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Julie Ridgway, Ball State University 

STEM students have needs when considering their time to graduation and potential plans to attend graduate programs. They typically have a rigorous course sequence which requires them to be on top of when to take their courses during their higher education experience. The transfer process tends to be complicated for any student, but considering how popular it is to be a community college student in the United States (American Association of Community Colleges, 2023), there are certain ideas to consider when meeting with a STEM transfer student coming to a four-year institution. Taking these ideas into consideration should assist the transfer student to feel confident about their transfer, help them get to graduation in a timely manner, and increase retention of transfer students. There are many considerations for community college transfer students; this will just be the start of the conversation. This article will investigate who attends community colleges in the United States, information about community college mental health, and then go into specifics on what to consider when advising a STEM community college transfer student.

Who Attends Community Colleges in the United States?

Understanding the demographics of who attends community colleges in the United States is a good indicator of who may be transferring to four-year institutions. Not all students have the same needs, nor is this a one-size-fits-all description or demographic of every transfer student from a community college. However, knowing demographic information helps to give advisors a background to ask more pointed questions and explore how advisors can be more supportive. According to the American Association of Community Colleges’ Fast Facts of 2023, there are 10.2 million community college students in the United States, and 66% of these students are part-time students. Within the demographics of the students, 45% of the students are white, 27% of the students are Hispanic, 14% are black, and then the demographics continue from there with percentages under 10%. Their average age is 27 years old, and 30% of the students are first generation (American Association of Community Colleges, 2023). This data is important to know as to who is likely transferring into four-year institutions. Considering community college students are likely to be a part-time student, they may likely ask transfer institutions about course load and credits they need to graduate. They will know themselves best and advising them is a conversation of how to best reach their graduation goal while also being a good situation for them.

Student Mental Health

Looking at the trends of community college mental health, especially during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, students are looking for more mental health support than ever. Danowitz and Beddoes (2022) surveyed community college pre-engineering students and found that 71% of the 185 students surveyed about their experiences of college during the pandemic reported having stress and anxiety due to the pandemic. This anxiety and stress occurred during coursework that is likely prerequisites for future STEM coursework. The difficulties from this anxiety and stress could lead to more stress in future courses from the difficulties during the pandemic. That will be something to look for future research on and check in with students about. Do they feel they have the foundation for their upper-level courses based off their pandemic semesters? Sontag-Padilla et al. (2023) studied community college mental health and found that 50% of community college students report some sort of mental health concern. With a large amount of different mental health concerns and diagnoses, there should be available resources and outreach to students. Advisors should make sure they understand what resources exist for students and be ready to suggest how to access them during any appointment, including their initial transfer appointment. Students may have already been receiving care from their community college and may be requesting it from their new institution as well.

Specific Considerations for STEM Majors

Advising STEM students comes with its own set of particular considerations. Bahr et al. (2017) followed the pathways of women transferring from community colleges into four-year institutions; they found that transferring into a biology major rather than chemistry, math, engineering, or physics majors lead to the most courses being accepted at the four-year institution. Advisors can help explore why their institutions in majors other than biology are more difficult to transfer into and help break that barrier to transfer. This same study also found that math was a good factor to watch for success after transferring (Bahr et al., 2017). If the student did well in math, they typically were successful in their future STEM courses after the transfer (Bahr et al., 2017). This study brought up some interesting ideas about support services and transfer pathways. Advisors in science majors could work with their departments to see why more courses are not accepted for their majors on the community college levels. Are there any exceptions that could be made? Are there partnerships that also could happen between nearby community colleges and four-year universities to help the transfer process work smoothly? Could they create a pathway for community college students to know exactly what would be required to transfer to a four-year institution in a certain STEM major and how long until graduation after the transfer? These agreements or meetings of institutions could allow for more students to be attracted to transferring to the other majors.

Then, on the community college side, departments can look at their math support services to give students who plan to transfer the best math background possible to help push their success after the transfer process. Cohen & Kelly (2018) studied information from 1,600 community college students to see what courses are the courses that seemed to be a roadblock that caused major changes. They found that chemistry and anatomy and physiology were the courses most likely to have a student change their majors after taking these courses together in the same semester (Cohen & Kelly, 2018). They also found that students who took both chemistry and biology together were less likely to change their majors (Cohen & Kelly, 2018). This is an interesting study to explore why students with one combination of course with chemistry are likely to change their majors more than another combination with chemistry. This also gives community colleges some idea of support to give students in these classes. What tutoring services are offered? Are the faculty aware of all resources for students who teach these courses? Advisors should talk with their students if they enroll in a schedule with courses that are likely to have similar workloads about how to manage their time and use their resources. Advisors should know what courses traditionally go well together for student success and which do not to help the students build a schedule to their best advantage. There are always course combinations that need to happen so students meet graduation goals or schedules where time conflicts create more difficult schedules. Checks and balances with supports should be taken here. Math resources should be explained to STEM students for any course because many of their courses require math in the course.

Implications for Practice

Advisors from four-year institutions working with STEM transfer students should consider asking questions about the students’ previous coursework and future goals to make sure their graduation timeline is accurate. Advisors working with STEM transfer students at the community college level should consider asking students about where they plan to transfer and working with them to make sure the courses they take do transfer where they plan to attend. Advisors should also be checking the students’ math skills as that is an indicator of success in STEM coursework and giving the students assistance to find math help. There is much to think about when working with any transfer student, but STEM transfers may need more questions about their career and future graduate programs to make sure they are in the correct sequencing. With any transfer student, there is the possibility they are receiving care from a mental health professional, so advisors should know their own campuses’ resources and be ready to answer questions and connect advisees with resources. This is just the start of the conversation and a few considerations to have when meeting with STEM transfer students. Campuses should look over their transfer agreements and see if there is more room for flexibility or course substitution to help transfer students along. Advisors are typically one of the few individual interactions with a university a student has when deciding to transfer or completing the transfer. Taking consideration of who may be transferring from a community college, community college student mental health, and specific STEM student considerations is the start of hopefully a smooth transfer for community college STEM students and ultimately a successful graduation. 


American Association of Community Colleges. (2023, February). AACC fast facts 2023. https://www.aacc.nche.edu/research-trends/fast-facts/

Bahr, P. R., Jackson, G., McNaughtan, J., Oster, M., & Gross, J. (2017). Unrealized potential: Community college pathways to STEM baccalaureate degrees. The Journal of Higher Education, 88(3), 430–478.

Cohen, R., & Kelly, A. M. (2018). Community college chemistry course taking and STEM academic persistence. Journal of Chemical Education, 96(1), 311. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jchemed.8b00586

Danowitz, A., & Beddoes, K. (2022, October). Effects of COVID-19 on stress and mental health of community college pre-engineering students. Frontiers in Education Annual Conference, Uppsala, Sweden. https://par.nsf.gov/biblio/10380232-effects-covid-stress-mental-health-community-college-pre-engineering-students

Sontag-Padilla, L., Williams D., Kosiewitz, H., Daughty, L., Kane, H., Gripshover, S., & Miller, T. (2023). Supporting the mental health needs of community college students (RR-A2552-1). RAND Corporation. https://doi.org/10.7249/RRA2552-1


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