Plugging The Pipeline
Colleges Seek To Improve Transfer Policies and Practice
Hardly a week goes by when some community college and four-year university doesn’t announce a partnership to help students at the two-year school successfully transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree.
College and university leaders gather together and as the cameras roll, sign documents, shake hands and pledge that they’ve brought new clarity to a byzantine system that hardly anyone understands. There are literally thousands of so-called articulation agreements around the county; Ivy Tech Community College alone has agreements with more than 40 colleges.
The emerging articulation agreements acknowledge both that the economy needs more degree-holders and that current transfer policy and practice are misfiring. At a time when the completion agenda tops the country’s higher education policy prerogatives, the community college transfer pipeline is viewed as a critical piece to increasing the number of citizens with bachelor’s degrees.
Yet the pipeline is leaking, putting college credentials out of reach of an increasing number of citizens. Only about 12 percent of community college students who express an intention to transfer to a four-year school and complete a degree actually do so within six years, according to research by the Century Foundation.
A recent report by the Graduate Center at the City University of New York found that students are much less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree if they begin their aca demic careers at a community college.
Bachelor’s degree completion rates for students who start at a community college trail those of students who enrolled directly in a four-year institution after high school by 17 percentage points, the study found.
The chief reason cited by the CUNY report is credit “leakage” — credits lost because the four-year institution either would not accept the credits earned at the community college at all or would not count them toward a major. The research found that 42 percent of students transferring to a four-year school lose up to 89 percent of their credits, with a full 14 percent having to start their studies anew after losing more than 90 percent of their community college credits.
“This widespread loss of credits associated with transfer from a community college to a 4-year institution is consequential: Students who lose credits have significantly lowered chances of graduation,” the study said.
Students who have all or almost all their credits transferred are 2.5 times more likely to graduate than students who have fewer than half their credits transferred, the study found. Students who get between half and 89 percent of their credits transferred have 74 percent higher odds of graduation.
Even academically prepared students are leaking out of the transfer pipeline. The CUNY report found that among students who accumulated 60 or more credits at their community college, and had expressed a desire to transfer to a four-year college, only 60 percent actually did so.
The report also disputed the conventional wisdom that the failure of many community college students to complete a bachelor’s degree is due to things such as lowered expectations, a lack of trying or the absence of academic rigor at the community college.
A growing body of evidence suggests that community college students can succeed at even the most elite institutions if provided adequate financial aid and robust support. Work by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation provides a template showing how community college students from lowto moderate- income can thrive academically when provided the opportunity to transfer, adequate financial aid and student support.
Through its Community College Transfer Initiative, the foundation has funded 14 highly selective colleges and universities with a long-term goal to promote sustainable increases in the number of high-achieving low- to moderate-income community college students who transfer to and succeed at selective four-year institutions.
From 2007 to 2010, nearly 1,100 community college students enrolled in eight elite four-year universities because of the CCTI. Many of the CCTI students were nontraditional in terms of life experience, personal circumstances and age.
With $6.8 million in foundation grants, the colleges developed programs, policies, and partnerships with community colleges to improve student preparation, assistance with admission and financial aid, orientation and “bridge” programs and post-admission support.
At the end of the grant period, six of the eight elites had decided to continue their efforts.
“The practices that we found effective to ensure a successful transition are not particular to elite colleges,” said Emily Froimson, the foundation’s director of programs. “It’s really about creating a transfer culture.”
An analysis of the CCTI by Brandeis University showed some promising results.
CCTI students performed well academically, collectively maintaining a 3.0 GPA, earning 95 percent of the credits they attempted, and persevering to graduation. They also became campus leaders and formed campus organizations.
Two-year colleges enriched their institutional transfer culture, improved advising programs, and enhanced efforts to develop more rigorous curricular and honors programs, the study found.
At four-year institutions, the CCTI contributed to cross-campus collaboration and communication, and increased the diversity of the student body in terms of life experiences, income and maturity.
CCTI institutions used various strategies to increase the likelihood of transfer. No two efforts were exactly alike. But institutions identified prospective students early, to leave more time for campus visits, program engagement, and better academic preparation. They enhanced community college student readiness for success at the four-year level in several ways: appointing a campus point person for community college transfer students; organizing peer and staff mentoring; providing joint classes and summer academic programs; working with community college faculty to align curricula; and providing workshops and other opportunities for students to learn about succeeding at the four-year institution.
The most effective and sustainable programs were the ones which had the most robust partnerships between community colleges and four-year institutions. They were characterized by institutional readiness to support the community college students at the four-year level and pre- and post admission academic, social and personal support.
“This study provides a roadmap to build such partnerships that may well serve as an important means to help greater numbers of low-income and underrepresented populations realize their academic aspirations,” Froimson said.
If the CCTI is testing best practices on a micro scale, California, home to the country’s largest community college system, has taken a macro approach to improve the transfer process. The state legislature has created an “associate degree for transfer” to streamline a complex, inefficient process that has led to a low rate of transfer to fouryear universities.
The degree was first offered in 2011-12. Currently, 54 of 112 community colleges offered 10 or more transfer degrees of the 25 approved degrees. The degrees consist of 60 credits that include general education requirements and at least 18 credits in a major. The California State University must admit a student with a transfer degree to one of its campuses as a junior and grant the student priority in admission to an academic major that is similar to the program completed at the community college.
The CSU campus also must guarantee that the transfer student will need to complete no more than 60 credits of coursework to earn a bachelor’s degree, and will not be required to repeat a course successfully completed at a community college.
California community colleges awarded 800 degrees for transfer in the first year of implementation. That number rose to nearly 5,400 in 2012-13. The 6,200 degrees represent about 3 percent of all associate degrees awarded over that two-year period.
A report on the program by the Public Policy Institute of California found the transfer degrees are leading to clearer pathways for transfer. But the report also identified some significant obstacles.
For example, some community colleges offer only a handful of transfer degrees, raising questions about equal access; 58 colleges offer fewer than 10 degrees, while 14 colleges offer only two or three transfer degrees. Ten colleges awarded no transfer degrees in 2012-13, while another 25 colleges awarded fewer than 10 such degrees.
“The new degrees were created with the laudable goal of establishing consistent transfer requirements throughout the state to increase transfer rates and better serve students,” said study co-author Colleen Moore, research specialist at the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy (IHELP) at Sacramento State University. “Progress on this goal has been steady and remains promising, but implementation faces multiple challenges.”
The report identifies several other issues limiting the number of students pursuing the transfer degree. The guarantee of admission to a CSU somewhere in the system may not help students who want to transfer to a campus close to home, and capacity constraints at the CSU may limit the value of the promise of admission. Students who choose this pathway must quickly choose a major, decide early on a CSU destination, get admitted to a campus with a similar major and avoid changing majors once at CSU. Many community college students are not equipped to make such rapid-fire decisions.
Moreover, the lack of participation by the University of California means that the new transfer degrees are not really the “statewide” pathway envisioned by the legislature in creating them, posing a challenge for students who want to keep open the option of transfer to either a CSU or UC campus, the report said.
The report offers recommendations for legislators and educators to improve the implementation effort. It suggests that community college system share resources so that smaller colleges can offer more transfer degrees. The legislature is being urged to fund efforts to increase awareness of the transfer degree and try to involve the University of California to expand the pool of students who can be served by this reform.
The report says the degree program should be tweaked, not abandoned.
“The goal should be to increase the number of students who can benefit from this pathway, and then see whether additional approaches can be devised to better serve those who may not be able to take advantage of it,” said co-author Nancy Shulock, executive director of IHELP an adjunct fellow at PPIC.