Surpassing “Feeders and Fillers” Model to Drive Long-Term Engagement with Transfer StudentsTara Vasold Fischer | Associate Dean of Academic Advising & College Dean and Coordinator of the Community College Partnership Initiative, Dickinson College
While many schools depend upon community colleges as “fillers and feeders,” they do not take a strategic approach to develop space for transfer students as a critical segment of their enrolled population. Dickinson’s Community College Partnership Initiative deploys a distinctive approach called the Four-Year Model to guide its work from initial contact with prospective transfers to exit interviews with graduating seniors. A commitment to the entire college lifecycle drives this relationship.
Additionally, we use the basic scaffolding of the Dickinson Four, a four-year roadmap, rooted in the mission of the college and intentionally designed for the four-year traditional student experience—to cultivate that same type of experience for prospective community college transfer students.
Right now, we have partnerships in place with five community colleges in our area: Howard Community College (MD), Montgomery College (MD), Montgomery County Community College (PA), Northampton Community College (PA) and Harrisburg Area Community College (PA).
Dickinson’s Four Year model for community college transfer recruitment is designed along the following parameters:
Community College – Year One:
Dickinson cultivates strong partnerships with Honors Program faculty and advisors at each community college to identify interested and qualified students for enrollment at Dickinson. This allows us to focus early on “fit.” Intentional conversations in the first year also allow for more long-term curricular planning so that courses taken in the second year better position the student for academic success at Dickinson. Specifically, students expressing interest in Dickinson receive a letter from the Transfer College Dean encouraging them to concentrate on lab science and language study. Also, pre-professional advisors will meet with interested students their first (or second) year to discuss preparation for professional school. This is particularly important for the pre-health programs. Campus visits, including overnight stays are also strongly encouraged in the first year. Throughout year one, our focus is on helping prospective applicants identify who will be a helpful resource as they begin to consider Dickinson as an educational choice.
Community College –Year Two:
By the second year, we identify students who are serious prospects. If the student has visited campus, articulated an anticipated major, and connected with key Dickinson staff (including faculty, academic advisors and the transfer college dean), communication focuses on preparation for (transfer) orientation, early connection with Student Development staff and conversations with coaches, on-campus mentors and peers. We also encourage students to think critically about their career goals and prepare resumes that will be reviewed once they arrive on Dickinson’s campus. By focusing in year two on what a student wants to learn and why, they begin to identify what matters to them individually and in their choice in transfer institution.
Dickinson College – Year Three:
Students have an established network of campus resources by the time they arrive on the Dickinson campus. From email exchanges to campus visits and overnights, student interface with Dickinson colleagues begins when they express interest in possible admission to the college.
In addition to ongoing conversation with the Community College Partnership Coordinator, academic advising begins immediately after a student enrolls at the college and communication with appropriate faculty around intended major and overall academic plans will also commence. Additionally, students are encouraged to connect with the Career Center and meet as a cohort with an on-campus mentor twice a semester. Finally, meet-and-greets are scheduled after each new cohort arrives on campus. Immediate student connection is extremely important and the transfer college dean meet with students during their first semester on campus to orient them to the process of being engaged and connected to activities, clubs and organizations. Upper-class students also serve as mentors in this capacity. The focus during this year is on how a student will deepen their focus now that they are at Dickinson.
In terms of housing and campus life, every reasonable effort is made to house students together for their junior year in a majority upper-class community. Specific components of orientation will target these students and their transition to college, and students will be included in various college traditions, including our sign-in ceremony and Convocation. Residential staff will be sensitized to issues and challenges encountered by transfer students and identify themselves as resources.
Dickinson College – Year Four:
By the second year on Dickinson’s campus, students should be connected to campus culture and activities and plugged into leadership positions of their choosing. Second-year community college students are engaged as informal mentors to first-year community college transfers, and students may be selected to accompany colleagues on campus recruitment visits to their alma mater or other community colleges. Students in their second year at Dickinson also assist the on-campus team with evaluation and assessment by participating in focus groups and one-on-one interviews. By the end of year four, students are ready to expand their story.
Making This Kind of Long-Term Engagement a Reality
Students who intend to transfer to Dickinson must indicate an interest in the college early on in their community college career by connecting with Dickinson’s transfer program coordinator who, in partnership with honors contacts at the respective community college, provides customized advising. This helps the student stay on track to transition smoothly to Dickinson while providing guidance for the student to ultimately enroll at any selective liberal arts college. The focus is on relationship building and a mix of challenge and support, which would continue if a student enrolls at Dickinson. Upon enrollment at Dickinson, students from each of the four partner community colleges are brought together as a cohort.
The partnership relies heavily on a close relationship between Dickinson’s Coordinator of the Community College Partnership and honors contacts at each community college. Typically honors contacts refer individual students to the Coordinator, then contact is made with the student to arrange individual conversations, if the student is interested. Some of those conversations happen over the phone; some are in-person interviews or advising sessions; and some occur when the coordinator is visiting the community college. The goal is for both parties to gauge “fit” and to evaluate whether the student’s priorities and goals align with the mission and values of Dickinson College. These conversations are fun and highly transparent. Students also talk with currently enrolled students and other members of the Dickinson community, as appropriate. A win occurs when the student, honors contact and Dickinson’s Coordinator all are on the same page and are able to gauge fit, as that improves the potential transition for the student and partnership moving forward.
Why Do It At All? The Importance of the Dickinson Community College Partnership Initiative
The fact of the matter is that, through this program, we’re investing a large amount of time in students who may not apply to or enroll at Dickinson. So the question is, why do it at all?
Put simply, at Dickinson, we believe in a useful education in the liberal arts and sciences that prepares students to actively solve problems for the common good. The Community College Partnership Initiative gives us the opportunity to connect with highly engaged prospective transfer students, providing support to non-traditional students in access and navigation of choice within higher education.
Through intentional conversations and programming, this program guides prospective transfer students through the decision-making process and transition to a traditional four-year institution. With a focus on long-term relationship cultivation, all involved parties are able to determine fit—a win-win for the institution, the student and the future of higher education.
Author Perspective: Administrator