Community College Research Initiatives

August 24, 2022

Structuring STEM Transfer Partnership Success

CCRI’s STEM Transfer Partnership (STP) program has been working with colleges and universities across Washington state to tackle one of the key barriers to low-income student STEM degree attainment: transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions in the STEM fields. Though numerous interventions for transfer pathways have been designed and implemented, there remains a need for effective and sustainable models of transfer partnership that address the specific needs of STEM transfer students. In our first data note of this new series, Structuring STEM Transfer Partnership Success, we address this problem by drawing upon data from the first six months of the STP program. 

Programs to expand access to STEM education and support low-income students have proliferated in the last twenty years, funded and motivated by federal and state interest in diversifying the STEM workforce and expanding educational equity. However, these interventions are often difficult to sustain and limited to a relatively small number of students. How can we create lasting change in the STEM transfer process that supports student success? How can we expand the impact of STEM interventions beyond an individual college or university or a select cohort of students? In our most recent data note we address these questions by closely examining the initial steps of the STP program. Drawing upon data from a variety of sources, including surveys, researcher observation, and document analysis, we highlight effective strategies and describe key challenges. We identify three key strategies for addressing the fault lines of previous interventions: engaging institutional participants as architects in their own institutional transformations, structuring partnerships through flexible protocols, and overcoming silos through community.

One key finding in our analysis of the initial stages of STP is the importance of engaging faculty, staff, and administration as problem solvers in their own transfer partnerships. Rather than imposing a predetermined plan for STEM transfer improvement upon the diverse range of colleges and universities in the program, STP invites participants to draw upon their institutional knowledge and contextually specific strategies to draft their own plan for transformation. Beginning with the application process and continuing throughout the program, participants were able to tailor interventions to the resources and student body at their institutions. Participants responded with energy to this approach, reflecting critically on past collaborations and future potential for partnership. After engaging in this series of self-led reflections and analyses, participants expressed optimism for positive change. Despite differences in location and institutional culture, they embraced the idea of taking concrete steps to solidify connections and build durable transfer pathways.

Though participant leadership in transformation was key, we also found balance between flexibility and structure was essential. In order to break down the enormous task of changing well-established transfer processes at their institutions, participants completed a series of self-assessments, beginning with less structured brainstorming and moving into more specific reflection and planning with structured protocols that took big problems apart into actionable steps. Survey participants overwhelmingly reported these protocols as key in moving their partnership forward.

Finally, we found that community-building was the foundation from which participants were empowered to dismantle disciplinary and institutional silos.  In both observation and survey data, we found evidence that coming together in conversation with others that shared their commitment to equity in STEM pathways was beneficial. The shared community helps participants see the broader landscape, establish cross-institutional connections, and reframe their own experiences in terms of systemic patterns instead of isolated barriers.

This data note describes the hopeful first steps toward a cultural shift in how we think about STEM fields and student transfer. Creating more equitable pathways for STEM degree attainment is a formidable task. We hope the data and analysis reported here will open up a conversation for researchers and practitioners for further action for STEM equity.