Mike Loughran doesn't want to meander through his education. The
35-year-old says he's gone back to school "hard core," taking night
and weekend classes at Massasoit Community College in southeastern
Massachusetts, the very place he dropped out of after high school to
join the Marines.
With their low tuitions and convenient locations, community
colleges like Massasoit serve nearly half the country's
undergraduates - everyone from second-career starters like Mr.
Loughran to new immigrants to fast-track high-schoolers. But by some
counts, fewer than half of community college students meet their
educational goals, and that has a ripple effect in efforts to
educate local workforces and make the United States more
Community colleges are becoming more aware of their shortcomings,
experts say, in areas such as student advising, teaching methods,
and the process of transferring academic credits. To address the
latter, two-year and four-year institutions are collaborating on
academic standards to ensure that key courses are transferable and
are graded in a similar way.
Loughran wants to transfer from Massasoit and earn a master's
degree within five years, but he wasn't thrilled with what his
adviser told him when he first asked about four-year schools with
business programs. One counselor recommended a public university 90
minutes away. As a husband and father of three, Loughran balked at
the commute. The counselor still didn't get it, telling Loughran
that room and board were very reasonable.
One trend in community colleges today "is to have a much more
precise understanding of where their problems are," says Thomas
Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at
Columbia University in New York. "They have always been very proud
of their role of providing access, of opening doors to college for a
broad range of students," but until recently, he adds, "there's
been, frankly, less attention paid to what happens to those students
once they get into college."
In southeastern Massachusetts, the CONNECT partnership brings
together leaders and faculty from three community colleges, a state
college, and a state university to better serve the students they
The "transfer group," for instance, decided there should be full-
time transfer coordinators at the four-year schools - the University
of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and Bridgewater State.
Just when Loughran was getting frustrated, he found out about
Sandy Christoun, the transfer coordinator at Bridgewater, where he
plans to enroll this summer. "She's by far been the most helpful up
to this point," he says. She gave him up-to-date guidelines and
directed him to the counselor at Massasoit who was most familiar
with Bridgewater's requirements. Loughran, who works at a software
company, says he's gaining credentials in management in order to
"not allow opportunities to pass me by."
A first-of-its-kind consortium
"CONNECT is the very first consortium in the state that
represents [all three levels] of public higher education," says
executive director Jane Souza. Because faculty meet to decide on
common expectations and grading systems for subjects such as writing
and math, "An A at Bristol Community College is going to be an A at
Bridgewater," she says.
For professors, the added benefit is improved respect. "There's a
lot of myth-busting," says Thomas Grady, an English professor at
Bristol Community College (BCC) in Fall River, Mass. He is part of
CONNECT's writing project, in which faculty share ideas to align and
improve first-year writing courses. He and other community college
professors have been reassured that they are indeed preparing
students well for continuing at a four-year school.
And that, in turn, boosts the confidence of students, who
sometimes arrive with the attitude that BCC stands for "Beer Can