The Community in Community College

In recent years the success of community college has been measured by people interested in the idea by the ability of community colleges to transfer students into four-year institutions. Community college students always have the ability to transfer but most community colleges don’t do a terribly good job helping them with that.

This is true for a variety of reasons but a lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s often difficult for students to find someone who can address their needs and give them good advice about how to transfer.

Enter Irma Medina.

Medina coordinates Holyoke Community College‘s Pathways Program. Pathways helps students at the Holyoke, Massachusetts school transfer to nearby schools. Nearby schools, in this case, means really exclusive schools like Amherst, Hampshire, Smith, and Mount Holyoke Colleges. According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Since its founding in 1946, Holyoke has built close relationships with four-year colleges in the area. In its early days, Holyoke lacked full-time faculty members, so it borrowed instructors from surrounding colleges to teach its courses. Since then a transfer culture has blossomed.

About 750 to 800 Holyoke students (about 40 percent) transfer annually. Over the last three years, the college has sent 135 of its students to one of the four local colleges.

Medina knows what’s going on with her students. She used to be one. In early 90s she was a single mother working as a secretary and taking courses at Holyoke Community College. She thought of becoming a paralegal and then an advisor thought she might consider transferring to Mt. Holyoke.

Mt. Holyoke? Mt. Holyoke is an exclusive women’s college. While physically nearby, it was culturally a million miles away from Medina’s background. But she eventually came to thrive there and brought her skills back to her community college.

Medina meets with students one-on-one and has established programs to help her students with faculty and the nearby schools and take summer classes. She helps prepare her students for a more demanding course load and the culture shock they might experience at the nearby schools.

The story of Irma Medina is an merely an anecdote but it goes a long way to explain what community college is really about and the struggles students face attempting to transfer to four-year schools. The Medina story could be very useful for policymakers looking to change community colleges in coming years.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer