Community colleges are known for navigating marginalized students along the sometimes rocky road to the workforce or a four-year university. Considering recent drops in transfer numbers, two-year institutions and four-year colleges are teaming up to make it easier for underserved students to live their best academic lives.
University centers are the fruits of this partnership, giving students the option to stay on their comfortable community college campus while pursuing a bachelor’s degree. Facilities offer a variety of university courses, creating a dual enrollment environment built for typical two-year learners along with high school and university students — the end product is a complete pathway to a college degree.
Holden University Center at Lakeland Community College (Ohio) launched in 2011 following a resident survey emphasizing the need for more at-home educational options. The center added much-needed classroom and lab space alongside expanded training programs for local businesses.
“There were few opportunities for Lake County residents to earn a four-year or graduate degree close to home,” says Lakeland President Morris Beverage. “Many of our students are raising kids and working multiple jobs. Driving to a university for a bachelor’s degree means it’s not going to happen for them.”
Lakeland is currently collaborating with 11 area institutions — among them Cleveland State University, Bowling Green State University and Notre Dame College — on multiple degree programs and professional development prospects.
Partnership agreements outline the specific courses, bridge programs and university classes required for a four-year degree. University affiliates design and deliver curriculum, with the center’s classes taught by partner-assigned faculty.
Most Holden Center bachelor’s programs are tailored for junior- and senior-level students, even as Lakeland offers lower-division classes through its normal associate degree program. As outlined in the partnership agreement, Lakeland provides staff, classroom and office space, and a partnership coordinator. Members design and deliver courses that allow students to finish their degrees in a timely manner.
While admission requirements vary, students must complete about 60 hours of coursework and/or the equivalent of an associate degree. Onsite and online courses are combined with hybrid options and interactive video distance learning, or IVDL, which merges face-to-face instruction with video conferencing.
Participating universities set their own tuition and fees — the savings for students derives from starting their higher education journey at Lakeland, Beverage says.
“Students can save thousands in tuition by taking the first two years of courses here, then simply transfer into a Holden University Center partnership program,” says Beverage. “Students are saving an average of $20,000 by completing their four-year degree through one of our programs.”
Help from an experienced team
McHenry County College (MCC) in Illinois is new to the university center concept, thanks to a recently inked collaboration with Aurora University. Upon purchasing and renovating a space on the Aurora campus, MCC is making the dream of a bachelor’s degree available to all county residents, says MCC President Clint Gabbard.
The center, about 10 minutes up the road from MCC, will host 15-17 degree programs for in-demand occupations such as elementary education, information technology and social work. Programming with Aurora begins this fall, although MCC is bringing in additional partner universities for the 2024 academic year.
Older career seekers or students finishing their associate degrees at MCC deserve a chance to better themselves without leaving their families or paying high tuition fees, says Gabbard.
“We’re even talking to high school juniors about coming to MCC for their associate’s, then continuing straight on to one of the degrees at the center,” Gabbard says. “They may never have to leave the county while pursuing their end goal. Hands-on, high-touch advising takes place along the way to make sure that happens.”
Onsite resources will include advisors from MCC and member schools experienced in the transfer planning process. Financial counseling will ideally ease student worries about affording the next level of their education, says Gabbard.
“We already have a full-time transfer coordinator to shepherd students throughout their career,” he says. “There are dozens of transfer agreements available where students know if they complete the proper course work, they’ll be ready to go.”
Arrangements with additional Illinois universities are intentionally lacking degree overlap. A mission to support student success would not work with member colleges competing for talent, Gabbard says.
“There is collaboration among faculty to make sure the course work they’re teaching is compatible with courses at a university,” Gabbard says. “Now that we’re official partners, we can pick up the phone and say, ‘Is this course something your native student will take in their first year?’”
Widening the student pipeline
Headlines about student debt — not to mention the impact of the pandemic on higher education — has taken the luster off the so-called “college experience,” says Gabbard. Today’s learners care more about entering the workforce debt-free than where they earn their degree.
The university center model builds a bridge to completion that recognizes historical barriers such as work, family and transportation.
“The center is one more step in the process,” Gabbard says. “We have people supporting their children or their grandparents. Giving that student the chance to finish a bachelor’s degree is a big deal. Plenty of universities are realizing that we’ve been leaving folks in the margins by not making it reasonable for them to achieve (a bachelor’s degree).”
Beverage, the Lakeland president, has witnessed first-hand the demand for undergraduate degree initiatives in northeast Ohio. About 1,700 students (981 undergraduate and 752 graduate) have finished their education at the Holden University Center since 2011, earning degrees for potentially lucrative careers in nursing and cybersecurity.
“The area has world-class hospitals always looking for advanced training in their nurses,” says Beverage. “The region’s manufacturing sector is also a vibrant part of the economy. More manufacturers are taking on advanced technology abilities in their machinery, so workers have to know how to calibrate machines and check for quality.”