Academic Exchange Quarterly    Winter  2003    Volume 7, Issue 4


Extending School-to-College Programs to the Community College


Linda Serra Hagedorn is an Associate Professor, Associate Director of the Center for higher Education Policy Analysis (CHEPA), and a program Chair for Community College Leadership. Andrew Chlebek is a doctoral candidate and a research assistant. Dr. Hye Sun Moon is senior research fellow. All researchers are from the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California.



Many foundations and philanthropic organizations have supported special programs to assist “at-risk” students’ transition to college.  This report provides analyses of three programs that have extended their programs beyond high school through enrollment in a community college.  The results indicate the programs provide the “value added” needed to increase the likelihood of success.


Introduction and Background

Each year, many special high school-to-college programs help youth attend college.  Typically these programs target “at risk” students- the underprivileged, minorities, or the academically challenged.  Some programs are funded by private sources; others use public funds. 


Educators from more than 180 countries attending a U.N. meeting affirmed that more people need postsecondary education to be sufficiently skilled (Murray, 1999).  Peter Drucker (1995) agreed when he said, “knowledge has become the key resource for a nation’s military and economic strength” (p. 37).  School-to-college programs acknowledge the need for postsecondary training and provide increasing access to college as the way of extending opportunity for all (Tierney & Hagedorn, 2002). 


Although there is almost universal agreement on the need for postsecondary education, access to and success in college are not widespread and remain highly correlated with race, socioeconomic status, and other demographic statistics unrelated to student effort, goals, or true ability.  America’s schools face difficulties in serving increasingly diverse groups of students.  According to the latest census, 40% of those under the age of 18 are African American, Asian American, Hispanic, American Indian, or another “minority” (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000).  Despite years of federal aid and promising strategies, students enrolled in the country’s low-income schools continue to lag behind in most measures of academic success (Levine, 1996). 


Simultaneously, selective colleges and universities restrict their admissions to only the nation’s top students in an effort to increase the university’s ratings by relying on the marketing premise that a limited commodity (access to) raises the value of the specific good (education).  Increasingly, universities pride themselves on their high level of selectivity typically based on standardized admissions tests (SAT or ACT).  The reliance on U.S. News and World Report’s annual “Best Colleges” issue as a “prestige-barometer” is another deterrent to a more open access to college.  One of the criteria for a top rating in this honored list is selectivity – or the proportion of applicants denied admission.  Thus institutions gain points by denying admission to larger proportions of applicants. 


High selectivity of colleges means that students who do not receive a quality K-12 education do not stand a chance at going to a prestigious university.  It has long been established that students from low-income backgrounds who attend schools in low-income neighborhoods receive a lesser quality education (Oakes, 2002).  These students are almost guaranteed to have lower scores on standardized admissions tests.  Also a lack of household familiarity with the college process and other significant obstacles make it increasingly difficult for students to enter elite universities (Jun & Colyar, 2002).  Further evidence indicated that when low-income students enter elite universities they are likely to have more difficulties than students from middle- and high-income areas and are more prone to leave (Jun &Colyar, 2002; Tinto, 1993). 


Due to the aforementioned, the only alternative for many students is to attend a community college.  By way of community colleges, students may transfer to a four-year college and subsequently obtain a bachelor’s degree and beyond.  While this scenario sounds great, the sad truth is that the majority of students who enter community colleges with high expectations never achieve their goals (Berkner, Cuccaro-Alamin, & McCormick, 1996). 


What’s a support program to do?

Despite the fact that most low-income students who ever attend college will begin at a community college, most high school-to-college programs promote entry only to elite universities (Tierney & Hagedorn, 2002). Most programs do not include tactics and procedures to transfer from a community college to a four-year institution.  In other words, they ignore the possibility that students will first attend a community college.  Community college students are therefore left to navigate the transfer path alone without the extra support that special programs can provide


Through the Students of College Preparation Programs in Postsecondary Institutions: Improving Program Effectiveness and Student Achievement Program, funded through the Ford Foundation, researchers from the University of Southern California studied 17 special school-to-college programs from 5 cities. This report covers three programs that were unique in that they were either specifically designed to support community college students or they extended their high school outreach through community colleges.  Although each of the three programs differed in structure and mission, they shared the common purpose of providing support through transfer to a four-year institution.  The three school-to-college programs included: Vocational Plus, Transfer Bound, and Future Engineers (all program names are pseudonyms).


Vocational Plus is a unique program operating at most campuses in a very large community college district in a major metropolitan city.  The program, funded primarily through state funds, Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act funds, donations, and grants, can be termed a 2+2+2 program.  Its services begin during the last two years of high school, continue through two years in the community college, and extend to the final two years in the baccalaureate institution.  Students are ethnically diverse; almost half of the student population is African-American (45%), approximately one-fifth (18%) is Hispanic, and one-fifth (20%) is White.  Virtually none of the students have parents who went to college.  More than half (56%) of the students are female. 


To be eligible for the special program, students must maintain a minimum of a “C” average in both their high school and college coursework. Students must also must meet eligibility by taking the District’s mandated community college placement exam and achieve a score that indicates probable success (reading at ninth grade and higher, equivalent to English 101). 


The support structures and specific programs offered at each of the participating college campuses differ, but each has a special articulation program with at least one four-year institution.  Main features of the Vocational Plus program include: internships or practicum, college credit for college work completed during high school, counseling and guidance services, opportunities to visit local 4-year colleges, job shadowing, mentoring, community college curriculum integration with 4-year university curriculum, student preparation to pass certification, and 4-year college placement preparation.


Transfer Bound is a program within a larger network of programs called College Network that provides services for students in a major western metropolitan city.  The program is funded through large corporations and benevolent individuals.  One of the College Network programs funds 450 students beginning in the sophomore year of high school.  The program begins by adopting tenth grade English or Social Studies classes and working with the students for the subsequent three-year period.  Through weekly sessions in the sophomore year, and semi-weekly in the junior and senior years, the program introduces students to critical awareness of themselves and their communities.  Transfer Bound students attend meetings and retreats as scheduled through the College Network.  Meetings may highlight social or academic topics, but usually include important information or skills related to transfer.  Transfer Bound is composed of two subprograms: 1) Scholarships and their Aftermath, and 2) the Mentorship Program.   Notably  more than half (55%) of the College Network students attend community colleges after high school graduation; therefore many scholarship recipients are community college students who can apply the funds once they transfer.  Each student is paired with a specific scholarship sponsor who follows his/her progress throughout college. Additionally, through internships, community college students are involved in a cooperative effort with the private sector that helps academically strong college students expand career goals and achieve greater workplace self-confidence.


Unlike Vocational Plus, the College Network programs do not see community college students as their main focus.  However, administrators are currently reviewing their policies and contemplating expansion of services for community college students. 


Future Engineers is a subprogram of a much larger network that reaches throughout a western U.S. state.  This program extends its services to low-income high school students interested in a career related to math, science, or engineering.  It works closely within schools by conducting a regular class where students learn problem solving and study skills, and prepare for state competitions by building science-oriented projects.  The community college program operates at 37 community colleges reaching an estimated 1,000 students. The program’s goal is to continue the curriculum started in the high schools; provide career exposure and college advisement, and establish expectations and goals related to science-related careers.  Both the high school and community college programs are funded through various federal and private grants and are free for students.  Like the other two programs, Future Engineers feels that the transfer rate to a four-year college or university is a major indicator of success.


Three Distinctive Methodological Approaches

Each of the three programs studied are unique and impossible to compare straightforwardly.  They differ by the number of students served, geographic location, and specific goals.  It must be noted that each program, was evaluated in a broad sense and a lengthy report submitted to each program.  In this paper, we present only a brief description of the program specific methodologies and findings.  Our purpose in this paper is not to present the entire evaluation process, but rather to provide a synopsis sufficient to create a dialogue promoting benevolent organizations to include community college students. 


Vocational Plus provided us with reliable, extensive, and recently collected data for 304 students. We performed a secondary analysis on data collected and supplied by American College Testing (ACT).  The 1999-2000 academic year data was collected from the program participants who were participating in the community college program in their junior and senior years of high school. 


Our analyses indicated that not only was Vocational Plus instrumental in increasing student determination to “finish high school”, but the effect was strongest on the group of low achieving students.  Our second outcome of interest was “deciding on a college major”.  Research has indicated that one of the leading reasons students drop out of college is because they realize they are pursuing the wrong major and no longer wish to continue their present educational course (Hagedorn, Maxwell, & Hampton, 2001).  A highly significant predictor of Vocational Plus student’s surety of major was their rating of the program’s efficiency and helpfulness.  The program played an even larger role than parent encouragement.  Finally, we found a highly significant relationship between program and student plans to continue their studies at the community college after high school graduation.  Interestingly students with lower GPA’s were more certain than others of their plans to continue at a community college.  Thus, Vocational Plus had a positive effect on students who would be least likely to continue their education in a post secondary institution. 


Transfer Bound provided researchers access to a small sample of students (less than 50).  Cognizant of the statistical power constraints and likely type I errors associated with small sample size research, we chose our methodology carefully and with appropriate parsimony.   


One of the major goals of Transfer Bound is to assist students in making “occupational goals”.  To test for increases in generational occupational aspirations we compared the students’ future job aspirations against the level of the occupations held by their parents. The measures for the occupational variables were derived from the Walter Terrie and Charles Nam Occupational Status Scores (OSS) (Terrie & Nam, 1994). First developed by Census Bureau statisticians in the late 1950’s for use with 1950 Census occupations, the Nam-Powers-Terrie index scale for the hierarchical ranking of occupations has been revised each decade thereafter to provide the research community with a consistently updated set of measures of the socio-economic status of detailed census occupations. Using this scheme, we coded the reported occupations of the parents of the students.  We also coded students’ stated occupational aspirations.  We then compared parents’ occupations and students aspirations to test for generational differences. 


A statistical difference (p < .001) between parental occupational status and students occupational aspirations indicated that students’ scores were higher.  Although comparing the actual achievement of parents against students’ aspiration may not be a true outcome, it indicates some evidence of program impact. While our work has not proven Transfer Bound’s effect, it does provide evidence that the enrolled students aspire beyond their current social and educational family status.  Most students will be the first in their families to attend college.  Time will tell if the lessons from the program have actually taken root, but at the present time, aspirations appear high. 


Future Engineer Program data were collected from 232 students.  To capture the unique mission of Future Engineers and students’ aspirations of their future educational achievement and occupational goals, an 8-point outcome scale was used as the dependent variable in our analyses. The scale was calculated from a set of variables measuring students’ plans to transfer, get an academic degree (undergraduate, master, doctorate), and/or involvement in science, engineering or mathematical careers.  An examination of coefficients revealed the most important variable in determining the outcome was the student rating of the Future Engineers Program’s usefulness in helping to make decisions about the future.  Level of reported efficacy/self-esteem was also a significant predictor of the outcomes scale.


The overall conclusion is that the community college students enrolled in the Future Engineers appear to be aligned with the mission of the program.  Most aspire to transfer and earn advanced degrees. 


This study has obvious limitations.  We relied entirely on self-reported measures.  Secondly, our outcomes are based on aspirations rather than on actions.  Merely stating that the aspiration of earning a doctoral degree and becoming a nuclear physicist is certainly not the same as actually earning the degree and entering the occupation.  Nonetheless, aspirations are all that can be measured at this time in the student’s lives. 


Collective Conclusions from all Programs

Despite the intended outcomes of high school to college programs, the accumulation of deficits of low-income students cannot be overcome with short-term fixes.  In many cases it is unrealistic to expect students who have endured many hardships to overcome significant barriers and enroll in an Ivy League university directly after high school even with the efforts of a special program.  Rather it is realistic to view community college enrollment as an opportunity to continue the guidance and care that may lead to the acquisition of a college degree.  Does support at the community college work?  Although this question cannot be answered definitively, the three studies included in this manuscript provide evidence of “value added.”  Continuing support through community college years allows a student to mature into young adulthood with a transfer support process that may carry him/her to the acquirement of a college degree.


We support a more open-minded acceptance that low income and minority students are likely to attend a community college rather than a university directly following high school.  Further, it must be boldly stated that attending a community college is not a lesser achievement, but rather a beginning of a path that could lead to bachelor degree attainment and beyond.  Based on the positive findings of programs that did extend their services, we advocate special programs extend their services through the community colleges to provide the extra help needed to transfer and to finally achieve the dream of a bachelor’s degree. 





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