Degree In Sight


At last year's APA's Annual Convention, Sue Frantz was surprised and pleased to run into one of her former community college students. She had taught Victor Luevano, PhD, at New Mexico State University–Alamogordo in 1997, but now her former student is a psychology professor himself, at California State University, Stanislaus.

"It was the first time I'd run into a former student like that," Frantz says.

After a year at a community college where he met Frantz, Luevano transferred to the University of New Mexico.

For psychology professors, starting off at a community college is now more common than ever, say education experts. About 14 percent of PsyDs start off at community colleges, according to a 2007 survey by APA's Center for Workforce Studies. The National Science Foundation says that about 14 percent of all social science PhDs attended a community college.

Community colleges are welcoming this shift, recognizing psychology students' potential and giving them the opportunity to conduct original research. They are also nurturing students' writing skills through small classes and individualized instruction, says Frantz.

The trend is a positive one for psychology: It's attracting a more diverse population to the field, says Robin Hailstorks, PhD, who directs APA's precollege and undergraduate education program.

"The learners who attend are very diverse, not just in ethnicity, but in age and other characteristics," she says.

Benefits for psychology students

There are many advantages to starting at a two-year school. The first is cost. In 2010, the average tuition at a two-year college was $2,713, according to the College Board. The average tuition for four-year public schools was $7,605 and a whopping $27,293 for private colleges.

Low tuition was key to Luevano's decision to spend a year at New Mexico State University–Alamogordo before transferring to the University of New Mexico. "It was really a financial necessity for me," he says.

But community colleges can offer benefits beyond saving money, including smaller classes and more personal attention from professors, says Frantz, now a professor at Highline Community College in Des Moines, Wash. At her school, classes are capped at 38 students. Compare that with 250 students in the average Psychology 101 course at Western Washington University, a state school about 100 miles up the coast.

"The students are going to have a more personal relationship with the faculty, whose first priority is student development" says Sandra Ladd, a former community college psychology professor. A case in point: Ladd's experimental psychology students at West Valley College in Saratoga, Calif., won the Psi Beta National Research Competition three years in a row, thanks in part to the fact that Ladd had plenty of time to help advise her students on their project.

Such personal relationships could serve students well when they apply to transfer to four-year colleges and eventually to graduate school, she says.

Some disadvantages

But statistics show there are downsides to starting off at a community college. For one, not everyone who intends to makes the leap from a two-year associate's degree to the four-year bachelor's degree manages to do so. Three years into their education, only about 12 percent of community college students who began their education intending to transfer to a four-year school had managed to complete their associate's degrees and transfer, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. Forty-six percent were still enrolled at the two-year school.

Inadequate preparation, a lack of academic advice and unclear credit transfer standards can all get in the way. A study from the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy at California State University, Sacramento, suggested that students who succeed early on at core classes such as English and math are more likely to transfer — and that community colleges could improve graduation and transfer rates by tracking and supporting student success in these core classes.

Students who do go on to four-year institutions may find their new classmates have had more research experience because many community colleges emphasize teaching over research and have fewer labs.

Lab experience and publications are key to getting into graduate school, so community college students who want an advanced psychology degree should "make it a priority to get research experience" soon after they transfer to a four-year school, Luevano says.

Catching up on the research front isn't impossible, says Mark North, a graduate student in industrial/organizational psychology at Seattle Pacific University. He started at Salt Lake Community College in Salt Lake City, and now teaches part time at a community college. "I had great teachers and great advisers there, and they confirmed what I'd already learned: Come to community college and we'll teach you what you need, but look for research opportunities in other avenues."

The good news is that some community colleges are working to bring more research opportunities to their students. Four years ago, at Naugatuck Valley Community College in Connecticut, Larry Venuk received a federal grant to start a rat lab at the school. Now, his students conduct behavioral experiments with live rats, putting into practice what they're learning in the classroom about psychological theories, including operant conditioning.

Community college students are also getting research opportunities through Psi Beta, the national honor society for community college psychology students, which runs a national research project. The group partners with a psychologist to design a study, and students collect data at their individual campuses and use that data to write papers. The first year, for example, the students worked with psychologist Bernardo Carducci, PhD, at Indiana University, to study shyness. These students presented papers on their work at regional psychology meetings.

APA has also recognized the need to foster research by community college students. Last year, for the first time, APA's Annual Convention included a poster session for community college student research — the 30 posters included several based on the national Psi Beta study, as well as other original research.

"There's a growing interest in promoting undergraduate research experience for students in community colleges, not just for psychology," says Jerry Rudmann, PhD, the executive director of Psi Beta and a professor at Irvine Valley Community College in California.

That trend may pave the way for even more psychology graduate students who started in community colleges — people like Susan Wensley, a divorced mom of two teens. As a student at Irvine Valley Community College last year, Wensley won first place in Psi Beta's 2010 national competition for the best student research paper. Now, she's studying psychology at the University of California, Irvine, and working in a lab studying adolescent development and juvenile delinquency. She says her community college professors "have a passion for teaching, and helping the student get to the next step."

For Rudmann, that passion includes introducing his students early in their education to psychology and to the importance of the scientific method — no matter what their future career plans might be.

"Many students who take intro psych don't become psychologists," he says. "But they go on to many other careers — including even policymakers who might benefit psychology."

Lea Winerman is a writer in Alexandria, Va.