California, Arizona, Kentucky and Colorado are streamlining the transfer process for community college students who want to go on to state universities. “Education Secretary Arne Duncan has directed his staff to study the extent to which community-college students have difficulty transferring credits to four-year institutions,” Handel writes. Some universities welcome transfers.

But the system remains “more a gantlet than an educational pathway for academic advancement.” Community colleges get the blame for low transfer rates, but much of the problem lies with four-year institutions, Handel argues.

. . . the transfer process remains an afterthought at many four-year institutions, as they direct the vast majority of resources toward recruiting, admitting, and enrolling freshmen.

. . . Four-year institutions are not hostile to transfer students—those students are simply not on their radar.

The Obama administration sees “community colleges as the drivers of a re-energized American economy and a response to global competition,” Handel writes.  That’s sparked more interest in helping transfers. But will it last?

In regions like the Midwest and Northeast, some four-year institutions are scrambling to fill seats because of a declining high-school graduation rate. In the South and West, however, where the high-school graduation rate is exploding, four-year institutions see community colleges as places to park otherwise-admissible freshmen for whom they have no space. Those are reasonable tactical responses, but they have almost nothing to do with serving the needs of community-college students.

Very little is known about transfers:

How many four-year institutions enroll community-college students? What is the capacity of those institutions to take transfers? What is an optimal mix of freshmen and transfer students on a four-year campus? What kinds of lower-division courses prepare students best for transfer to a four-year institution? What types of student services effectively help transfer students at four-year institutions? How much and what kind of financial aid best meets the needs of students following transfer?

Community colleges can’t improve the transfer process on their own. Four-year institutions must become active partners, Handel writes.