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Class Appeal

Community colleges are one of the best open secrets for physiology and other STEM majors.
By Candace Y.A. Montague


Greg Crowther, PhD, plays a major role in the future of health care in the U.S. He works with pre-nursing students at Everett Community College in Washington state. He is a tenured instructor in the Life Sciences Department who teaches biology and physiology. If all goes well, most of his students will go into nursing, diagnostic ultrasound or some other pre-health science clinical career. In other words, Crowther’s work is critical to the health care of people in the U.S. 

“My goal is to give them this foundation in physiology and biology that they can then apply to clinical scenarios in the future,” Crowther says. “So, one could think of that as giving them information that will be relevant to their careers. I feel like the most important thing for me to aim for is to give them practical skills that are relevant.”

Crowther can offer a quality education on a personalized level to his students, which fosters growth and keeps them engaged in science. He can do that because he has the space and time to get to know his students and their goals and help them gain a solid foundation in biology before moving on to the next level. This is just one of the many benefits of community college learning that can help students prepare for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers. 

Community colleges offer coursework and internship opportunities that firmly prepare students for matriculation into a four-year institution or for their careers. For some students it’s a saving grace. With the mass exodus of health care professionals and lack of diversity in STEM, community colleges are the not-so-secret weapon in creating a confident, strong workforce.

The Case for Community Colleges

What is the appeal of a community college? This question can be an answered through several lenses. For students coming from traditionally underrepresented communities (Black, Latino and American Indian), community colleges offer a bridge to higher education in a system that locks them out. For students who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, a two-year institution can be a way to sidestep student loan debt. The locality and flexible attendance options of a community college can be just the convenience needed for a single parent or caretaker to get necessary credit hours. A student with a learning disability who needs accommodations can be supported in a small college setting.

In science, community colleges offer a deeper study. Students are afforded opportunities to work directly with instructors and professors in a small class setting. They have more hands-on lab experiences. And in an intimate setting, students can build their confidence and develop relationships with their classmates. It’s an invaluable part of strengthening the learner.

Jenny McFarland, PhD, emeritus and former chair of the biology department at Edmonds College, a community college just outside Seattle, says two-year institutions can start a new flame.

“It’s an excellent pathway because it breeds stamina, particularly in physiology,” McFarland says. “It’s where many of them hear the word ‘physiology’ and become engaged. They are most likely to encounter our class in a pre-health prerequisite. So, they might be aiming for pre-nursing or pharmacy and they have never taken a physiology class. After enrolling, they become curious about natural sciences.”

McFarland adds that smaller class sizes create a tighter community where faculty and students can bond. “When they are in our classes, often the model is that there are 48 to 50 students in a lecture, with two laboratory sessions. That’s about 24 to 25 students in a laboratory session, so students are with us, not a teaching assistant (TA). They get to know the faculty, and they get that kind of direct one-on-one interaction and mentorship that is not available at a four-year institution. One of my colleagues has 600 students in her class and a bunch of TAs. There’s no way she knows 600 students.”

“It’s where many of them hear the word ‘physiology’ and become engaged. They are most likely to encounter our class in a pre-health prerequisite. So, they might be aiming for pre-nursing or pharmacy and they have never taken a physiology class. After enrolling, they become curious about natural sciences.”

Jenny McFarland, PhD

However, there are various stigmas attached with attending a community college. Students who enroll in a two-year institution are typically considered “nontraditional.” They may have been out of school for a long period of time. They may be working parents. Some may be undocumented and have prior schooling from their native country that is viewed as substandard. Also, some of the typical requirements for admission in a four-year institution, such as SAT scores, are not necessary for entry into a community college. These and other factors can lead to a biased, one-sided picture of a higher education learner whose transcript and essays may not tell the whole story.

Community college enrollment numbers show that minority students have been continuously making efforts to attain higher education degrees. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, as of 2016, minority students were the largest percentage of first-time students at community colleges. The data showed that 19% of students identified as Hispanic, along with 19% Black, 18% American Indian and 15% Asian/Pacific Islander. 

However, postsecondary enrollment across the country has taken a hit since the pandemic began. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate enrollment has declined 7.8% since 2019. Community colleges saw a 15% decrease in enrollment, with a majority of that among full-time students. 

While recent stats about community colleges and STEM are limited, in 2010 more than half of all students receiving STEM bachelor’s degrees received at least some of their undergraduate training at a community college, according to the National Science Foundation’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics.

A Bridge from Two-year to Four-year Institutions

The writing has been on the wall for more than decade: Long before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, health care professionals have been leaving the workforce in droves. Nursing shortages will continue to grow. Retirements and career changes—particularly during the worst public health crisis in U.S. history—have rapidly shrunk the health care labor pool.

For far too long, the science and technology workforce has been overwhelmingly white and male. Repeated calls for and efforts to increase the number of people of color, women and LGBTQ people who work and lead in STEM have not led to a meaningful increase of underrepresented populations in these fields. 

To build a strong and diverse biomedical research workforce, there will need to be investments in recruitment and development. Enter the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which offers several programs designed to support two- and four-year institutions as they cultivate a new group of STEM workers who will be prepared to take science to the next level.

Shakira M. Nelson, PhD, is the program director in the Division of Training, Workforce Development and Diversity. She administers the Diversity Supplement Program and re-entry supplements and manages the Bridges to the Baccalaureate Research Training Program and Initiative for Maximizing Student Development programs. 

Nelson explains how the Bridges to the Baccalaureate program helps connect two- and four-year institutions: “This is a training program offered to a two-year or an associate’s degree-granting institution and a four-year or baccalaureate-degree institution. It offers a partnership for them to help community college students with an interest in biomedical studies to bridge from the two-year to the four-year institution and graduate with their bachelor’s degree. We also aim to increase the pool of community college students from underrepresented backgrounds who go on to research careers.”

Nelson discussed some the expected outcomes of the program, including students having opportunities to conduct research during the summer at a four-year institution. She says these opportunities can help students see the finish line. 

“A lot of students are interested in STEM but don’t have the resources or access to allow them to have an immersive experience in the laboratory. Summer research further allows them to see where they can go in their future careers.”

Community college enrollment numbers show that minority students have been continuously making efforts to attain higher education degrees.

The Diversity Supplement Program supports institutions to recruit students from diverse communities with an interest in research in the biomedical sciences. Nelson stressed the importance of using this tool for equity and inclusion. “The diversity supplement can be applied to high school students all the way through to early-career scientists or scientific investigators. It allows for the equipment and training of students from underrepresented backgrounds. This is not necessarily just students who are underrepresented racially and culturally. This also includes underrepresented students who are in certain scientific areas. This can also include those who identify as LGBTQ as well.”

Best Practices for a Meaningful Community College Experience

Whether students are aiming for a PhD or entering the workforce after their two years are up, experts say it’s important for community colleges to adequately prepare students for future endeavors while building their confidence. Recently, the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students published a guide (www.nists.org/five-key-faculty-practices) on how faculty members can provide a positive experience for students. Tips such as offering a warm welcome to students and avoiding looking for students’ deficits can help the instructor-student experience be more efficacious.

One of Crowther’s tips for teaching is to get students out of the memorization habit. “A lot of my students come into biology thinking that it’s a big memorization contest and that the way to succeed is to memorize as many facts as possible. So, I try to convince them that the course is really about solving problems without discounting that, yes, some things need to be memorized.”

At Harford Community College (HCC) in Maryland, STEM students have access to an award-winning program that practically mirrors a four-year institute’s program. Pamela Pape-Lindstrom, PhD, is the dean of STEM at HCC. She says one of the keys to their success is smaller, student-focused classes. 

“Our lecture classes have 28 to 48 students. The labs only have 24 students. HCC prepares our students for moving to a four-year school, as the students take the same classes here in science and math that they would take at a four-year school,” she says. “So, if they want a major in biology, they will take a full year of biology with labs. They would take two years of chemistry with labs. They would take physics with labs, and they would take math (precalculus).”

HCC’s STEM program develops partnerships with local four-year institutions to help the matriculation process go smoothly and increase the chances of their students completing bachelor’s degree programs.

Pape-Lindstrom stresses the importance of these relationships: “We have articulation agreements or transfer agreements with many different four-year schools. The majority of our students go to Towson University, so we have relationships with their faculty. Our partnerships with four-year institutions help our students develop a relationship with their faculty. It’s a very important mentoring relationship, and it’s really impactful for the students.” 

This article was originally published in the May 2022 issue of The Physiologist Magazine.

Snapshot of U.S. Community College Students

Approximately 6.2 million students attend two-year institutions (2.2 million full-time and 4 million part-time). 

Community college students represent:

  • 39% of all U.S. undergraduates
  • 36% of first-time freshmen
  • 53% of Native American college students
  • 50% of Hispanic college students
  • 40% of Black college students
  • 36% of Asian/Pacific Islander college students

Community colleges offer an entry point to higher education for a broad array of students:

  • 29% first-generation college students
  • 20% students with disabilities
  • 15% single parents8% non-U.S. citizens
  • 4% veterans

Source: 2022 American Association of Community Colleges Fast Facts,  www.aacc.nche.edu/research-trends/fast-facts.



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