Research at Nebraska 2021-2022 Report
From left: Leen Kiat-Soh, Wendy Smith, Mindi Searls and Brittany Duncan

Easing the Transition to Four-year College

Transferring from a community college to a four-year college is often challenging. Students face bigger classes, farther-removed instructors and a larger, more affluent student body.

Nebraska leads a 22-institution research collaboration aimed at smoothing this transition by strengthening partnerships between two- and four-year colleges. The team’s research aims to fill a critical gap in the national understanding of what it takes to help transfer students succeed.

“I think that having better and stronger partnerships between two- and four-year colleges is only going to benefit students.”

Wendy Smith

The National Science Foundation-funded research hub builds on an existing project at Nebraska funded by NSF’s Scholarships in STEM, or S-STEM, program. It provides scholarships and support for academically gifted, low-income STEM students, including some transfer students from local community colleges. The new network brings together similarly focused S-STEM programs at geographically diverse institutions.

The goal is to figure out what’s working – and what’s not – in these efforts to build institutional partnerships.

“I think that having better and stronger partnerships between two- and four-year colleges is only going to benefit students,” said project leader Wendy Smith, research professor of mathematics and director of the Center for Science, Mathematics and Computer Education. “It will benefit the students who, in some sense, are starting higher education the most disadvantaged.”

Because community college students are more likely to be low income and from historically underrepresented groups, supporting their success would help diversify the U.S. STEM workforce. Though roughly 80% of first-time two-year college students aim for a bachelor’s degree or higher, just 29% earn one within six years.

Little national data exist to explain this trend. To fill that gap, researchers are forming topic-based professional learning communities to discuss issues like student advising, financial aid and instructional approaches. They’ll visit S-STEM sites, interviewing leaders to identify best practices. And they’ll analyze data from the programs to assess time-to-graduation, graduation rates and more.

A major goal is establishing parity between two- and four-year colleges and eliminating the historical bias in favor of four-year institutions.

“We want to agree on best practices as part of a true partnership, not one with a power imbalance,” Smith said.

A $3 million NSF grant funds this project.

+ Additional content for Easing the Transition to Four-year College

Nebraska news release: Project aims to smooth STEM students’ path from 2-year to 4-year institutions

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