Community College Research Initiatives

October 1, 2021

CCRI receives nearly $1.2 million grant for work to increase equity in STEM 

The University of Washington’s Community College Research Initiatives announced that it received a $1,173,375.00 grant from Ascendium Education Group to work towards equity in STEM education for low-income learners across Washington state. 

Community College Research Initiatives (CCRI) conducts research ​​in order to facilitate the advancement of equity in higher education. Ascendium invests in initiatives designed to increase the number of students from low-income backgrounds who complete postsecondary degrees. Ascendium’s work is particularly focused on supporting learners from rural and low-income backgrounds, making them a fitting partner for CCRI. 

CCRI, a program of UW Undergraduate Academic Affairs, is an influential contributor in community college and transfer partnership research identifying strategies that help students transfer to four-year institutions and complete their bachelor’s degrees. This project will create a state-wide consortium of partnerships between two- and four-year institutions. These partners will specifically focus on creating programs that will help low-income STEM students transfer and earn their bachelor’s degree. This grant will enable them to animate their findings by building partnerships between two- and four-year institutions throughout Washington state, ultimately increasing the retention and graduation of STEM transfer students. 

STEM transfer students face a variety of challenges

Students transferring from two-year institutions experience challenges when pursuing STEM degrees. Science, technology, engineering and math degrees often require multiple, year-long series of courses that must be completed in order. Minimum grades must be met to advance in these course sequences, with rigorous academic requirements and little room for electives. Missing the first quarter of a series can put a student an entire year behind. On top of this, transfer students often end up earning more credits than they need to complete their degree. The Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC) tracks this information, finding that the average engineering transfer student with a Direct Transfer Agreement in Washington graduates with 76 credits beyond the 180 minimum requirement for a bachelor’s degree. Yet, students lose access to the Washington College Grants once they accumulate 225 credits. The combination of loss of funding and time constraints can lead to students dropping out.

“The data show that transfer students face a variety of challenges when moving between institutions,” explains Janice DeCosmo, associate dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs and the UW’s representative to the state’s Joint Transfer Council committee. “This grant will allow CCRI to build on its work with academic partners and support institutions statewide to effectively address transfer challenges. This work has the potential to narrow the gap in retention and graduation rates for transfer students, especially those from low-income communities pursuing STEM degrees. It will also directly benefit students and families, ultimately improving educational outcomes for communities across Washington state.”

Creating paths to STEM degrees and STEM jobs

STEM jobs provide family wage jobs and offer students paths to upward mobility. The National Science Board report on Science and Engineering Indicators from 2018 found that after the 2008 recession, the unemployment rate among STEM fields was 41% lower than the national average. Today, first-generation families, rural communities and students of color have been disproportionately impacted by the economic fallout caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a 2019 transfer report from WSAC the STEM job forecast estimates that between 2020-2025, 7,000 positions will be left unfilled due to a shortage of STEM-degree holders. CCRI’s work aims to bridge this gap by supporting transfer students graduating with degrees in these fields. 

The cornerstone of CCRI’s work involves equipping two-year and four-year institutions with the skills, knowledge and support to build partnerships between their institutions. These partnerships aim to remove structural barriers that prevent low-income students from graduating with STEM degrees and create change that will enable students to persist to graduation. For example, institutions and departments can align their course requirements so that students will earn fewer extra credits. They can coordinate financial aid efforts so that fewer students will drop out due to lack of funding. 

A large part of this work is connecting rural community colleges to four-year colleges around the state. Community colleges in rural settings face particular challenges: higher numbers of first-generation and low-income students; a lack of four-year institutions nearby to partner with; and fewer resources to support their students. Ascendium’s work is particularly focused on supporting learners from rural and low-income backgrounds.

“As Ascendium thinks about how we can support effective strategies to increase equitable credential completion and socioeconomic mobility, the disparities that persist for learners from low-income backgrounds as they pursue degrees in STEM fields are troublesome,” says Carolynn Lee, senior program officer at Ascendium. “That’s why we’re excited to partner with Community College Research Initiatives to more deeply understand how institutions can develop sustainable, scalable partnerships to streamline complex STEM transfer pathways so that low-income students who start at community colleges aren’t shut out of these high-earning potential degrees and careers.”

Over the next three years, CCRI will partner with 10 pairs of two-year and four-year institutions. Their work together will involve identifying barriers for graduation and then identifying steps to support transfer students in their undergraduate journey. Teams from participating schools will also attend monthly coaching meetings with CCRI to support the pairs’ efforts in increasing educational equity in STEM. The STEM Transfer Partnership application period is from September 30 – December 30, 2021. CCRI encourages institutions to reach out to apply and will be hosting information webinars during October and November. Contact to participate. 

“We thank Ascendium for the generous support of the STEM Transfer Partnership project. By lowering barriers to STEM transfer, we will increase access for low-income students to living-wage careers that can survive future economic stressors. Our communities and employers will also benefit from a workforce with diverse lived experiences that provide an array of perspectives to help innovate solutions,” says Lia Wetzstein, director of CCRI and principal investigator on the grant. “By creating a community of practice around strengthening transfer partnerships we hope to improve outcomes for participating institutions, and spread best practices and a culture of collaboration to many other institutions.”

About the University of Washington’s Community College Research Initiatives

The CCRI team conducts research and development to generate actionable knowledge to advance equity in the field of higher education. CCRI — a program of Undergraduate Academic Affairs — focuses on studying the experiences of underserved student groups that use community colleges as their entry point to higher education and the role that institutions play in equitable student educational and employment outcomes. Their goal is to leverage this research to effect change in postsecondary education at all levels. To learn more about CCRI, visit

About Ascendium Education Group

Ascendium Education Group is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to helping people reach the education and career goals that matter to them. Ascendium invests in initiatives designed to increase the number of students from low-income backgrounds who complete postsecondary degrees, certificates and workforce training programs, with an emphasis on first-generation students, incarcerated adults, rural community members, students of color and veterans. Ascendium’s work identifies, validates and expands best practices to promote large-scale change at the institutional, system and state levels, with the intention of elevating opportunity for all. For more information, visit

For more information or to get involved, contact Lia Wetzstein,