Transition to College at College of San Mateo - Community Partnerships
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Transition to College

Community Partnerships

Article to appeared in the March 2003 issue of iJournal: Insight into Student Services


by Tim Stringari M.A., M.F.T.



Over the past eleven years, students with psychological disabilities have become the fastest growing disability group to attend community colleges. Faced with budget cuts inCaliforniacategorical funded programs there has never been a better time for colleges to develop cost-effective partnerships with community mental health and rehabilitation agencies to meet the support needs of this growing population.      


The Challenge

Eleven years ago the California Education Code was amended to include services to students with psychological disabilities. Since that time, because of increasingly effective medications and a growing consumer empowerment movement, the numbers of persons attending community colleges who are in the process of recovering from mental illness has increased to become the fastest growing disability group on our campuses. It is likely that this trend will continue because it is estimated by the National Institute of Mental Health that one in five Americans over the age of 18 will suffer from a mental disorder in any given year.

Although it is true that students with psychological disabilities require the same basic accommodations that are required by other disability groups, most DSP&S (Disabled Students Programs and Services) and student service professionals now recognize that students with psychological disabilities have service needs that are unique in a few important ways. First, the functional limitations presented by their disability fluctuate over time, and therefore require regular monitoring in order that the appropriate level of support can be provided. Second, because these students are very vulnerable to stress, they are at exceptionally high risk of dropping out of school as a way of coping with academic or social pressures. These factors create the need for greater one-on-one staff time devoted to planning, counseling, academic programming and monitoring. Under present conditions imposed by cuts inCaliforniaStatefunding, this kind of intensive support is more than most colleges can provide without greatly taxing their resources and exhausting front line staff.

How then are we to meet this challenge? AtCollegeofSan Mateo, a community college located nearSan Francisco,California, our response has been to develop and strengthen partnerships with the mental health and rehabilitation community.

The Partnership

For the past eleven years, College of San Mateo (CSM) has been providing academic and disability related counseling, special emphasis career instruction, accommodations and peer support to students with psychological disabilities through its supported education program. Entitled Transition to College, the program is maintained by an active and vibrant partnership between the college and local mental health and rehabilitation agencies and consumer groups. These agencies and groups were instrumental in the development of the program in 1991 when CSM became a Model Service site for the California State Chancellors Office and have continued as partners with CSM since that time.

The agencies contribute to the partnership by providing staff to serve and support students on the college campus as educational case managers, co-instructors for special career classes, consultants to college staff, and trainer/supervisors for peer counselors. They also assist in student recruitment, intake, registration and orientation as well as contributing to a book fund and providing educational supplies. The college provides a part-time academic counselor/DSP&S specialist, a part time coordinator/ career instructor and office space for community providers. The result has been an increase in student retention and success without an increased commitment of staff time by the college.

Educational Outcomes

Prior to the development of the Transition to College program, the attrition rate for students with psychological disabilities was approximately 90% to 95%. Since the implementation of the program the attrition rate for students enrolled in the program has only been 17% to 20%. Performance surveys show that students complete 90% of the courses in which they enroll with grade point averages between 2.0 and 3.3. In the Spring of 2002 one graduating Transition to College student was honored at CSM’s graduation ceremony as one of two students who achieved a 4.0 GPA. Certificate, degree and transfer rates among Transition to College students are identical to the general college population.

Rehabilitation and Recovery Outcomes

Research conducted on the CSM campus and at other colleges and universities nationwide reveals that students enrolled in a supported education program such as Transition to College report a greater level of satisfaction with their quality of life than persons recovering from mental illness who are not attending college. These same students also had decreased incidence of hospitalization and over half are employed in their community.


The partnership is maintained and reinforced by a monthly meeting of all participants including students. During the meetings, the program is monitored and modified to meet current needs and available resources. Representatives from the partnership also meet monthly with other agencies involved with non-educational aspects of rehabilitation such as employment and housing in order to coordinate services. Both the college and the mental health community are motivated to work together by awareness that they have overlapping missions. Mental health and rehabilitation agencies must assist and support their clients to assume meaningful roles in the community. Colleges must prepare these students with the skills and knowledge to assume those roles. Neither can achieve complete success with this disability group without the support and cooperation of the other. Continued success over the years through collaboration now fuels the process.

Creating your own partnership

Developing a partnership with local agencies can be a relatively easy and rewarding process. You will likely find the mental health and rehabilitation community quite motivated to collaborate even though inCaliforniathey, like we, are experiencing large cut backs in state funding. This motivation is the result of the recent emphasis in mental health policy that focuses on supporting clients to assume meaningful roles in society, primarily through competitive employment. Since community colleges are the largest resource in any community for education and training, community providers want and need to establish pathways of access to college so that the people they serve can achieve their employment and career goals.


Partnerships with the mental health and rehabilitation community can assume many forms both large and small. As described above, collaboration betweenCollegeofSan Mateoand local community agencies is extensive. With the community’s yearly in-kind contribution amounting to more than $100,000, regular contact and well committed relationships are required to keep things running smoothly. Other colleges and their local community agencies have established more modest partnerships requiring less maintenance and commitment of resources. Examples of some of these collaborations are: jointly sponsored orientations and campus tours for mental health consumers prior to the start of the school year; in-service trainings for faculty on psychological disabilities presented by mental health and DSP&S staff; and bi-annual meeting between DSP&S staff and community providers to coordinate services.

Although these smaller partnerships which focus primarily on access are a great way to start, partnerships which provide the greatest assistance to the college in terms reducing the need for staff contact with students are those which involve the assignment of community staff to the college. These also have the greatest impact on retention and course completion. Examples of some of these endeavors are: on- campus support groups led by mental health staff or peer advocacy groups; campus visits to students by mental health and rehabilitation case managers; career or disability management classes co-taught by college and community staff; and peer counseling provided by peers trained and supervised by community providers. These types of arrangements take more time to initiate and maintain but in the long run will pay off by reducing the time college staff will spend providing support to students and will result in boosting student retention.

Assistance available

The State Departments of Mental Health and Rehabilitation (DMH/DR) support the development of partnerships between community colleges and their local mental health and rehabilitation agencies by providing consultation, training and technical assistance through a special cooperative unit. In addition to assisting in the development of Transition to College, DMH/DR has helped CSM and its community partners to create a Human Services Certificate and Degree program and a Peer Support Services Certificate of Completion. Like Transition to College, these two new programs rely heavily on the involvement of community partners and focus on providing career opportunities for persons with disabilities. For information about how to receive this type of assistance contact: Edie Covent, State Department of Mental Health, 4323 Palm Ave, Suite D, La Mesa, California, 91941. (619) 645-2963 or