Telling the Right Stories: How Narratives Can Change Community College
It’s always inspiring to hear a success story from a community college student that successfully transfers to a four-year institution with all credits accounted for from their two-year experience, maybe even a scholarship to go along with it. These are the stories we often see elevated, but are they the right ones?
While leaders across the nation are committed to improving the outcomes of transfer programs, the data reveal a stark truth: The majority of community college students aspire to earn a four-year degree, yet only 30 percent actually do so, and 14 percent achieve this goal within six years of starting at a community college. The inability to solve this long-standing problem has a quantifiable price tag for students, families, employers, and taxpayers. Worse, the barriers to successful transfer disproportionately affect students who are low-income and students of color, shutting them off from the higher returns and economic mobility conferred by a bachelor’s degree.
We need new stories that bring real students to the forefront of the conversation and uphold equal accountability across the postsecondary education continuum. If the new norm is for individuals to cyclically learn, unlearn, and relearn, then institutions of higher education must make course and degree constructs modular, compatible, and clearly connected.
Changing the Narrative
During a recent convening of our Building Equitable Pathways Community of Practice, Clair Minson, founder of Sandra Grace LLC, spoke with us about dominant narratives regarding education, success, and economic mobility in our work, as well as the role we play in maintaining or challenging those narratives. We talked about deservedness and employability, deficit-based narratives, personal responsibility, and the myth of meritocracy. We talked about how the stories we tell ourselves directly correspond to the systems we build, and who we remain accountable to.
This conversation inspired me to apply the same lens of narratives to the conversation on transfer. Too often, negative narratives like those below shape the options, or the hoops students may have to jump through to try to achieve their goals.
- Institutional policies still often rely on deficit-based assumptions that students will require additional coursework to be successful in bachelor degree programs.
- Narratives around what students lack—such as specific coursework or capstone projects, rather than what they have achieved through prior work experience—affect decisions on whether to accept credits toward a major.
- Outdated notions of personal responsibility put the onus solely on the student to navigate the complexities of course-to-program alignment.
- The myth that students should pursue the “highest” form of education remains, even as the economy changes and earning ever more credits and credentials is not always aligned with students’ professional goals.
We need to shift the narrative away from “transfer” as the end goal and start a conversation about “credit mobility” and “credit recognition,” focusing on the assets students bring to a four-year institution. The majority of the discussions on two-year to four-year transfers center on a power dynamic within higher education instead of a student-centered, asset-based approach. However, if we reframe the conversation to focus on credit mobility and credit recognition, we acknowledge and honor the postsecondary and career achievements of students, and are better positioned to build towards more equitable economic advancement.
Narratives in Practice
Our work at Educate Texas relies heavily on narrative change to address the unfortunate inertia in outcomes for students who are facing barriers that limit their access to education and employment opportunities. The longstanding reliance on employers to provide opportunities for career education has centered on the employer’s role as a form of community service. In contrast, our approach to work-based learning expansion through our statewide apprenticeship network elevates the mutual benefits to the missions and goals for the organizations supporting learn-and-earn models. We are also challenging the often myopic view of college advising and counseling, which promotes a linear path from high school to a four-year degree. The Texas College Access Network, led by Educate Texas, has embarked on an ambitious agenda to rethink advising and counseling standards to reflect the many competitive options available to Texans. Finally, our support of the planning activities for the Texas Transfer Alliance include an expanded view of transfer from the lens of mobility.
Each of these approaches to narrative change is designed to improve equitable outcomes for students in Texas, placing the students, their contributions, and their critical needs at the center instead of the policy and system constraints that have impeded progress. Words have the power to shape partnerships and pathways, and narrative can concentrate that power in a certain direction. Narrative change should ultimately promote systems change. Postsecondary institutions must develop systems that expand the entryways to degrees that accommodate the diverse marketplace of credential opportunities, even if these pathways run counter to the current cost model employed in higher education. Asset-based, human-centered narratives can address that as well; when embedded in our policies, they can help modernize the college business model, with respect to cost, service, and mission.
The linear model of success in higher education is misaligned with the non-linear realities of most Americans. But through the lens of credit mobility and credit recognition, more doors will be open to students, workers, and employers. In order to set a new direction toward equitable outcomes for all students, narrative change is an essential step.