By the time aspiring clinical child psychologist Alissa Semanko gets her bachelor's degree, she'll have attended at least four colleges--one back home in Illinois, two Arizona community colleges and Arizona State University.

Semanko's multi-college path is becoming an increasingly popular choice for undergraduate students in urban areas, where they can transfer between several community colleges, public universities and private colleges and even take courses from different institutions in the same semester--an enrollment trend many faculty have dubbed "swirling."

In fact, 22.6 percent of 1992 high school graduates attended three or more institutions before earning a bachelor's degree, and another 36.6 percent attended two institutions, according to a U.S. Department of Education report released in September.

The days when nearly all community college students going for a four-year degree obtained it by a single transfer to a university are gone, says Ann Ewing, PhD, chair of APA's Committee on Psychology Teachers at Community Colleges (PT@CC) and a psychology professor at Mesa Community College in Mesa, Ariz. Rather, many students are taking an active role in planning their education--looking at two-year and four-year colleges and universities as a system they can use to their benefit instead of as separate entities.

These students mix classes from different institutions to take advantage of unique classes, popular professors and the flexibility of having more courses to choose from. And as long as students keep track of transferable credits, swirling can save students money in the long run, since online and community college classes often cost less.

However, the swirling trend poses challenges for students, as well as for faculty and departments, whose aim is to ensure that students receive a coherent education, says James Palmer, PhD, an education professor at Illinois State University familiar with swirling. To meet the challenges of swirling enrollment patterns, faculty at neighboring institutions need to collaborate more, he says. In fact, several state and organizational groups--including some psychologists--have set out to do so. But there's still more work to be done, he adds.

Considering the trend

Although community colleges have been aware of the multi-college trend for some time--the term "swirl" is thought to have been coined in 1990 by officials of the Maricopa County Community College system in Arizona--many sense that swirling has grown in magnitude in recent years.

For example, a 2002 report outlining the future of higher education from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) cited new enrollment patterns--including multiple-institution attendance--as one of the key pressures higher education will face in the 21st century. The report, titled "Greater Expectations," found that 58 percent of bachelor's degree recipients attended two or more colleges and 73 percent of all undergraduates are nontraditional students.

What's driving those enrollment patterns?

One key factor may be cost, says psychologist Jerry Rudmann, PhD, an institutional researcher for Coastline Community College and a professor at Irvine Valley Community College, both in California. Community college tuition is often half or even a third of the cost of a large university--an attraction for students on a tight budget or nontraditional students with other financial obligations.

Others may pick up courses at a second or third institution because the course they needed at their home institution was full, a college offers a unique class or they prefer a particular professor. For example, Semanko is taking an abnormal psychology class at Mesa Community College because she likes the professor teaching it, and a math class at Arizona State's west campus because she prefers the teaching there.

But just as important to her was Mesa's close-knit atmosphere--something she says she hasn't found at the other community colleges she attended or at Arizona State.

"I think Mesa is an exceptional place," Semanko explains. "The faculty really care about the students."

Indeed, the intimacy of community colleges--the small class sizes and potential for individualized attention--attract many students who worry about getting lost in the masses of large lecture halls at a major university, says Ewing. She says about a third of the students in her community college statistics class are attending other institutions.

"We have a lab in our statistics class, so students have a lot more support," she explains.

Challenges to the field

But while swirling brings flexibility to students' education, it also can cause hassles for them. They must juggle travel between colleges, negotiate tricky financial aid issues and figure out how to select transferable courses.

At the same time, swirling raises issues for psychology departments and their institutions, says Rudmann. It can complicate assessment of student learning and graduation and transfer rates. For example, if students are not following one prescribed curriculum, they may have more or less experience than their typical one-college peers, and that could skew department-wide assessments of learning.

Another challenge is when swirling students leave institutions. If their moves aren't tracked correctly, they may count against the institutions' transfer or graduate rates, says Rudmann, even though they did eventually graduate or were successful transfers.

"We may be responsible for half of a student's lower division undergraduate education, and yet we don't get credit for it," he explains, because graduation and transfer rates are often based on the last college a student attended.

Perhaps of more concern is whether students who piece together their own education are getting the big picture, says William Addison, PhD, a psychology professor at Eastern Illinois University and president-elect of APA Div. 2 (Society for the Teaching of Psychology).

"Within four-year institutions, we like to think we have a curriculum that's coherent and programmatic," he explains. "There's a reason that students take the courses that are required. If they do too much swirling, then they're not really participating in the program."

Indeed, many worry that students who swirl will lose the coherent education that psychology departments have designed.

"A three-hour course in psychology at institution A is not the same at institution B," explains Robert Shoenberg, PhD, a senior fellow at AAC&U who examines student transfer. "One may be much more sophisticated than the other. Lacking any specification for what the purpose of the course is, you get two very different kinds of education."

That's why many say community colleges and universities ought to work more closely together on curriculum issues. In fact, there are already efforts under way to assist in those efforts. Just a few examples include:

  • Undergraduate Psychology Major Learning Goals and Outcomes, a report from APA's Board of Educational Affairs Task Force on Psychology Major Competencies. The report, released in March 2002, outlines 10 objectives for undergraduates majoring in psychology.

  • Articulation agreements. States have hammered out agreements between state colleges and universities that help students transfer credits, although some have done a better job of this than others, says Shoenberg. One positive example is the Illinois Articulation Initiative, which brought together professors from community colleges and universities to specify what courses are required for a general education core and for several majors, including psychology.

"It's not without flaw," says Pat Puccio, EdD, a professor at the College of DuPage who co-chairs the initiative's psychology panel with Addison, "but it's a step in the right direction." Puccio and fellow psychology panel members outlined what core courses psychology majors should take, and then what those courses should cover. For example, every psychology course must include a research methods component. The psychology standards took effect in 1998.

  • The AAC&U Greater Expectations for Student Transfer project. Directed by Shoenberg, the project aims to help institutions together develop coherent curricula for students, on both a statewide and local basis. Shoenberg is working with state systems in Maryland, Georgia and Utah, and has held three annual conferences for higher education agencies.

The effort is a step beyond the articulation agreements that many states have established to help students transfer between institutions, says Shoenberg, because the project helps institutions think about how the entire curriculum fits together. Its goal, he says, is to give colleges and universities the ability to answer students' age-old question: "Why do I have to take this course?"

  • APA's PT@CC Committee. The committee focuses on the issues of psychology teachers at community colleges, and aims to increase the dialogue community college psychology departments have with their university counterparts.

"We can't make assumptions anymore about what students know or what their experiences have been," says Donna Killian Duffy, PhD, a psychology professor at Middlesex Community College in Bedford and Lowell, Mass., and a PT@CC member. "That we're accustomed to dealing with a lot of diversity at community colleges means we can play a more central role in helping to assess and to create continuity and integration."

Further Reading

  • Association of American Colleges and Universities (2002). Greater expectations: A new vision for learning as a nation goes to college. Washington, DC. Also at www.greaterexpectations.org.

  • Palmer, J.C. (2001). What do we know about student transfer? An overview. In General education in an age of student mobility: An invitation to discuss systemic curricular planning. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities. Also at www.aacu.org/transfer/student_mobility.