Separate but Equivalent?

More and more college-age students are taking community college classes before transferring to four-year universities. They can save money (community college tuition is a fraction of four-year school tuition), gain maturity, and maybe even bring up their grades enough to enroll in a more prestigious college than they otherwise could have.

But how well do community colleges prepare students for coursework at four-year colleges?

In North Carolina, an articulation agreement facilitates the transfer process between community colleges and University of North Carolina schools. That agreement includes a list of classes that the different universities will accept as equivalent and give credit for when students transfer. For example, if a student passes CHM 151 (General Chemistry I) at Wake Tech and transfers to North Carolina State, NC State will give him or her credit for having taken CH 101 at State.

Some evidence indicates that the supposedly equivalent classes may not measure up that well. As Jane S. Shaw reported for the Pope Center a few years ago, a study for NC State’s history department revealed weaknesses in transfer students’ preparation. Most transfer students from community colleges “discovered that they were not academically prepared for the amount of reading or writing expected by NCSU,” according to the report’s author. “The majority of their classes were lecture courses with little or no required reading.”

This month, the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) released a new study that found “disturbingly low standards” in terms of learning outcomes at community colleges. According to Inside Higher Ed, the study found that, at community colleges, “the reading and writing skills students must demonstrate are not very complex or cognitively demanding.” Additionally, instructors made relatively limited use of textbooks (relying instead on aids like PowerPoint presentations) and tests were easier, meaning that students didn’t have to know the material as well.

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that the graduation rate for students who transfer from North Carolina community colleges is only 64 percent, compared to 88 percent for juniors who started at a UNC university.

But to find out for ourselves how well the classes match up—and in light of an ongoing comprehensive revision to the articulation agreement scheduled to be completed in 2014, the first since the original in 1997—the Pope Center examined the syllabi for several “equivalent” courses.

Of course, syllabi cannot tell you everything about the learning outcomes of a given class. For example, when it comes to two important community college shortcomings found in the NCEE study—low standards for writing assignments and easy tests—syllabi cannot tell us very much. But syllabi do give a strong indication of other factors, such as the amount of reading and other assignments students have to do.

We obtained syllabi from four UNC colleges and three community colleges. Each was for a particular class section (that is, we did not use “generic” syllabi). The classes were introductory and included biology, chemistry, literature, history, psychology, and political science.

In our survey, two contrasts became apparent. In general, UNC classes appeared to involve the student in more activities and assignments. And instructors at the UNC schools worked harder per course.

Here are some comparisons we found:


Based on the syllabus, introductory psychology at Vance-Granville Community College in Louisburg covers roughly the same topics as the UNC schools (although it’s difficult to tell depth of coverage). Students had to write one paper, do a few in-class pop quizzes, complete eight homework assignments, and take five tests. Students were required to read slightly less than one textbook chapter per week on average. For some weeks, there were no reading assignments.

Central Piedmont Community College’s online introductory psychology class seemed to have the least amount of student work among psychology classes surveyed, because it required little outside five midterms and weekly quizzes on the reading (one chapter per week). There were discussion questions to encourage students to participate in class, but posting about them on a discussion board was not required; doing so merely garnered extra credit.

Among UNC schools, NC State’s introductory psychology class appeared to require the least work; it was about equivalent to the classes at Vance Granville and Central Piedmont. For example, students had to read one textbook chapter per week.  Students were also required to bring an electronic “clicker” to each lecture to answer in-class quizzes for credit and make class more interactive. They had to participate in psychological experiments or write a 650-750 word paper on an article in an academic journal. The class included four exams, with an optional cumulative final exam.

At North Carolina Central University, students had to do lab projects and four take-home quizzes. Students could choose between writing a group paper and presenting it in class or taking a cumulative final exam.

But other UNC schools were more intensive. At UNC-Chapel Hill’s introductory psychology class, there were weekly quizzes, three writing assignments about new research, and a number of in-class activities that accounted for 10 percent of the student’s final grade (the activities weren’t specified in the syllabus, but they appeared to include discussion groups). As at NC State, students also had to participate in psychological experiments (although at UNC, the syllabus listed no alternative for students who didn’t want to participate). 

Western Carolina psychology students had to write five 500-word papers and take 11 quizzes.


In an introductory American history class, Vance-Granville students had to write a 3-5 page book review, take open-note quizzes in class, and do short in-class assignments, in addition to attending lectures and taking exams.

Wake Tech’s class required a similar amount of work. Students took chapter quizzes, two exams, wrote a 4-page research paper, and gave a 5-minute oral presentation.

UNC schools required significantly more work. For example, Western Carolina required students to attend discussion sections (basically a weekly group discussion led by teaching assistants). In addition to the main lecture, students had to write four 3-page book reviews plus seven 500-word essays for the discussion sections. At UNC-Chapel Hill, students had to attend 10 “document workshops” (basically discussion sections) and write two argumentative essays.

Thus, at UNC schools, students were forced to engage more deeply in the subject matter, more frequently, than were students at community colleges.

It may be that community colleges, with a wider range of levels of academic preparation, have to find a middle ground. Make it too difficult, and more students will drop out, making the school’s graduation rate even lower (community colleges typically have abysmal 10-20 percent graduation rates). Make it too easy and transfers will suffer. Have they made it too easy?

Our other finding was that UNC professors appear to put a lot more effort into preparing for the classes. This was illustrated in biology.


The syllabus we obtained for UNC-Chapel Hill’s biology class was 13 pages long, with a detailed course schedule that had a calendar showing the topics covered in each class and a paragraph-long description of the learning objective for each lecture. It even features a cartoon drawing of the instructor, Dr. Kelly Hogan (who is, incidentally, a previous Pope Center Spirit of Inquiry Award winner), telling students, “I am nice!”—urging them to talk to her if they need help. Students are encouraged to go to “supplemental instruction” sessions to help them further understand the material and bring a smart phone or other device with “Poll Everywhere” software so they can interact during class.

The syllabus for the biology class at UNC claims that the class “should excite you about biology.” It contains not one, not two, but three diagrams on how to learn biology in a deeper, more thorough way. There are even a few classes on the schedule that venture into interesting topics not in the core introductory biology curriculum, such as obesity.

NC State’s biology class syllabus is not quite as extensive as UNC-CH’s syllabus, but it’s clear that a decent amount of work goes into preparing it. The course schedule is just over a page, detailed for the individual class. NC State’s syllabus also indicates that students will use “clickers” as a means of promoting in-class participation.

While some have argued that such an extensive course syllabus (with a detailed schedule, including recommended reading) represents a compromise with the declining academic preparedness of students, there is another way of looking at it. Namely, that an extensive syllabus with a detailed schedule shows that instructors have responded to student needs and put in the time to plan out a class thoroughly. 

Vance-Granville’s syllabus for biology is bare in comparison. Slightly less than one and a half pages are devoted to the biology class itself; the list of material covered is limited to six very broad items. There is no schedule. The rest of the 7-page syllabus is generic information for science classes at VGCC.

Central Piedmont’s biology class is also fairly bare-bones. While the class covers all of the same core material as UNC-CH and NC State’s classes and includes a course schedule, the schedule is only half a page and not very detailed.


So community college classes appear not to be as engaging as classes at four-year schools. But then, community college instructors teach many more classes. Whereas professors at a research university like UNC-Chapel Hill may teach one or two three-credit-hour classes per semester, community college professors typically teach five or six three-credit-hour classes. This makes community colleges cheaper, but it inevitably keeps professors from devoting more time to a given class.

Some UNC schools, apparently recognizing that the discrepancy between community and four-year colleges is difficult to overcome, will accept some class credits only as electives, not counting them toward general education requirements. For example, NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill will accept ENG 131 (“Intro to Literature”) only for elective-course credit. NC Central University and Western Carolina University, however, accept it fully.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that there can’t be academic advantages to students who take community college classes. Former Pope Center intern Will Jakes, for one, said that his freshman English class at a community college was superior to a typical freshman English class at a four-year school because it was taught by a full-time instructor—not an overworked graduate student or adjunct instructor. That instructor was able to devote more time to teaching students to write. But Jakes’ experience—and perhaps freshman English classes in general—seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

The UNC system and community colleges are working to bridge their gaps; based on the current course syllabi, it is a tough job.