Two-Year Colleges: Why Every Educator Should Care

Two-Year Colleges: Why Every Educator Should Care

Marisa Vernon
Columbus State Community College

As professionals, it can be so easy to settle into a bubble. With so much information available to all of us, we naturally filter, compartmentalize, and focus on the topics that pertain directly to our institution’s priorities, the projects in which we are invested, or the specific student populations we serve. We scan the table of contents within the journals that appear on our desks, and skim through newsletters looking for familiar industry buzzwords. We promise ourselves we will one day read through the rest, as soon as that looming deadline is met, or summer break rolls around, or the weekend approaches after completing a large project.

This column, to many and perhaps to you, will be focused on a topic you may generally overlook depending on your current and past experience. However, I would like to invite you to explore the unique environment of the two-year college, and perhaps consider how the community college experience both differs from and parallels the setting in which you work.

Opening the Dialogue

Through this column, I hope to not only present topics important at two-year colleges, but also provoke dialogue among all professionals about how we can work together to support student needs through a variety of pathways. Whether you are a two-year college professional searching for content focused on your student population, an educator at a four-year institution seeking to understand the two-year experience, or simply a passionate student advocate who stays current in the field, I invite you to join a growing conversation about trends in two-year colleges.

Seeing the educational system on a global level fosters a student-centered focus and broadens our awareness of opportunities to be passed along to our students. Perhaps you will integrate topics from this column when preparing a student to transfer to a four-year institution, or begin to feel knowledgeable enough to recommend that a student first begin at a local two-year college. Perhaps you will look at the next community college transcript to pass over your desk differently, or become more aware of your beliefs about the value of one institution over another. Maybe you will simply have a better understanding of student traffic patterns and why students select one environment over another.

Whatever the outcome may be, I hope this column will spark conversation, inspire you to learn, and to step outside of your professional comfort zone, wherever it may be.

Understanding Two Year Colleges: Why it Matters

Today’s college students are weaving in and out of our two- and four-year institutions throughout their educational experience, and perhaps throughout their professional lives as well. Whether your career is focused on public, private, selective, open, two- or four-year educational setting, community colleges are quiet contributors to the landscape. 36% of first-time college students beginning at community colleges earn a credential (associate or baccalaureate degree) within six years (Radford, Berkner, Wheeless and Shepherd, 2010). According to the 2012 National Student Research Clearinghouse Signature Report, just over 15% of community college students go on to earn a bachelor’s degree. These numbers tell the story of a cohort of students who, while perhaps attending four-year institutions, began their educational pursuits in the two-year environment. Woven into nearly all classrooms, advising offices, and student support centers is a population of students who received academic, social, and developmental preparation within the two-year setting. For this reason, an understanding of the community college experience, structure, and environment is an important tool in any educator’s toolbox.

Two-year colleges serve fluid populations of students who bounce in and out of the environment, driven by a wide range of motivating factors. Two-year institutions are more than a gateway to higher education for the underprepared or economically disadvantaged. These institutions also support transient students from four-year institutions, post-baccalaureate students completing prerequisites for graduate programs, students who have been dismissed from other institutions, and professionals obtaining continuing education. Articulation agreements, transfer plans, and completion programs continue to strengthen the relationship between colleges and universities. As boundaries between two- and four-year institutions dissolve and new student traffic patterns emerge, educators are in an ideal position to learn from one another and deepen understanding of unique student experiences.

Through my lens as an Assistant Director in a community college Advising Services center, I see the interconnectedness of all sectors of higher education on a near daily basis. Our doors are open to all, and many students carry with them transcripts from four-year institutions, rejection letters from selective institutions, admissions requirement lists for graduate programs, or an academic history in need of repair. Operating within this system, it is impossible to separate the two-year college experience from the four-year college landscape. It does not take long for any administrator looking through the community college lens to begin viewing post-secondary education as a global and complex system with infinite pathways to academic goals. Bahr (2010) classifies community college students into six general categories: drop-in, experimental, noncredit, vocational, transfer, and exploratory. As one may expect, community college support services interact with students who fall in each of these categories on a daily basis. Students often shift between the categories as well. For example, students who enter a two-year college with the intent to simply experiment with the idea of education may find a new vocational opportunity and pursue a credential. Likewise, a student intending on transferring to a four-year institution may find a career or technical program that better suits his or her needs, and eventually remain at the college through associate degree completion. Student traffic patterns within the two-year institution are obscure and difficult to identify. However, the flexible nature of the environment is the very reason students submit their applications in the first place.

Two-year college professionals are used to working with students who shift goals and paths in dramatic ways. We identify with nonlinear theories of college student development, watching firsthand the sometimes messy, yet significant, growth patterns that occur within our four walls. However, when students leave our campuses at different points in their paths, they carry these complexities with them to four-year institutions. They arrive at colleges and universities having developed within an environment where pathways are individualized and their peers represented a diverse collage of experiences and abilities. Some may also carry with them an unjustified sense that, because they chose to access education through a two-year college, they are somehow less capable than the traditional student. Acknowledging this bias can help professionals in all institutions to broaden approaches and provide support for the wide range of student experiences that arrive through our front doors.

While many students take their first step into college at the two-year institution, many others access two-year institutions during various and unexpected periods throughout their lives. Earlier in my career as an Advisor at a four-year institution, I regularly worked with students who selected to complete summer coursework at local community colleges due to cost and proximity. I often found myself assisting the students with transient application processes and navigating transfer databases to verify their choices. Likewise, I can recall several tearful conversations during which a student came to the realization that he or she was not making academic progress and would be facing dismissal. For some of these students, a two-year college provided an opportunity to rebuild, regain confidence, and begin to establish a new record of success before readmission to a four-year degree-granting institution. In both of these cases, as well as many others, an awareness and appreciation of what a community college can offer to any student is a worthwhile tool.

The majority of states have streamlined transfer between two- and four-year institutions through establishment and maintenance of clear articulation agreements. While this practice has been in place for several decades, renewed emphasis seems to be placed on such agreements as states attempt to increase the number of credential-holding residents and decrease unemployment. With clearly established pathways and guaranteed transfer policies, more students may select other gateways to begin coursework. Likewise, public accessibility of transfer databases may help students to feel more confident that the courses they pursue at two-year colleges will in fact fit into program requirements at four-year institutions.

Similarly, some four year institutions have already begun to deny or defer students’ admission until developmental coursework is complete and the student can verify that he or she is “college-ready.” For some students, a two-year college or regional campus may offer the only gateway to the institution of his or her choice. Even for students who are not deferred, paying top dollar for pre-college, non-credit coursework seems illogical to many economical students and families as they rebuild after the recession.

As students utilize different institutions to build their educational experiences, post-secondary education has become a broader and more transient system. As the profession expands, educators from all corners of the field are now sharing ideas, exchanging best practices, and adopting proven approaches to help our institutions thrive and promote success. The familiar mantra of “meeting students where they are” now means that the environments in which students may have previously developed should be considered as part of a student’s individual diversity profile.

Are We Really That Different?

While it is important for anyone supporting college students to understand what drives students to and from two-year colleges, it is also important to note that professionals from both two- and four-year colleges can learn from one another. At conferences, two-year college professionals can be found lamenting about the lack of presentations on relevant topics, while four-year college professionals pass over sessions geared towards their community college counterparts. When we are asked to collaborate, open pathways, or engage in dialogue about student success, our biases towards one another often get in the way. However, given that more and more students are now making conscious, economical choices to attend either two- or four-year institutions, are our student populations as different as we once believed them to be?

As we all learn more about how college students develop, what factors play a role in persistence, and shift our focus towards success, community colleges are beginning to look, act, and feel more like four-year institutions. Departments with names like “Student Success Center”, “Advising Services”, “First Year Experience”, and “Student Life” are more present on community college campuses than ever before, and are transforming the open-access student experience. Two-year colleges have now joined the conversation about retention, persistence, and student success, blurring the lines between the two sectors of post-secondary education.

As higher education becomes increasingly more accessible and choices multiply, two-year college profiles include academically strong, economically advantaged students while first-year cohorts at four-year institutions often reflect more diverse populations than ever before. While our student populations each present unique challenges, our students are beginning to mirror one another as common themes emerge regardless of environment. Even the most selective colleges are attentive to retention and persistence rates; their fundamental discussions are not unlike those held in two-year college conference rooms. In light of K-12 partnerships, nearly all colleges are part of the dialogue regarding pre-college preparation, dual enrollment, and post-secondary option programs. Likewise, even the most academically rigorous colleges and universities struggle to develop support strategies that meet their students’ diverse needs. When the discussion moves towards these global topics facing higher education, we realize that, while our environments may differ, perhaps our challenges are more similar than we may want to believe.

Two-year institutions can shape initiatives that promote academic rigor, institutional loyalty, persistence, and student life by adopting elements of successful programs developed by four-year institutions. Likewise, four-year institutions can enhance developmental education efforts, academic support programs, workforce preparation, and access pipelines by reviewing best practices at the country’s community colleges.

Collectively, we seem to be focused on the same basic principles: student success, increased graduation rates, and building thriving institutions that meet student needs. Broadening the conversation may, in fact, help both two- and four-year institutions find new paths to explore. Educators and administrators at both two- and four-year institutions are, truly, all in this together.

Discussion Questions

  1. What trends are you currently witnessing regarding student movement between two- and four-year institutions?
  2. Do you feel as though two- and four-year institutions are more similar than they are different? Why or why not?
  3. How can you or your office/ department promote the idea of a global system of education while still upholding a primary commitment to your institution?
  4. Do you feel as though students are selecting two-year institutions for the same reasons they always have, or have their reasons for enrolling at two-year colleges begun to shift?


Bahr, P. (2013). Classifying Community Colleges Based on Students’ Patterns of Use. Research in Higher Education, 54(4), 433-460.

Community College Research Center (n.d.) FAQS. Retrieved July 19, 2013 from:

Knapp, L., Kelly-Reid, J., and Ginder, S. (2011). Enrollment in postsecondary institutions, fall 2009; graduation rates, 2003 & 2006 cohorts; and financial statistics, fiscal year 2009 (NCES 2011-230). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved July 23, 2013 from

National Student Research Clearinghouse. (2012). Signature Report: Completing college: a national view of student attainment rates. Herndon, Virginia: Shapiro, D., Dundar, A., Chen, J., Ziskin, M., Park, E., Torres, V., Chiang, Y.C.

Radford, A.W., Berkner, L., Wheeless, S.C., and Shepherd, B. (2010). Persistence and attainment of 2003–04 beginning postsecondary students: after 6 years (NCES 2011-151). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved July 23, 2013 from

About the Author

Marisa Vernon serves as the Assistant Director of Advising Services at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, where she leads a large team of professional Academic Advisors and coordinates the community college’s mandatory First Year Experience Seminar. Marisa has seven years of higher education administrative experience at open enrollment institutions specializing in two- and four-year degree programs and transfer preparation. Before joining Columbus State Community College, she was the Assistant Director for First Year Experience at Kent State University’s Stark Campus in North Canton, Ohio, and has also worked at the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education.

Please e-mail Inquiries to Marisa Vernon.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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