News: CJ Exclusives

Program Smooths College Transfers

Program puts Western Carolina in forefront of college cooperation

A new partnership between Western Carolina University and the N.C. Community College System could help students transfer more seamlessly between the systems and reduce the amount of time needed to obtain a bachelor’s degree. The so-called “Western 2 Step” places Western Carolina in the forefront of UNC-community college cooperation.

The need for such cooperation became evident at the Board of Governors meeting in May. Harold Martin, senior vice president of academic affairs for the UNC system, proposed a university-wide minimum-admission standard. Raising the admission standard would channel more students to community colleges, prompting UNC President Erskine Bowles to say UNC might need to “lobby hard” for additional resources for community colleges.

The Western 2 Step partnership helps connect Western Carolina with community colleges by informing potential Western students about which community-college courses will apply toward a bachelor’s degree at Western. The plan was announced during a presentation conducted at the General Assembly.

Western Carolina Chancellor John Bardo explained that, until now, community-college advisors have not known which courses at their college will be accepted for specific majors at UNC schools. For instance, current agreements for a bachelor of science degree in history list what a student needs to transfer into a UNC-system school, but they do not specify the courses at a community college that will meet the requirements for a bachelor of science degree in that field.

Without that information, Bardo said, some students must guess which courses to take in their two years at community college. Students who lack proper preparation, said Martin Lancaster, president of the N.C. Community College System, might have to add an extra semester or even a year as they make up for prerequisites in order to progress in their baccalaureate program.

The Western 2 Step program spells out which courses a student can take at a community college in order to complete a bachelor’s degree in a specific field at Western. For example, a student who wants to major in electrical and computer engineering tech at Western can find out what courses to take at a community college. Western issues a list of courses that are considered equivalent to Western courses required for this major. Physics 151 is equivalent to Physics I at Western; Math 271 is equivalent to Calculus I at Western; and so forth. The student may choose the specific courses needed in preparation for the major.

Thus, Bardo said, it will help students progress toward both the associate degree and the bachelor’s degree. The partnership will apply to all 58 community colleges. The partnership builds on a 1997 agreement between the community colleges and the UNC system, as well as other articulation pacts.

All 78 undergraduate programs at Western Carolina are included in the agreement, Bardo said. “It allows these students to minimize the time it takes to get a degree. It minimizes the cost of the degree.”

While the partnership eases the information gap for students, it also sets some ground rules. Students will have to get an associate’s degree at a community college in order to transfer into Western Carolina from a community college. Bardo said that students with an associate’s degree who transfer into the UNC system have shown that they are prepared for the rigors of higher education.

The success of the program will depend in part on whether the specified community college courses, taught throughout a highly varied system of 58 colleges, are actually equivalent to the courses taught at Western. Teachers at community colleges are typically paid less than at UNC campuses and students are typically less prepared than UNC students. Yet, as Bardo indicated, in general, community-college transfers do well at UNC campuses.

Between 2000 and 2005, transfers from community colleges into the UNC system have increased by 34 percent. Lancaster said that the partnership could increase enrollment at Western Carolina by increasing transfers from community colleges. “This is an exciting opportunity for all community college students.”

Shannon Blosser is a CJ contributing editor and manager of the Chapel Hill office of the J.W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.