Strategies for Improving Retention of Community College Students in the Sciences

Article excerpt

Almost one half of U.S. students receiving B.S. and M.S. science degrees attend community colleges during their academic careers, yet for the large majority of community college students in the sciences, a four-year degree in a STEM discipline remains an unrealized goal. The authors describe methods intended to improve student learning, retention, and graduation rates of community college students in the sciences.

Introduction

Community colleges play an important role in the education and training of students in the sciences. In 2004, nearly half of the Bachelor's and Master 's degrees awarded in the United States in science and engineering were granted to students who had attended community colleges at some point during their academic careers (Kincaid, et al., 2006; Tsapogas, 2004; Ryan, Wesemann, Boese, & Neuschatz, 2003). The role of these two-year institutions in science education has not been overlooked by policy-makers. The National Science Board has identified the importance of community colleges in developing a technical workforce that can allow United States companies to compete with their Chinese and Indian counterparts (National Science Board, 2006; U.S . Dept. of Education, 2000). The National Institute of Health funds a Bridge program that targets minority science students for transfer from community colleges into baccalaureate programs (Carpenter, 2008). Although there is widespread acknowledgment of the importance of community colleges in training workers, educators have made limited progress in helping the majority of students at community colleges to reach the levels of academic and economic success enjoyed by their counterparts at four-year colleges and universities. In the sciences, community colleges award associate 's degrees in fields where bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degrees are increasingly becoming a requirement for employment (National Academies Press, 2007). This makes facilitating transfers from community colleges to four-year colleges an essential goal for educators and administrators.

Socioeconomics can play a role in determining which students attend community colleges . Students enrolled in community colleges tend to be financially disadvantaged compared to students who enroll in fouryear colleges directly out of high school (Government Accounting Office, 2008). High school graduates who receive diplomas with college preparatory courses and have the financial ability generally progress directly to four-year colleges. Students without the requisite high school preparation or financial ability often attend the more affordable community colleges (Phillippe & Sullivan, 2005).

Many students who begin their college studies at community colleges intend to graduate quickly and move on to more advanced degree programs (Rouse , 1 999; Leigh & Gill, 2003). Despite the best intentions of community college faculty, most students leave the community colleges without obtaining degrees or transferring to four-year colleges. Estimates suggest that transfer rates for students from community colleges to four-year colleges can be as low as twenty percent for students wishing to do so (Bradburn & Hurst, 2001; Gordon, 1996). Likewise, graduation rates at community colleges are as low as thirty percent (Wild & Ebbers, 2002; Mohammadi, 1994). Because many students start their science and engineering careers at community colleges, it seems worthwhile to develop and implement strategies that improve the effectiveness of science education at these institutions in order to better prepare students to transfer to and succeed at four-year colleges.

Recent publications have studied institutional policies that affect the success rates of community colleges in preparing students for more advanced academic work (Striplin, 1999; Cohen & Brawer, 1996). Recommendations include institutional changes that affect the methods used to fund community colleges and improving counseling and advising services (Burgess & Samuels , 1999; Cohen & Brawer, 1996). …