Community Colleges

Getting to Four

June 1, 2017  • Zach Johnson, Rebecca Egbert, Tania LaViolet & Keith Witham

Every year, thousands of Americans enroll in community colleges with the goal of continuing on to a four-year college or university to earn a bachelor’s degree. Yet, too often, exceptional community-college students don’t reach that goal. Through no fault of their own, they fall short of their dreams—and communities across the US miss out on their talents. The Institute’s College Excellence Program works with community colleges and four-year institutions to build clearer bridges and to increase access for low- and moderate-income students.

Pathways to College Success

With a mission of serving the local community and with lower tuition than most four-year institutions, community colleges offer a promising point of access to higher education for those who may not have followed a direct path to a four-year degree. Zach Johnson was one of those individuals.

At the age of 18, rather than apply to college like many of his peers, Johnson—eager to push boundaries and inspired by his grandfather, a Korean War veteran—enlisted in the Marines. During four years of service, he deployed for two tours in Afghanistan and was selected to join the bomb-dog-handling team. When Johnson’s enlistment ended in 2012, he sought out a new set of challenges and looked to Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, North Carolina. “I went into Cape Fear because the college was right there, and there was a huge veteran community there,” Johnson says. “I was leaving the military community and wanted to go into another community where I would feel at home.”

80 percent of students entering community college intend to transfer to a four-year institution, but only 24 percent actually do.

Initially, Johnson says, he thought he would be a veterinarian because of his work with animals in the military. However, when he started community college, he immediately felt the consequences of four years spent outside of any type of academic setting—and he struggled.

He’s not the only one: 80 percent of students entering community college intend to transfer to a four-year institution, but only 24 percent of them actually do—and even fewer obtain a bachelor’s degree.

“It brought me to do some serious reevaluating,” Johnson says. “I changed my major to business, and I dedicated myself to helping others. I interned for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, which opened my eyes to law and the justice system, and that has stayed with me.”

Though the value of education was deeply instilled by two generations of teachers in his family, Johnson wasn’t sure at where his education would take him. He also knew he wanted to continue in public service, but he wasn’t sure what form that would take or how to get there. Like many community-college students, Johnson was ambitious but needed a clear path forward. He found his way thanks to a poster in the Veteran’s Center at Cape Fear for a program called the Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program. C-STEP is run through the admissions office at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; its mission is to help students of all ages from low-income families transfer from one of ten partnering North Carolina community colleges into UNC.

The poster was simple—a picture of the “Old Well,” the iconic rotunda on UNC Chapel Hill’s campus, that said something along the lines of, “We’re here for nontraditional students,” according to Johnson. “You know how when a new idea hits you, and it’s something you didn’t know you needed or wanted until you discover it? It was like finding a group I didn’t know I belonged in.”

C-STEP gave Johnson a home at UNC Chapel Hill before he was even attached to the school. He was able to visit several times before he started classes. And advisers from UNC visited Cape Fear to talk with students about their plans after they transferred. “By the time I got to Chapel Hill,” Johnson says, “I already knew the campus, and I already felt like I was at home.”

Access to academic advising, holistic support, and community building can help students reach their full potentials.

UNC Chapel Hill is a founding member of the American Talent Initiative, a Bloomberg Philanthropies–supported partnership among the Institute’s College Excellence Program; Ithaka S+R’s Educational Transformation Program, which works with leaders in higher education to foster innovation; and a growing alliance of state, Ivy League, and private liberal-arts colleges and universities committed to substantially increasing opportunity for low- and moderate-income students. ATI institutions are dedicated to learning from each other about how best to enroll, engage, and support lower-income students through graduation and beyond.

Five years later, Johnson is poised to graduate from one of the nation’s best public universities, with a degree in Management and Society. He is committed to serving people and making a difference: Johnson has already been accepted to law school, after which he hopes to pursue a career advancing social justice.

What Colleges Do Matters

Johnson’s chance encounter with a poster was part of a larger effort by Chapel Hill to reach out to talented, nontraditional, and lower-income students who might have reservations about UNC. The message: you belong here. The C-STEP program was started in the admissions office at Chapel Hill in 2006 to help talented students from low-income families and nontraditional college paths find their way into UNC and be successful there. “UNC Chapel Hill had not always been viewed as a very transfer-friendly institution,” says Becky Egbert, a senior assistant director of admissions and the director of the C-STEP program. “That was something we wanted to change.” The program works with many different departments on campus, Egbert says, to ensure, for example, that community-college students are making the right course choices for their majors and are on track to graduate from their community college within two years. The financial-aid office sends a staff member to each of the ten colleges to talk to students about finances, make sure they’re filling out the right paperwork, and help them feel more at ease with the costs. “We make students aware of need-based aid,” Egbert says, “and let them know they can make it work.”

The kinds of support that helped Johnson succeed at UNC Chapel Hill are critical. His journey is an example of how good policy that provides access to academic advising, holistic support, and community building across a continuum of two-year and four-year college campuses can help talented students like Johnson reach their full potentials. The importance of such intentional practices is underscored by trends showing that nontraditional students like Johnson are becoming the new normal in higher education.