Computing Profession Broadening participation

Community Colleges: A Resource For Increasing Equity and Inclusion in Computer Science Education

Challenging a simplistic pathway metaphor.
  1. Introduction
  2. Students Expect a Modified Traditional Education Pipeline Model
  3. Students Experience a Snarled Pathway Education Model
  4. Suggestions for Simplifying CC CS Students' Pathways
  5. References
  6. Authors
  7. Footnotes
Community Colleges: A Resource for Increasing Equity and Inclusion in Computer Science Education, illustrative photo

In the long-standing and persistent lack of diversity in computer science (CS), too little attention has been paid to the role that community colleges (CCs) can play. Community colleges are poised to provide an important resource for preparing a 21st-century workforce begging for more computer science graduates as well as more diversity in those graduates. To broaden participation in CS, CCs must be the focus of increased study and intervention. As part of this work, we revisit the current metaphors that guide CS education research and practice—the idea that students follow a “pipeline” or even a “pathway” is too simplistic to capture the convoluted routes that many CC students are constrained to follow. In this column, we argue that there is a misalignment between the existing research and practice approaches and institutional structures, which are based on a traditional educational pipeline metaphor, and the experiences of students attempting to pursue a CS bachelor’s degree.

Community colleges are typically open access, lower-division institutions whose student population is more diverse than that of four-year universities and reflect a transformation of the demographics in higher education. As noted in an earlier Communications Broadening Participation column,8 there is a high participation of minorities in CS at CCs; more than half of CC students are non-white, and more than half of all Hispanic and Black undergraduates start at community college.1 Efforts to retain students through transfer to completion of a bachelor’s degree would be a large step forward in helping diversify the field.

Despite these differences between populations of students at CCs and at four-year institutions, research and institutional strategies continue to be informed by assumptions and findings that do not always apply to students who begin their journey to a bachelor’s degree at a CC. We argue that an understanding of the unique strengths and challenges of CC students is needed to strengthen efforts to broaden participation in CS. In addition, we claim that educational pathway metaphors need to be updated and applied to most effectively implement institutional changes that will encourage students to continue through CCs on to completion of bachelor’s degrees. Specifically, we argue that efforts to increase equity and inclusion in CS should increase the focus on community colleges, and employ metaphors that more accurately represent the lived experiences of CC students.

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Students Expect a Modified Traditional Education Pipeline Model

A traditional educational model—based on previous generations of white, upper-middle class men—follows a pipeline metaphor in which students prepare for professional, white-collar jobs by entering directly into and graduating from four-year postsecondary institutions (see “Traditional Education Model” diagram). As states have shifted the burden of paying for higher education to students, many are attracted to what they view as an equal but less-expensive model that includes two initial years at a community college before transferring and completing a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution in preparation for the workforce (see “Expected Education Model” diagram). In our research, we found that CS students chose community college and transfer over direct admission to a four-year institution often because they anticipated receiving the “same” degree while saving money.5 However, our work also reveals that the experienced pathways of students do not follow a traditional educational model; the fragility of the educational support structure for the CC student is such that the traditional education model is rarely attainable. In sum, when decision makers implement policies and procedures that rely on a pipeline model, they unwittingly suppress diversity.

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Students Experience a Snarled Pathway Education Model

In contrast to the educational pipeline model that students are led to expect, community college students’ pathways are often not direct or simple. For many students, they involve time off from school, enrollment, and reenrollment at different community colleges, and time in the workforce while also attending school. These twists and turns result in convoluted, individualized routes that can be full of detours and setbacks unexpected by students envisioning a simpler pipeline, and complicated by policies and restrictions at both CCs and four-year receiving institutions (see “Experienced Education Model” diagram). Jaggars et al.4 for example, found 1,213 distinct paths to graduation for CS bachelor’s degree holders in their study.

When decision makers implement policies and procedures that rely on a pipeline model, they unwittingly suppress diversity.

Research provides support for what we argue is a more realistic model of CC students’ experiences. For example, we found that students were delayed at CCs in preparation for transfer for many reasons including impacted CS classes, math anxiety or aversion, dropping and re-enrolling in classes in an effort to increase GPA, and family and financial responsibilities.5 Students struggled to create and follow a plan to transfer, complicated by the fact that receiving institutions had varying requirements for transfer admission. In addition to these difficulties—some of which are shared by all students at CCs—CS students had only vague ideas of how the field is applied in professional settings and how to prepare for a career in CS. For students who were five years out from taking an introductory programming class at a CC, pathways were complicated by incorrect advising, changing majors or schools, leaving school due to job responsibilities, and the necessity of starting their college years in remedial math classes.5

Figure. Three education models.

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Suggestions for Simplifying CC CS Students’ Pathways

Changes implemented to increase equity and inclusion in CS should be more responsive to the twists and turns of the pathways of CC students, while also working to straighten and simplify these pathways to more closely resemble a traditional education model. This includes increasing awareness about the challenges students face and building structural supports to keep them moving forward. We advocate for several research-based strategies to be implemented at educational institutions.

Advising and Support. Studies have shown the importance of advising and support from faculty, counselors, and peers for the successful transfer from a CC to a four-year university in a STEM field7 and to help students remain on a CS pathway.5 But these sources of support should be based on an understanding of the complex and prolonged paths that CC students follow.

Culturally Responsive Practices. Faculty can play a critical role in ensuring policies and practices are tailored to respond to challenges faced by low-income students and those from underrepresented minority groups. In CS, this requires providing extra support and flexibility in schedules, developing clear CS transfer pathways, and building knowledge of CS careers.5

Gender Differences and Similarities. Strategies should also be responsive to gender differences and similarities. Studies show that while both women and men benefit from peer encouragement, CC women are more likely to intend to persist in CS if they are confident and interested in solving challenging problems, while men are more likely to intend to persist if they have positive interactions with their instructors and value computing.3 In addition, supports for men of color in CCs should be based on personal connections, engaged faculty and staff with high expectations, and opportunities to apply what they learn in the real world.2

Stronger Partnerships between Four-year Institutions and CCs. Four-year institutions should reach out to CCs to build true partnerships based on listening to CC faculty to make changes to streamline student pathways and increase flexibility along those pathways. Current patterns of transfer indicate the importance of articulation and transfer agreements6 and should be enhanced by faculty exchanges on advisory boards. At the University of Washington, Tacoma campus and at Kean University in New Jersey, such reciprocal visits have led to faculty’s heightened awareness of impacts on transfer students of program decisions. Statewide websites such as http://www.njtransfer.org and http://www.assist.org help students have transfer information at their fingertips, but should be enhanced with individualized study plans to take into account the unique pathway of each student. To ease the transfer experience of CC students, efforts should be made to familiarize them with the settings, people, and events at receiving universities. Opening hackathons to CC student participation, university open houses or regional conferences that include CC students, direct mailings to CC students, and access to university counselors and research faculty are all best practices in this area.

Research, policy, and interventions will be more effective if they are based on a realistic understanding of CC students’ experiences.

Involvement from Industry. We also advocate for the involvement of the CS industry in the call to enable students—particularly from underrepresented groups—to have the resources and information they need to efficiently move through CCs to transfer, and then through four-year institutions to bachelor’s degrees. Our research5 found that career knowledge early in CS postsecondary pathways gave students the impetus to persist in CS but that specific knowledge of job skills and preparation for particular jobs was lacking. Jaggars et al.4 found that students who grew up near a technology hub city were more likely to attain a CS bachelor’s degree; it is likely that these students were more familiar with the range of job opportunities in technology.

We argue that research, policy, and interventions will be more effective if they are based on a realistic understanding of CC students’ experiences. We hope efforts to broaden participation in CS will increase their focus on CC students and faculty, and will lead to new, research-based interventions resulting in a marked increase in successful transfer and graduation and a broader diversity of students.

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    1. American Association of Community Colleges. Fact Sheet, 2016; http://bit.ly/2d3jnEI

    2. Center for Community College Student Engagement. Aspirations to Achievement: Men of Color and Community Colleges, 2014; http://bit.ly/1mCjPrv

    3. Denner, J. et al. Community college men and women: A test of three widely held beliefs about who pursues computer science. Community College Review, 2014.

    4. Jaggars, S.S. et al. A Longitudinal Analysis of Community College Pathways to Computer Science Bachelor's Degrees. Google Inc., Mountain View, CA, 2016; http://bit.ly/2hOzEzW

    5. Lyon, L.A. and Denner, J. Student Perspectives of Community College Pathways to Computer Science Bachelor's Degrees. Google Inc., Mountain View, CA, 2016; http://bit.ly/2yTqjC0

    6. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Barriers and Opportunities for 2-Year and 4-Year STEM Degrees: Systemic Change to Support Students' Diverse Pathways. National Academies Press, 2016.

    7. Packard, B.W. et al. Women's experiences in the STEM community college pathway. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering 17, 2 (Feb. 2011), 129–147.

    8. Taylor, V. and Ladner, R. Data trends on minorities and people with disabilities in computing. Commun. ACM 54, 12 (Dec. 2011), 34–37.

    This material is based in part upon work supported by Google, Inc., and by the National Science Foundation under grant 0936791. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Google, Inc., or of the National Science Foundation.

    Diagrams of educational models adapted from the Developing Computing Pathways presentation (http://batec.org). Thank you to Cheryl Calhoun of Santa Fe College, Pat Morreale of Kean University, and Cindy Tucker, and Melanie Williamson from Bluegrass Community, and Technical College for reviewing and providing comments on a draft of this column.

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