Achieving the much-vaunted “seamless” transition between North Carolina’s community colleges and its universities might require more than superficial fixes. That is the impression given by a report prepared last year for the North Carolina State University history department.
The reason behind the report was the fact that some students who had transferred from N.C. community colleges were “having trouble adjusting to the work load expected of them,” the report says. Several N.C. State history department faculty members asked graduate student Leslie Hawkins to research the issue. She conducted student interviews, communicated with community college faculty by email, and collected academic materials used at the community colleges such as syllabi and exams.
Hawkins’ findings are stark. Most transfer students she interviewed had “discovered that they were not academically prepared for the amount of reading or writing expected by NCSU,” she wrote.
“The majority of their classes were lecture courses with little or no required reading,” Hawkins said. “Some of the classes the students took did not require a paper at all.” When essays were assigned, they were usually no longer than three to five pages.
The history majors had “limited, if any contact with primary documents before arriving at NCSU.” (Primary documents are original historical documents rather than commentaries.) Hawkins noted that history classes in community colleges should use primary documents; even some high schools do, she noted.
Steven Hill, head of the humanities department at Wake Tech, said in an interview that his history staff was somewhat “taken aback” by the paper. At least some teachers are emphasizing primary sources, he said. Even in the required textbooks, primary sources are highlighted, he said.
Hill said that the N. C. State faculty should realize that the courses are survey courses, that these students have not declared a major, and that some students at that early stage simply aren’t ready to write long research papers. He also pointed out that Wake Tech has a writing center to help students with grammar and the mechanics of writing papers. Wake Tech offers two semesters each of U.S. history, Western Civilization, and World history.
Jonathan Ocko, head of the history department at N.C. State, emphasized that the report is “anecdotal” rather than definitive. It reflects efforts by history faculty (and not all faculty members agreed that a report was needed) to explore how to “work with the community colleges to help the students have a more immediately successful transition.”
Tests were among the objects of criticism. They appear to be “more closely related to a college-prep level course in high school than to a test in a history course at a four-year institution,” Hawkins wrote. “They feature matching, true/false, multiple choice, short answer, and one-page essays.”
Another problem, according to Hawkins, was the “nature of students often found in community college classes.” One student told her that the “lack of dedication” among students in her classes reduced her own motivation.
Out of 390 history majors at the time Hawkins began her report, 37 had transferred some history credits from a N.C. community college to N.C. State. Those students were the focus of the report. The largest number of students (14) came from Wake Technical; the other community colleges represented were Wilson, Technical, Nash, Davidson, James Sprunt, Tri-County, Gaston, Beaufort, Forsyth Technical, Alamance, Guilford, Coastal Carolina, Wayne, Cape Fear, Wilkes, and Surry.
After emailing all 37 students, Hawkins ultimately met with six. She also wrote to community college faculty and obtained class materials from history courses at five schools.
Although the students she interviewed laid most of the blame at the feet of the two-year colleges, they also expressed a need for more helpful advising at N.C. State.
In March, a meeting was held between history and community college faculty to further cooperation and facilitate students’ transition. N. C. State might make some changes, but the deeper question is whether North Carolina’s community colleges are holding expectations too low to enable their students to transfer to a four-year flagship university.
Jane S. Shaw is the executive vice president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.