The Virginia Foundation for Community College Education
3 min read

Key Factors in Bridging the Gaps to College Success


A recent publication by The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education shares findings from a study of community colleges that point to two key factors in low-income and first-generation college students earning an advanced degree: a clear path to their goal and early exposure to the college experience.

A college student receives guidance from faculty at Dabney S. Lancaster Community College at the Rockbridge Regional Center in Clifton Forge, VA.
Dabney S. Lancaster Community College at the Rockbridge Regional Center in Clifton Forge, VA. Photo/Andrew Shurtleff

Mapping the Journey Helps Students Reach Their Destination

Like with the VFCCE/Mellon “Pathways to VCU” program, researchers found that students who had clear expectations of what was required for them to smoothly transfer to a four-year university, and who were guided through the steps as they progressed in their education, were more likely to transfer—and do well after their transition.

The report states:

“While community colleges offer a range of academic, vocational and workforce programs, each campus maintains high expectations about their students’ ability to transfer. The presidents we met with emphasized the academic mission of their institution and the importance of academic standards and rigor as an essential component of the transfer pipeline. Each has infused the notion and importance of transfer into their campus culture.

These successful community colleges expect students to transfer. They provide students with degree plans regardless of whether they plan to transfer initially. For example, many students will start out in a technical or certificate program but then decide to stay on to obtain a business degree. They can do this more easily when the colleges incorporate academic transfer courses into vocational programs and provide them with a feasible pathway outlined in a detailed, tailored plan. In addition, many of the colleges encourage students to stay on and finish the required coursework to obtain an associate degree before transferring. This way, students can take pride in a sense of accomplishment at having finished a two-year degree.”

Early Exposure to College is Critical

Faculty and staff who are well-attuned to student performance know that the chances of success in higher education grow exponentially when the proper foundation is built as early as possible, as is demonstrated in cases of high school and community college dual enrollment.

“Dual enrollment programs are effective not only in the exposure to college coursework, but also at introducing students to the college campus environment. This early exposure can be critical in helping low income and first-generation students make a comfortable transition to college. Students can see that college is a real possibility, and they become familiar with navigating various services at the college, such as advising and financial aid. As one official noted, college is then ‘not a strange unknown’ for students whose parents did not have the opportunity to attend college.

The colleges actively pursue relationships with both school districts and four-year institutions, building a seamless transition through the educational pipeline. In addition, community colleges are cognizant of the academic deficiencies that are so common among entering students, and continually innovate and find new ways to make developmental coursework more feasible.”

To read the complete report, “Bridging the Gaps to Success: Promising Practices for Promoting Transfer Among Low-Income and First-Generation Students”, click here.

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