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Community College Students: An Untapped Source of Future Scientists

Editor's note: This article is the first in a series dedicated to helping community college students interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) transition to 4-year institutions.

Ask any scientist, particularly at a Research I university, about community college students doing research, and you will probably get a quizzical look and a response such as "Do community college students do research?" or "I really do not know much about community colleges." These scientists may not realize that many community college students are just as capable of obtaining graduate degrees and participating in top-notch research projects.

As an administrator at California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH), a minority-serving institution, I've been fortunate to be PI on a grant entitled "Bridges to the Baccalaureate Degree," funded by the Minority Opportunities in Research (MORE), a program of the National Institute of General Medical Science (NIGMS), one of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The program's mission is to encourage minority students currently in community colleges to graduate from 4-year institutions with a degree in science.

The nation's colleges and universities use a variety of methods for increasing these numbers, but I will share what I have found to be the most effective means for helping community college students transfer, graduate, and enter into post-baccalaureate programs leading to the Ph.D. and professional degrees. In doing so, I hope to inspire established scientists at all institutions to involve more community college students in research projects and to remind these researchers of the tremendous potential many of these students have to influence the future of the scientific community.

Changing Attitudes

When I was a faculty member in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Michigan Medical School (UMMS), I was guilty of the same negative attitude about community college students, until I testified before the Michigan legislature regarding the possible closing of Highland Park Community College. It was only then that I began to recognize and appreciate the role of community colleges in the education of our future leaders, particularly those from underrepresented groups: African Americans, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans.

In California, almost 40% of the students enrolled at our 115 community colleges are from underrepresented ethnic groups. Moreover, community colleges educate 65% of the nation's allied health workers. President George W. Bush's statement of support for community colleges in last year's State of the Union address will help change our nation's image of community colleges.

Training Community College Students

Students go to community colleges for a variety of reasons: financial, geographical preferences, and a spell of confidence building. Associated with the latter is the fact that some students find that a more comfortable environment, perhaps closer to home, is a key to their academic success.

Scientists at 4-year institutions ought to realize that reasons like this are reasonable and legitimate, but they often don't. About 70% of students on my campus are transfer students, so the CSUDH faculty is quite familiar with the students' community college experience. Our Bridges grant, though, includes faculty from Harbor/UCLA, a nearby research institute that mainly trains graduate and medical students. When some Harbor/UCLA faculty were asked if they were interested in having a community college student work with them, they replied, "Aren't these remedial students?"

These Harbor/UCLA faculty mentors quickly learned that these were not remedial students, but bright, inquisitive, highly capable students that made positive contributions to their research projects. In the past six years, Bridges students have become deeply involved in research projects, in some cases presenting abstracts at conferences and co-authoring papers. As we select new pools of Bridges students, faculty mentors are now standing in line for community college students to join their labs.

Career FAQ

Another important component of the training and education of these students is providing them with clear and accurate information about future careers. What training is required? How much will it cost? How much will I earn when I get my degree? What will the work be like? Questions asked by some participants early in the Bridges program included, "Do I have to go to nursing school before getting into medical school?" and "Does a degree in pharmacology enable me to work in a pharmacy?"

Providing community college students with answers early in their training better equips them to make decisions about programs at 4-year institutions before they choose a college. Community college students have the potential to do great work; their deficiencies, if any, tend to be in direction and guidance. Like most undergraduate students, they just need some good advising.

Bridges administrators judge success not only by students' participation in projects, sometimes resulting in authorship of abstracts and papers, but also in their transitions into 4-year institutions, acceptance into competitive undergraduate training programs such as U*STAR and RISE, graduation with a bachelor's degree, and, ultimately, their entrance into a graduate or professional program. We are proud, that over the last six years at CSUDH, 36 students have transferred to a 4-year institution, seven have successfully competed for slots in the NIGMS funded training programs, seven have graduated with B.S. degrees and two are now in graduate or professional school. We expect this trend to continue.

Thomas D. Landefeld, Ph.D., is Associate Dean of the College of Natural and Behavioral Sciences at California State University, Dominguez Hills. He may be reached at .