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Developing Intentional Partnerships Between Community Colleges and Four-Year Institutions

Student Success Latinx/a/o
August 30, 2018 Moises Orozco Villicaña, Ph.D.

In the fall 2014 semester, 6.7 million students enrolled in a community college. Of this total, Latinx/a/o students represented nearly 23% of the total enrollment in public community college institutions (McFarland et al., 2018). If we disaggregate the data and examine enrollment of Latinx/a/o students by institution type, nearly 50% of all Latinx/a/o students enrolled at a community college (Snyder, de Brey, & Dillow, 2016). Community colleges are the primary gateway to a postsecondary education for a variety of reasons (e.g., affordability, location, small-class scale, and college readiness; Martinez & Fernández, 2004). Despite Latinx/a/o community college students having high aspirations to transfer to four-year institutions, Latinx/a/o transfer rates continue to be abysmally low and degree attainment continues to lag behind Asians, Whites, and African Americans (Santiago, Taylor, & Calderón Galdeano, 2015). A majority of Latinx/a/o students have academic aspirations to transfer to four-year institutions, but many do not fulfill this academic goal and leave community college without a degree or certificate (Excelencia in Education, 2017). To address the gaps between transfer aspirations and reality, community colleges and four-year institutions need to cultivate partnerships and create institutional policies that promote a transfer culture and expectation (Perez & Ceja, 2009).

In the book Latinx/a/os in Higher Education, Martinez and Hernández (2018) provided four key recommendations to address access and success in community colleges. Both scholars are intimately aware of the awesome potential of community colleges to serve as a catalyst for academic and professional growth for Latinx/a/o students. But they also address some of the key shortcomings of having an institution that does not reflect the diversity of its student population or practice the cultural sensitivity to ensure Latinx/a/o students feel welcomed, valued, and inspired.

  1. Student affairs professionals must be trained to exercise the professional competencies outlined by NASPA and ACPA, especially when working with Latina/x/o students.
  2. Community college leadership must reflect the diversity of its student body.
  3. Community colleges must to track and benchmark using disaggregated data on Latinx/a/o students.
  4. Community colleges must fund and implement mentorship programs that facilitate sense of belonging among Latinx/a/o students.

These four recommendations are salient and seek to create a supportive campus for Latinx/a/o students enrolled at community colleges. To extend this beyond community colleges, four-year institutions need to adopt similar institutional policies and practices to create a welcoming and robust climate for Latina/x/o students transferring from a community college to a four-year institution.

In my previous role, I worked directly with transfer students and served as the college contact for the Parkland Pathway Program. In this role, I reviewed high school applications for a pathway program between a community college (Parkland College) and a four-year university (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). This partnership provides comprehensive advising and promotes a transfer culture, which is facilitated by credit articulation agreements and required course completion to successfully transfer to the University.

Martinez and Santiago (2017) described the invaluable impact of pathway programs have in promoting transfer success and degree attainment for Latinx/a/o students. “Pathway programs align academic and student support services through transitions between educational institutions and typically provide students with guaranteed admission at a partner institution. Pathway programs recognize today’s college students’ needs, making them beneficial to Latino students” (Martinez and Santiago, 2017, p. 1). Martinez and Santiago (2017) also presented three key characteristics in helping develop successful pathway programs between community colleges and four-year institutions: (a) implementing a cohort model, (b) clarity on program and transfer requirements, and (c) intentional outreach and support of pathway participants. These three characteristics help facilitate vibrant, supportive, and welcoming environment for Latinx/a/o students with aspirations to transfer and earn a degree beyond an associate’s degree. Equally important, these characteristics provide insight into how informal partnerships between community college and four-year institutions should strive to provide sustainable and transparent partnerships.

As the college representative for the pathway program, I was able to provide clarity on transfer and degree requirements necessary to maintain good standing in the program and eventual transfer to the four-year university. As a Latino administrator at a four-year institution, I was able to serve as a cultural navigator (Strayhorn, 2015) and role model for Latina/x/o students in the pathway program. Latinx/a/o students in the pathway program felt inspired and affirmed when they saw an administrator that looked like them, and equally important, I was able to relate to their experience of being a first-generation college student. Martinez and Hernández (2018) argued the importance of having faculty and staff reflect the diversity of their student population, noting, “Another important result of increasing the diversity of all administrators, faculty, and staff is that it creates academic role models for Latinx/a/o students” (p. 151).

The literature on pathway programs showcases how intentional and cohort-model partnerships between community colleges and four-year universities can promote degree attainment for underrepresented students, especially for Latinx/a/o students. As an administrator at a four-year institution, these partnerships have to be interdependent and reflect the student population it seeks to support. Without the cultural sensitivity or awareness, these partnerships can lose sight of its overall mission to broaden access for segments of the student population that often gets overlooked and marginalized. An approach that views students as adding value and combats deficit-notions to underrepresented students is also paramount. In developing intentional partnerships between community college and four-year institutions, university administrators must have a clear vision and a responsive approach to addressing the degree attainment gap that continues to prevail between across race and ethnicity especially for Latina/x/o students in higher education.

Moises Orozco Villicaña, Ph.D.

Director of Enrollment Management

School of Information Sciences

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign 


Excelencia in Education. (2017). College transfer in Texas. Retrieved from https://www.edexcelencia.org/research/fact-sheets/college-transfer-texas 

Martinez, M., & Fernández, E. (2004). Latinos at community colleges. New directions for student services, 105, 51-62.  

Martinez, E. F., & Hernández, I. (2018). Latinx/a/o students and community colleges. In A. E. Batista, S. M. Collado, & D. Perez II, (Eds.), Latinx/a/os in higher education: Exploring identity, pathways, and success (pp. 137-153). Washington, DC: NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

Martinez, J., & Santiago, D. A. (2017). Pathway programs: An appraoch to increasing Latino student degree attainment. Retrieved from Excelencia in Education website: https://www.edexcelencia.org/research/issue-briefs/pathway-programs-approach-increasing-latino-student-degree-attainment

McFarland, J., Hussar, B., Wang, X., Zhang, J., Wang, K., Rathbun, A., . . . & Bullock Mann, F. (2018). The Condition of Education 2018 (NCES 2018-144). Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo

Pérez, P. A., & Ceja, M. (2009). Building a Latina/o student transfer culture: Best practices and outcomes in transfer to universities. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 9, 6-21.

 Santiago, D. A., Taylor, M., & Calderón Galdeano, E. (2015). Latinos in higher education: National snapshot. Retrieved from Excelencia in Education website:  https://www.edexcelencia.org/research/fact-sheets/latinos-higher-education-national-snapshot

Snyder, T. D., de Brey, C., & Dillow, S. A. (2016). Digest of education statistics 2014 (NCES 2016-006). Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2016/2016006.pdf

Strayhorn, T. L. (2015) Reframing academic advising for student success: From advisor to cultural navigator. NACADA Journal, 35, 56-63.