“Every time I think of ET, I tear up. It was my way into a life that I didn’t know could exist. My life was never the same after that.” Millie participated in Vassar’s Exploring Transfer (ET) program while she was a student at Westchester Community College (WCC). When a faculty mentor there encouraged her to attend an information session about the 5-week residential program at Vassar, she jumped at the chance. Millie applied to Vassar after the ET summer session and completed her bachelor’s degree there. She went on to get a master’s degree and a doctorate.
ET evidences the value of partnerships between liberal arts institutions and community colleges. Offering an opportunity for students to live and learn together at a residential liberal arts college, the program is an immersive experience. In 1985, faculty and administrators collaborated across two institutions, Vassar College and LaGuardia Community College, to cross the higher education divide in hopes of breaking down barriers that seem to keep community college students – particularly students of color and those from low-income backgrounds – from attaining their baccalaureate degree. It was also an opportunity to diversify the student body at the liberal arts college. With growing success, initially funded by Vassar, foundations, community sponsors, and the AAC&U, the partnership increased to include other local community colleges in the New York City and Hudson Valley area. ET now boasts 11 partners – mostly local ones and a few out-of-state, including one tribal college. The program fully funds approximately 30 community college students per year. As a result, over 1000 students have participated in the program thus far.
Like Millie, ET participants have an opportunity to explore, to imagine, to be challenged, and to do so under the tutelage of Vassar and community college faculty, who co-teach the summer classes. This is done from an asset-based model, knowing that community college students bring substantial life experience and other strengths to the classroom while also benefitting from exposure to a liberal arts education. Now is an important time for such collaborations. While challenges had been mounting for years, the COVID-19 pandemic escalated the dire situation of many community college students. That community colleges serve the highest percentage of our most marginalized students is a critical reason to have deep engagement across higher education sectors at this particularly vulnerable time. Notably, the growth of higher education during the last 20 years can in part be attributed to the availability of community college education. Although these colleges are better sources for developmental education and accommodate nontraditionally-aged students, supporting their students to take the next step to four-year institutions is also critical.
Lawrence was introduced to ET in his Freshman Composition class at Dutchess Community College (DCC). Slightly older than the traditionally-aged student and returning to the education pipeline to gain needed qualifications for employment, he contributed to the fruitful discussions in the ET classes and was inspired to take another career path. Lawrence later completed his undergraduate degree at Vassar and went on to get his master’s. He returned to DCC as an instructor seeking to connect students to varied future prospects.
The experiences that ET participants like Millie and Lawrence report are precisely the intent of the program – to engage students in critical thinking, encourage them to consider broader possibilities as related to academic and career awareness, and inspire them to complete a four-year degree and beyond. In particular, the psychosocial development of students who participate seems especially impacted. Venessa attended the ET program in the summer of 1990. She went to a four-year college for one semester but had a harrowing experience. Feelings of “not belonging,” having “no voice” and being one of few students of color were among the challenges she faced. Venessa says she returned home and attended the community college nearby “to heal.” Attending ET changed her perspective and her life. For her, ET was less about academic preparation, and more about social and psychological grounding. Venessa went on to complete her four-year degree and a master’s as well.
Students report that ET boosts their confidence about being at a four-year institution and, especially, at places like Vassar. It helps them to manage imposter syndrome; it connects them to a network of resources; it inspires and excites them as they get exposed to broader academic possibilities and a new vision for their future. Crystal Schachter is the Director of Institutional Effectiveness at Ulster Community College (UCC). Before that, she was the ET Coordinator at Orange Community College (OCC) while serving as the Director of Advising and Counseling there. Her journey with ET started long before: Crystal was a student at UCC who was encouraged by a faculty member to apply to ET – and she did. “The experience was a tremendous boost to my confidence. Instead of getting a job after graduation as I’d planned, I transferred…” Crystal completed her bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. “I’ve worked in higher education ever since.”
Moving from a community college to a four-year institution seems to be the most viable course for some students. This is especially the case for those who are underrepresented because they are either first-generation college students, from low-income backgrounds, or students of color. The initial venturing into college with supports close to home and coaching on navigating the higher education system that happens at the community college level is often pivotal. Programs such as ET are vital pathways to help these students accomplish their educational goals.
Over ET’s thirty-five-year history, there have been a plethora of success stories of community college students. But there have also been challenges, particularly related to ongoing funding. A donor who provided an endowed fund to Vassar and the college’s commitment to the program has kept it afloat and developing more robustly each year. For all the students, living and learning on a residential campus is a new experience and that too has its difficulties. Engaging the college’s resources through its residential life staff and counseling support has been an important improvement over the years. In addition, increased faculty development efforts have also been evolving. Each ET course is team-taught by a Vassar professor and a community college faculty. It’s been important to set expectations about attending professional development workshops and sessions to increase resource awareness before the program begins, which can be time-consuming for all. Nonetheless, faculty at both institutions report positive growth as they develop the syllabus, course outline, and lesson plans together, building community with the students during the five weeks in the summer. One Kingsborough Community College professor with twenty-three years of teaching experience asserted, “My experience with ET in 2018 was the best pedagogical experience I have had to date.” A Vassar professor recently noted: “The experience also just made me a better teacher and a more sensitive educator.”
For students, the program not only provides a summer of enrichment but a route to the successful completion of a college career. Students escape the perceived stigma of limited access and being community college students. They are able to contribute to another community of teachers and learners as critical thinkers who are interested in scholarly pursuits and capable of such an undertaking. The opportunity and equity gaps in our learning communities are real and sometimes mistaken for achievement gaps for students from underrepresented backgrounds. The ET program has proven that all students, given the appropriate setting and tools for learning and the opportunity can achieve measurable success. Anthony Scalia, an academic advisor and retention specialist at Orange Community College (OCC), notes that the college “has been partnering with Exploring Transfer since its inception.” Taking note of how OCC students who participated in ET have “thrived,” Scalia asserts that being “exposed to the resources, the culture, and the sense of community (at a highly selective institution) has allowed them to further realize their potential and their abilities to take on the world!”
Community college is an entry point to higher education for many students, particularly those from marginalized groups. Underrepresented students comprise 22% of five million students in community colleges but only 15% of the students in four-year colleges. Almost 50% of all minority students in higher education participate through community colleges. Furthermore, according to the Community College Research Center, while 80% of community college students state that they intend to continue on to a four-year degree, but only about 17% of them actually do. By contrast, 90% of Vassar’s ET graduates surveyed in Spring 2022 went on to complete or were completing their bachelor’s degree. ET graduates often report about the positive pyschosocial impact of the program. They feel capable of doing the work at a selective institution like Vassar, and, therefore, feel able to pursue further education elsewhere; they note how their imposter syndrome is attended to in various ways; they make connections with ET faculty and administrators who promote reimagining of their futures through the academic material and as connected to extracurricular activities on campus, What if we had an Exploring Transfer, or something similar, at more institutions? Think of the impact we could have with and for this student population.
Through the ECMC Exploring Transfer Together Initiative at Vassar, in partnership with community colleges in our network, we are exploring how to extend and grow the reach of our program. We are making the college’s current ET program more robust, deepening the relationships with our community college partners, and attending to the academic and student life needs of the community college students. We are also connecting with and inviting other four-year institutions to consider similar models. We have been engaged in imagining and dreaming together with other colleges to collaborate on similar ET-like pilots. If more institutions created opportunities for their neighboring community college students to live and learn on their respective campuses, think of how that would further drive our interests and values of access, equity, and inclusion. Think of how that might also impact the relevance of higher education institutions in the communities where we reside. Perhaps, it will even contribute to the currently contested notion of higher education as a public good.