Editorial: Enriching opportunities for community college students

Last modified: Monday, December 15, 2014

There was a time when Emmanuel Morales did not imagine he would design his own education at Hampshire College in Amherst, where he is studying the “intersection of civil liberties and technology.” Morales, 22, told the Gazette in a story published this week that he grew up in a working-class family. “I thought I would just go to work and pay bills. (Holyoke Community College) really gave me hope to have a shot at an education like this.”

Morales, who grew up in Holyoke and excelled in math at HCC, is a success story typical among the increasing number of students benefiting from the bonds forged with community colleges by Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith and the University of Massachusetts. The schools are national leaders in creating programs that encourage community college transfers and ease their transition in pursuing a four-year degree.

Morales made his way to Hampshire before it signed a formal agreement with HCC in October ensuring a seamless transfer of credits, with the goal of attracting more students of his caliber. Hampshire College President Jonathan Lash said the agreement helps students navigate “both getting into and getting through Hampshire. These are kids who have the ambition and energy and commitment to overcome huge odds.”

HCC now has 67 such transfer agreements, including another new one with the University of Massachusetts Commonwealth Honors College. It is the first community college in Massachusetts with a formal link to that honors program. And just this week, Smith College announced it is establishing four scholarships for students from HCC and Greenfield Community College. Students who earn at least 32 credits will be eligible for the full-tuition Smith scholarships. The program strengthens academic support for transfer students during their first two semesters at Smith.

HCC and GCC already are among the schools that send the most students to Smith, with more than 200 transfers from the two community colleges in the last dozen years. Smith President Kathleen McCartney said the new program is in keeping with that commitment.

Community colleges are a gateway for students who do not have the academic background or financial means to enroll in a four-year institution straight out of high school. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, there are 1,132 of these two-year schools in the United States, and they enrolled 12.8 million students two years ago, the most recent statistics available. That is about 45 percent of the undergraduate students in the country. Community college students pay significantly less than they would at most four-year institutions. The average annual bill for tuition and fees at a public community college was $3,260 during the last academic year.

Students who follow the guidelines established by partners such as Smith are buying a ticket that virtually guarantees them admission to a four-year college.

Eight years ago, Amherst and Mount Holyoke were two of the eight colleges and universities across the country that partnered with the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation to increase access for high-achieving, low-income community college students who wanted to earn bachelor’s degrees at those selective institutions.

That initiative worked. At Amherst College, the number of community college applications increased from 32 before the grant to an average now of about 175 each year. Mount Holyoke added 10 low- and moderate-income transfers from community colleges during each of the grant’s four years, and developed initiatives targeting women veterans of the Gulf War and those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith and UMass all have made admirable commitments to opening their doors and widening the opportunities for students like Emmanuel Morales who want to build on the solid foundation provided by a community college education.


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