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Holding the Fort While Forging Ahead: Improving Degree Completion and Transfer at Two-Year Colleges

The EvoLLLution | Holding the Fort While Forging Ahead: Improving Degree Completion and Transfer at Two-Year Colleges
Uniform course numbering and policies to incentivize both transfer and associate’s degree completion are valuable, but two-year colleges must be permitted to offer more high-demand baccalaureate degrees while remaining at the forefront of innovative credential development.

Traditionally, the programming at community colleges can be divided into two broad categories: short-term workforce training, and 2+2 programs that prepare students for transfer to continued studies at four-year institutions. Depending on the institution and the community it serves, the proportion of degrees awarded in these two categories can vary. As an example, at my institution, Miami Dade College (MDC), 12 percent of our completers graduate with college credit (CCC) or vocational certificates, 11 percent with associate in science (AS) degrees, 67 percent with associate in arts (AA) degrees, and 10 percent with baccalaureate degrees.

Recently, much of the national dialogue has shifted to focus on degree completion, and more specifically, on degree completion in key workforce areas such as STEM. As this conversation continues to evolve, many worry that this focus on degree completion in the short term will erode the transfer missions of community colleges.

In my view, it is not an either/or conversation, but a both/and conversation.

Short-term programs leading to competitive jobs have always been a central part of the community college mission. The economic viability of any given community is dependent on employers having a stable, dependable pipeline of appropriately credentialed workers. The creation of this pipeline requires thoughtfully crafted, stackable credentials that run the gamut from non-credit training programs to short-term college credit programs to more advanced degrees. At MDC, we ensure our alignment with our local workforce partners through the creation of programmatic advisory boards where members of the local industries provided real-time feedback on their needs. The results of these interactions are dynamic, flexible programs that are in line with current and anticipated workforce needs. Coupling these programs with short-term certificate programs also ensures that community colleges are meeting new accountability requirements for degree completion, while allowing students to reach career and educational milestones on their way to additional educational attainment.

However, the push towards short-term, stackable credentials is not necessarily at odds with the transfer mission of community colleges. In many cases credits can be applied across multiple degree pathways, allowing the flexibility for students to continue to advance in their career pathways and earn higher credentials.

In many ways, the state of Florida has led the way in sustaining transfer programs. Here, the shift to accountability and completion has not changed the attention to transfer, but has actually reinforced the transfer mission. Florida policymakers understand that Florida’s economic prosperity relies on building up the educational attainment of its population. Florida’s community colleges were created not only to support local, short-term workforce needs, but to also serve as feeders to the state universities.

Currently, Florida has a statewide course numbering system that applies across all programs of study, ensuring seamless transition of prior coursework across the state’s colleges and universities. In addition, to preserve the 2+2 mission while incentivizing degree completion, AA completers from Florida’s community colleges are guaranteed admission to one of Florida’s state universities. In fact, recent data from the Florida Department of Education indicates half of all juniors and seniors at Florida’s state universities were transfers from the community college system. At a more local level, community colleges work with their neighboring state universities to bolster student success as they transfer to their junior year of studies. At MDC, over 60 percent of our AA students transfer to Florida International University. To ensure their success, we have collaborated through our “Connect4Success” program to ensure that not only our course numbers, but our curricula and our student support practices are aligned to support our students and ensure their success at both the two-year and four-year level.

As we look towards the future of community colleges, there are two key areas that I would point to as worthy of monitoring. The first is baccalaureate degree offerings at community colleges. This particular trend has generated much national debate on the role of community colleges. Here at MDC as well as other Florida state colleges, we now offer baccalaureate degrees in targeted workforce areas such as education, information technology, nursing and supervision/management. The development of these baccalaureate programs has been accomplished in concert with (and not at odds with) our state universities. Programs are offered at the community college only where a workforce gap still remains that cannot be filled by the state university programs.

The second is the evolution of the college credential. Across the nation, we continue to define educational attainment based on a centuries-old model of higher education. In today’s market, employers are more interested in specific skill sets, not necessarily a specific type of degree. Community colleges will be key in leading the way in this frontier. Our existing, responsive programs are a first step in this direction, but there is still a long road ahead as we look to expand higher education to massive numbers of individuals to support our nation’s growing economy.

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