Program Equips Community College Students to Obtain Four-Year Degrees

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Students attend the Vassar College Exploring Transfer program closing ceremony and presentation of certificates of completion in July 2023. (Photo courtesy of Lucas Pollet/Vassar College)

The Exploring Transfer program at Vassar College is a summer intensive that immerses currently enrolled community college students in an academically rigorous environment, providing vital support and encouragement so they can ultimately continue their education at a competitive four-year institution.

First-generation students and those from underrepresented groups and disadvantaged backgrounds are given priority in the application process for the five-week summer program at Vassar, a private liberal arts institution in New York state.

Cohorts include 25 to 30 participants per summer who live in the dorms, have access to a campus meal plan, and participate in two courses co-taught by a community college faculty member paired with a Vassar instructor. The courses have a liberal arts and interdisciplinary approach and include a social justice component.

Scholarships are awarded to cover tuition and room and board. Wraparound services focused on mental health and academic support are also offered.

Exploring Transfer was first started by faculty, administrators, and community members nearly 40 years ago, in 1985, through a partnership with LaGuardia Community College. Since then, the program has grown to include over 15 partners and more than 1,000 students. Recently, a partnership with Diné College, a tribal college based in Arizona, was renewed.

“This isn’t a transfer program to Vassar, it’s a program for students to [have] their horizons expanded so that they don’t under-match when they are thinking about transferring to a four-year school,” says Charlotte Gullick, interim director of the program. “It’s making sure that they know that the world is wider than they might have had experience with.”

Eighty percent of community college students intend to earn a bachelor’s degree, but only approximately 14% actually earn one, according to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University.

WENDY MARAGH TAYLOR

Exploring Transfer is tackling this disparity, as 70% of program survey participants reported achieving their bachelor’s degree and 15% said they are actively pursuing one, says Gullick. This data was collected with a grant from the ECMC Foundation, which is also helping leaders work with other institutions to launch Exploring Transfer programs of their own.

“This is absolutely a social justice issue,” says Wendy Maragh Taylor, associate dean of the College for Student Growth and Engagement. “This is about equity. This is about — how do we attend to some of the most vulnerable students in higher education? And how do we, as four-year institutions, and particularly some of the selective institutions like Vassar, … make sure that our communities see that this is a place that could be open to them?”

Many students report that the program addressed their feelings of imposter syndrome and built their confidence, and therefore it opened their eyes to further academic experiences they wouldn’t have previously considered, such as studying abroad, says Maragh Taylor.

Exploring Transfer students have gone on to attend a wide range of four-year institutions, including Cornell University, Amherst College, New York University, and Smith College.

“The four-year institutions learn from these experiences, and it’s an opportunity for them to see the strengths of community college students,” says Gullick. “So, this isn’t a ‘saviorship’ kind of thing, it’s ‘We want to partner with you and the strengths that you bring as a student with a lot of identities.’”

Learn more at offices.vassar.edu/exploring-transfer.