The next time you go to the University of Southern California campus at five in the morning, check some of the cars in the parking lot. Chances are that one of them, maybe more, will have a struggling student sleeping inside.
This is the story for a few students who have transferred from community colleges to four-year schools. It’s an extreme version of the story but not an unrepresentative one. They sometimes sleep in their cars, not because they can’t afford to stay on campus—even though some of them can’t—but because they did not have a mentor or a network to guide them through on-campus housing selections once they successfully transferred.
Moreover, since they were once a community college student, there’s a 20 percent chance that they spend anywhere from six to twenty hours per week commuting to and from classes. What’s the point in driving an hour, two hours or three hours home when you have class at 8 AM?
As higher education costs grow, students are adopting new strategies to afford education. One strategy is to go to a community college for one to two years and then transfer to a four-year institution for the last two to three years. Seems simple enough: you still get the credits, you save money and you get a degree from that four-year school, which looks great on a résumé. But what actually happens after these students transfer? They are now in a system with no network of friends, no acquaintances or any professional training on how to get a job after graduation.
There are more than 1,100 community colleges in the United States. As of the fall of 2007, community college students accounted for 46 percent of all US undergraduates, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. Yet, as Laura Fitzpatrick noted in an article for Time magazine last year, "federal funding has held virtually steady over the past 20 years for community colleges, while four-year schools’ funding has increased." But with almost half of all undergraduates in the community college system, wouldn’t it be best to invest more in these students?
One student who has had to sleep in his car is Scott Stimpfel, the co-founder of Resources for Educational and Employment Opportunities (REEO), a nonprofit organization that works with community college students to help them transfer to a four-year university, earn a bachelor’s degree or obtain a professional position upon graduation by providing financial, educational, career and leadership development resources. As a transfer student himself from Pasadena City College to the University of Southern California, Stimpfel knows exactly what kind of systemic and personal challenges transfer community college students have to face.
"Community college students do not receive the same level of professional development resources as their peers who attend a four-year university. Therefore, when you transfer you are at a significant disadvantage," Stimpfel says. "When I transferred to USC, I didn’t know how to put together a professional résumé or what professional dress was." Stimpfel says that Pasadena City College did have a career development center, but its resources were limited and there was only one counselor for more than 20,000 students.