UB op-ed: The value of community college partnerships

One of the absolutes of higher education is that no two students are alike, so there are no two identical paths to a degree. At Purdue University Global, students enter our institution at different points in their lives, bringing personal and specific goals and aspirations to their higher education experience. Some get their start in one of the 980 community and technical colleges in the United States, making our nation’s community college system a critical stepping stone on their path to a bachelor’s degree. Purdue Global has strong partnerships with community colleges in Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, and North Carolina that are invaluable in providing a very clear path to a bachelor’s degree and beyond for motivated working adult students in these regions.

There are approximately 7 million students enrolled in community colleges and many intend to transfer to a four-year school to complete their degrees. A stark reality, however, is that only about a third of them transfer within six years to continue their education, and when they do, fewer than 15 percent will earn a bachelor’s degree within this time frame. This leaves far too many students lacking the bachelor’s degree that many desirable employers demand.

Life gets in the way

We know they have a myriad of reasons for stepping away from a degree program: a family crisis, personal illness, military duty, financial challenges, relocation for a spouse’s job, or insufficient time to devote to studies. In short, life gets in the way and the elusive bachelor’s degree dangles just out of reach. This tale plays out frequently across the country, often in rural communities with little or no access to traditional four-year colleges. The Lumina Foundation has a national mandate in place to change this dynamic.

Students should be commended for achieving associates degrees but often it is not quite enough to qualify them for many of the highly skilled, better-paying, high-demand jobs that now make up a greater share of the labor market. For the relatively small percentage who decide to pursue a bachelor’s degree, another cruel reality awaits- 43 percent of all community college transfer students lose total credits in disallowed transfer credit.

It’s not just the student’s conundrum. According to a Gallup poll of community college presidents taken in April 2018, 90 percent do not believe they have a clear path for transfer students. Three of four presidents say that their college added new programs on campus to make it easier to transfer to universities, with the hope that these arrangements would help their institutions recruit new students and pave their way to graduation.

Purdue Global’s strategic partnerships with community colleges allow students to apply their new skills and competencies in the workforce faster.

According to Scott Jenkins, strategy director with the Lumina Foundation, who is tasked with leading the completion-agenda reforms in the United States “The last 20 years have not yielded the kind of success we had hoped for, especially for underserved populations, and the time of polite conversation around this is rapidly drawing to a close.”

Partnership power

When Purdue University established Purdue University Global in April 2018, it did so with the ambitious goal of extending its land-grant mission into the 21st century to provide greater access to a prestigious university degree for millions of students around the world. Nowhere is this mission clearer than in our partnerships with a growing number of community colleges to help students more easily and affordably transfer to Purdue Global’s bachelor’s degree programs.

Purdue Global’s strategic partnerships with community colleges allow students to apply their new skills and competencies in the workforce faster. These agreements often include a “reverse transfer” option for eligible students who did not yet complete their associate’s degrees. These partnerships allow students to receive their associate’s degrees while simultaneously pursuing their bachelor’s degrees at Purdue Global—doing so faster, more flexibly and more affordably than they would at a traditional four-year institution.

The data shows the model works. As of December 2018, Purdue Global had approximately 29,000 active students. Of those, approximately 43 percent attended a community college and received transfer credit from Purdue Global. States like Iowa monitor student success, and measure the number of students who graduate, as well as those who transfer to four-year institutions, or a combination of the two achieved within three years after initial enrollment, has continuously grown from 40 percent in 2013 to 45 percent in 2016. Other states confirm similar patterns of increasing graduation rates.

As educators, we know the challenges of getting our students to a degree—the highly prized land of caps and gowns—won’t be solved overnight nor with any single solution. Innovative programs like reverse transfer, course mapping and granting credit for valuable work experience will be the currency we must use to close the skilled workforce gap, while providing community college students with more options and flexibility on their journey to achieve their career goals.

I’m optimistic that innovative solutions like these will bring a strong return on our educational investment, both in meeting employers’ needs for well-educated workers and achieving lower costs and better outcomes for all previously underserved adult students across the United States.

Betty Vandenbosch is chancellor of Purdue University Global.

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