On a noisy street in Queens that is a jumble of warehouses, trucking depots, and wholesale businesses, a small community college is working to better America's dismal record in transferring students from two-year to four-year colleges.
La Guardia Community College - its brightly painted interior barely hinting of the aircraft-parts factory it once was - is determined to show its 85 percent minority student population that dreams of a college degree are not in vain. With the help of a three-year, $225,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, the school will continue to strengthen transfer guidance, curriculum, and relations with regional four-year schools.
''The community colleges are pulled in so many directions,'' says Joseph Shenker, La Guardia's president, referring to the vocational and remedial roles that two-year colleges have traditionally played in addition to that of the academic steppingstone. ''Not that the continuing student is more important than the immigrant here to learn English,'' he continues. ''But we must accept transferring as a major function.''
La Guardia's record in sending students on to four-year colleges is better than that of community colleges in general. From this school of 7,000 students, about half continue their education, with about half of those actually achieving a four-year degree. ''It may sound awful, but compared with other colleges like ours it's really superb,'' says Sheila Gordon, the school's associate dean for development.
Nationwide, only about 1 in 7 community college students intending to complete four years of college actually does so. More than 600 community colleges have been founded since 1960. Since then they have become the main door through which low-income and minority students enter higher education.
Two reasons stand out to help explain why La Guardia does better than other urban community colleges in transferring students. First, its cooperative education system means that all students spend part of their time working with companies in their field. This, according to school officials, helps students see the truth in the advice: ''To get a good job, get a good education.'' Studies show that community college students who succeed in connecting intellectual growth with professional growth have better continuation rates.
Second, the various departments in this relatively small school - located in one five-floor building - are united in efforts to improve the transfer rates. ''There is a total mobilization of the college in this,'' says Janet Lieberman, co-director of the school's transfer opportunities project. ''Everyone is involved.''
This involvement of everyone from faculty and administrators to alumni, and even potential students, explains La Guardia's selection for the Ford grant. After receiving a first-round grant last year, along with 23 other community colleges around the country, La Guardia was one of five from that group that shared $1 million in grants this year to continue the transfer effort. The four other schools are in Philadelphia; Cleveland; Miami; and Phoenix, Ariz.
According to Alison Bernstein, a program officer in education and culture, Ford decided to address the issue of community college transfers after a 1982 report from the Commission on the Higher Education of Minorities ''emphasized the hemorrhaging between two-year and four-year institutions.'' Adds Ms. Bernstein, ''The foundation wanted academic excellence understood as pertaining to all sectors of higher education.''
Ford's has been a three-pronged effort: to encourage education experts to explore what methods work best at increasing the number of community college students who continue their education; to support efforts, such as those by the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund in California, to force four-year college systems to join in addressing the transfer issue; and the direct grants to schools.
By next spring the foundation will have spent more than $2.5 million addressing this issue. Ford hopes that many of the projects being tested by the five grant recipients will be replicated at other community colleges.
Among the ideas being implemented: a visiting-professors program, whereby professors from a local four-year school will teach at the community college as part of a college orientation plan; a mentor program, to team potential transfer students with professors willing to provide personal and academic support; counseling to ''high risk'' high school students who want to attend college but are in danger of dropping out of high school; and a transfer center, where in-depth listings of courses and credits required for senior college entrance will be developed.
At La Guardia, officials hope to broaden their students' options by expanding relations with regional four-year schools - such as New York and Long Island Universities - as well as with traditionally black colleges such as Clark College in Atlanta.
In addition, students will complete a ''future resume'' or 10-year plan designed to initiate thinking about career and family goals and where higher education fits in.
Surveys have found that personal and family concerns, rather than academic shortcomings, are the main reasons La Guardia students fail to complete a college education. Noting this, Ms. Gordon says one of the biggest challenges is to get students to see ''life's realities,'' such as a child or a part-time job, as factors that need not rule out a good education.
''Rather than letting (such factors) become obstacles,'' she says, ''the need is simply (to) make them a piece of the student's plan.''