presented at recent national conferences and has attracted a grant from the Calderwood Writing Initiative in Boston, which sees a replicable model in its work with professors who teach writing.

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