A few years ago, the dean of one of our professional colleges approached me about arranging a conversation with several community colleges, to explore creating articulation agreements. I was pleased, but also surprised, because the college had always before been a reluctant partner.
Enrollments had declined in the college, however, and reduced state support had forced the university leadership to tie budgets more closely to student credit hour production. The dean knew that my staff had built strong relationships with community colleges, so it made sense to ask us to initiate a conversation.
We arranged the meetings, and the assistant dean of the college accompanied my staff to the community college. As soon as everyone was introduced and took their seats, the assistant dean spoke up, saying, “We would like to create an articulation agreement between our programs and your institution. I reviewed your curriculum and prepared curriculum sheets to show how your program articulates with ours. You’ll see that students cannot reach the baccalaureate in just two years, but if you make the changes I’ve indicated to your existing curriculum, the fit will be better.”
The community college dean asked a few questions about course scheduling at the university, given that most of her graduates were working full time and would need to commute to the university branch for some courses, and to the main campus for certain courses and labs. She wondered about online options or the possibility of offering some courses on the community college campus. She also asked for more detail about course transfer, hoping to find a few more matches than the curriculum sheet showed.
The assistant dean patiently explained that there was no way around lab requirements, and there were no facilities available other than at the main campus for certain critical lab experiences. Faculty members, he explained, are pressed by their research expectations, so travel to the community college, or even to the university branch, just wouldn’t happen, in most cases. He did express willingness to consider offering labs on Saturdays, but he couldn’t commit.
So, the articulation agreement was created and signed, but there was virtually no increase in transfer enrollment. Those of us involved in outreach (branch campus and distance learning staff) were frustrated at the failure to use this opportunity to build another bridge. The difference between what the assistant dean viewed as “partnering” and what we considered to be an engaged partnership was critical.
When universities come to listen, community colleges feel respected and valued, as colleagues. University representatives need to demonstrate some willingness to examine assumptions about curriculum and about serving new student audiences. When community college representatives come to listen, they get a better understanding of legitimate concerns that the university folks feel, so that the university does not appear simply to be rigid or arrogant.
In an engaged partnership, institutions have the potential to design curriculum and develop services that support student success. Because their relationship grows over time, the institutions might create entirely new programs or degree options, never before considered. They might engage in co-marketing, dual admissions, and shared advising. They surely will identify hurdles and overcome them, increasing the likelihood that community college students will naturally select the partnering university to continue their education.
These partnerships are happening, and for universities, it does make a difference in attracting enrollment. But engaged partnerships require deep listening and willingness to seek common ground, in creative ways that yield high quality programs, while adjusting to the legitimate expectations of our students.