Making the transfer dream a reality

Eighty percent of community college students say they plan to transfer and earn a four-year degree, but most never make the leap, reports the Christian Science Monitor. Only 15 percent will earn a bachelor’s degree in six years. Now the “push is on to propel students past community college.”

Glenda Sorto knew she wanted to go to college, but as she started her senior year of high school, that’s about all she knew. “I’m the first one in the family to go to college, so pretty much it was all me to figure it out,” says the Salvadoran immigrant, who arrived in Virginia as a fifth-grader.

Four years after finishing high school, she had her bachelor’s degree in hand – largely because counselors from Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) helped her stay on track to transfer all her credits to a nearby state university after earning her associate degree.

Sorto was an early participants in NOVA’s Pathway to the Baccalaureate, a partnership of local K-12 school districts, NOVA’s six campuses, and George Mason University, a selective campus in Fairfax, Virginia.  The program appears to be helping students — many of them from low-income minority families — stay in school, transfer their credits and complete a degree. 

“It’s a hugely important issue,” says Joshua Wyner, executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute, a policy group in Washington. “We can’t reach either the equity imperatives or the degree-production imperatives if we don’t solve the transfer issue.”

Only 40 percent of would-be four-year graduates will transfer, according to a City University of New York study. Whether they go on to earn a degree depends, in part, on whether they can transfer all their credits and apply them to their majors. 

“The transfer process has a lot of leaks in it,” because decisions about credits are typically made at the department level of each university, says Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. This often-inefficient system “is just nuts,” she says.

About two-thirds of states have “articulation” agreements that are supposed to clarify which credits will be honored by state universities. But the agreements aren’t always honored, sats Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia. 

More than 20 states – including Florida, California, and Virginia – guarantee associate-degree graduates a seat in state universities with status as third-year students. 

Some community colleges have partnered with nearby state universities to help students transfer with their credits. For example, DirectConnect to UCF has helped 28,000 students transfer to the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Nearly 17,000 of them have come from Valencia College. Associate-degree graduates are guaranteed admission. UCF set up space on Valencia’s West and Osceola campuses where students can “meet with advisers, fill out transfer paperwork, and in some cases even earn a bachelor’s degree on-site.”

In response to the rise in student mobility, many states are making it easier for students to transfer college credits, reports the Education Commission of the States. Improving transfer policies is especially critical for low-income and non-traditional students, who typically start at a community college.

Alabama: Transfer system is in peril

Alabama’s Statewide Transfer and Articulation Reporting System, known as STARS, has saved students $1 billion in nearly 20 years, write John Schmidt and Mark Heinrich in a commentary on AL.com. Yet, STARS is “underfunded and in peril of collapsing.”  Schmidt is senior vice chancellor of Troy University. Heinrich, is STARS chair and chancellor of the Alabama Community College System.

Before STARS, two-year college students in Alabama who wanted a university degree navigated in a virtual minefield of costly duplication and academic inefficiency. For example, standard English, math and biology courses taught at the two-year level were not accepted by most universities, resulting in students having to pay for costly credit hours to retake courses. If we suffer a repeat of this due to the collapse of STARS, the cost to Alabama college students will be steep.

STARS once had funds for 10 staffers they write. It’s down to two people.

STARS is a “good model for how to improve transfer,” said Stephen G. Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama.

 

CCRC: Core completers raise odds of bachelor’s

Tracking students’ progress through the core curriculum can help community colleges improve success rates for students who hope to earn a bachelor’s degree, suggests a new Community College Research Center report.

About 70 percent of community colleges say they want to transfer to earn a four-year degree. Most never make it.

Researchers analyzed data from community colleges in two states with different transfer policies.

State A  requires a 42-credit general education core curriculum. All core courses are transferable, but transfers aren’t guaranteed junior status, even if they’ve earned an associate degree. In State B, a 36-credit core is required and statewide articulation agreements guarantee junior standing for transfer students who’ve earned an associate degree.

Over five years, 29 percent of students at College B completed the 36-unit core;  only 12 percent completed the 42-unit core at College A.

After five years, students who completed the core were much more likely to complete a degree compared to those who completed most of the requirements  (30-41 credits at College A and 30-35 credits at College B).

For example, while only 8 percent of students who accumulated 30-41 credits at College A earned an award at their community college and/or at the four-year college to which they transferred, 54 percent of students who completed the core did so. The corresponding results for College B are 17 percent (for those who accumulated 30-35 credits) and 70 percent (for those who completed the core).

Encouraging near-completers to earn an associate degree before transferring would boost success rates, the study advises.

Students were most likely to meet social sciences requirements and struggled the most to earn math and science credits.

What do transfer students want?

What do transfer students want?  Matt Reed answers a question from a university staffer who wants to help transfers earn a four-year degree.

First, transfers want to get credit for their credits.

Nothing grinds a student’s gears more than being told she has to re-take a class she has already passed — and paid for — elsewhere.  Articulation agreements and transfer blocs are supposed to prevent that, and they help, but the devil is in the details.  Frequently a college will proclaim loudly that it takes all credits, but then relegate a bunch of them to “free elective” status.  “Free elective” status is where credits go to die.  Since very few four-year programs have many “free electives” in them, students wind up having to take (and pay for) far more than they should.

Transfers also want access to scholarships, Reed writes.

Many would appreciate support services to help them handle the transition.

Ten tips for transferring from community college include: Transfer with an associate degree, not just a handful of credits.

Lumina’s 2012 snapshot report shows much higher graduation rates for transfers with an associate degree.

U of Phoenix partners with community colleges

“The University Of Phoenix plans to roll out more than 100 new partnerships with community colleges in the coming year,” reports the Huffington Post. The nation’s largest for-profit university will offer bachelor’s degree programs to two-year graduates, gaining students who are more likely to graduate and repay their student loans.

Partnerships with community colleges in Virginia and Arizona have been announced. More are coming, said spokesman Ryan Rauzon, including several in California.

Under increasing regulatory scrutiny, the University of Phoenix has seen enrollment drop precipitously from a peak near 500,000 to 320,000.

Community colleges and for-profit schools typically serve the same working, non-traditional student demographic. They “divide up the market,” explained Dr. Anthony Carnevale, an education expert from Georgetown University.

And as increased demand for bachelor’s degrees is driving many four-year public and non-profit private institutions to become more selective, it is unsurprising that community colleges seeking to build new programs would find an eager partner in for-profits like the University of Phoenix, Carnevale pointed out.

“It’s a fairly obvious deal,” he said. “It’s kind of a wide open market space at the moment.”

The new partnerships will expand on articulation agreements already in place that help community college graduates transfer their credits to a bachelor’s degree program, say executives at Apollo Group, which owns the University of Phoenix.

When community colleges in Arizona wanted to offer their own bachelor’s degrees, the University of Phoenix lobbied against the low-cost degrees. The for-profit giant “provided research and political muscle for a multi-year lobbying campaign,” reports Sarah Pavlus in the American Independent.

The trouble with transfer reforms

Reforming articulation policies won’t solve the transfer problem, writes Josipa Roksa, a University of Virginia professor and co-author of Academically Adrift, on Education Optimist. There is a problem: Few community college students successfully transfer to a four-year college or university and complete a degree. Transfers rarely are able to use all their credits.

States with streamlined articulation policies don’t have higher transfer rates, according to at least three recent studies, Roksa writes. Transfer students in these states do not have higher bachelor’s degree completion rates, shorter time-to-degree, and/or fewer “wasted” credits.

Community college transfers who earn bachelor’s degrees at California State University campuses average 140 credits, 20 more than the minimum needed for a bachelor’s degree, Roksa writes. But CSU graduates who started in the four-year system graduate with 142.

The situation is only slightly better in Florida: Associate of Arts (AA) transfers completed 137 credits before graduation while native four-year students averaged approximately 133 credits. Similar patterns are observed in national data: students starting in four-year institutions (and even those who attend only one four-year institution) earn more (and often many more) than 120 credits.

We should streamline credit policies and make the transfer process more  transparent and consistent, Roksa writes. But it’s not realistic to expect that many more students will complete bachelor’s degrees as a result.

It’s too tough to transfer

It’s too tough to transfer credits when students move from community college to four-year institutions, concluded panelists at a Center for American Progress discussion, reports Inside Higher Ed. The average transfer students earns 140 credits but is able to use only 120, a CAP policy brief found.

“Articulation and transfer is an old problem, but it’s begging for new solutions,” said Frank Chong, the Education Department’s deputy assistant secretary for community colleges at a CAP event. “Pathways should be transparent, clear and seamless.”

States are taking many approaches to the problem. Florida’s public colleges and universities have adopted a common course numbering system.  California will require community colleges to create transfer-specific associate degrees that California State University campuses must accept. Ohio, Indiana and Texas college leaders talked about policies to facilitate transfers.

Amy Sherman, co-author of the CAP brief and associate vice president for policy and strategy alliances at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, urged “incentives for higher education to support mobile students,” expanded articulation agreements and eventually “cross-state” agreements.

“We should also learn more about the mobility and outcomes of students who cross institutional borders,” Sherman said. “We should define success more broadly.”

. . . she called on educators and policy makers to “demystify the path to degree process.” She favors a national database on articulation and transfer, building on what information is currently available, which would help students see clearly how their credits transfer before they enroll.

“I really think navigational assistance and advising is the missing link out there,” Sherman said.

While 14 states set a “general education common core curriculum” that is easily transferable from one institution to another, only seven states have a “common course numbering system.” Twenty-two states have “statewide program major articulations” that allow seamless transfers, 20 states have “block credit transfer” and 30 states have “transfer associate degrees,” with guaranteed acceptance as a junior at a four-year institution.

Only 10 percent of community college students go on to earn a bachelor’s degree, writes Richard Kahlenberg on the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Research finds that students who begin at two-year institutions are much less likely to receive a bachelor’s degree than equally qualified students from similar demographic groups who begin at four-year institutions. Weaknesses in the community-college sector are partly responsible, but so is the difficulty in transferring credits between institutions.

Easing the transfer process “would make community colleges more attractive to middle- and upper-middle-class students—who would, in turn, bring social and political capital that would benefit everyone in the two-year college sector,” Kahlenberg argues.

The transfer students are coming!

Universities need to prepare for a tidal wave of transfer students, warns Marc Cutright, a higher education professor at the University of North Texas and an associate of the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students. That means fixing a “leaky pipeline,” he writes in Inside Higher Ed.

Hoping to save money, more bachelor’s-seeking students are starting at community colleges.  The new transfers will be savvier about the system, Cutright predicts. They’ll demand fair, consistent evaluation and acceptance of their credits and “convenient access to correct, timely information about following the best paths to transfer success.”  That’s the exception now.

. . .  all too often, credits are tossed out by receiving institutions or their disciplinary faculties without real examination of course content or the putting aside of untested assumptions about community college quality. A student may have vastly different results in credit acceptance, depending on whether Bob or Lisa is on the credit-evaluation desk that day. Websites, print materials, and the advice of counselors can be woefully disconnected from actual practice and even compliance with state regulation.

More of our new transfer students will simply have more social capital — more “insider” knowledge and stronger support systems. When those factors meet institutional caprice, more challenges to rulings can be expected, more push exerted from students who, for example, have parents who attended college and know which buttons to press.

In addition, state legislatures are trying to simplify and streamline credit transfers in order to save money.  Legislators also are exploring funding formulas that reward universities for graduating transfer students.

In the past, most community college transfers have moved to a nearby university. But increasingly students can go online to evaluate whether the local university helps transfers complete a degree. If not, students have many online learning options. Nobody’s limited by geography any more.

. . .  a community college graduate in Sugar Land, Texas, can complete a bachelor’s degree through offerings from 400-miles-away Wichita Falls at in-state tuition, with financial aid eligibility, and without leaving home, is there any doubt that such programs can get more students with quality programs and even modest marketing? Institutions that depend implicitly on a “take it or leave it” approach to transfer students may find more students saying, “I’ll leave it.”

Universities also need to prepare for returning veterans with  “educational ambitions, government assistance, and bigger knots of transfer credits than ever before.”