What should an institution of higher education do to facilitate transfer student success?
For the past five years the A2B (associate to bachelor’s) group of projects at the City University of New York has been conducting research and developing digital tools directed at increasing transfer student success, particularly students transferring from community colleges—associate-degree programs—to bachelor’s-degree colleges (known as vertical transfer; for a list of our publications and presentations to date, see here). Many of our findings have been presented in our miniseries within this “Beyond Transfer” blog.
We focus on vertical transfer because some 80 percent of new community college students want to attain at least a bachelor’s degree, but six years later, only 11 percent have done so. We know that if there are two students, equivalent in every way we can measure, and both want bachelor’s degrees, but one starts at a community college and the other at a bachelor’s college, the one who starts at the community college will be less likely to obtain the bachelor’s degree. These findings suggest that challenges involved in the transfer process—such as problems with credit transfer—and not the students themselves are largely responsible for the substantial leaks in the vertical transfer pipeline, from first college entry to bachelor’s degree.
We need to plug the leaks in this higher education pipeline and thus increase bachelor’s-degree attainment. This is especially true because community colleges have relatively higher percentages of students from underrepresented groups, so obstructions in the vertical transfer pipeline disproportionately harm students from those underrepresented groups, maintaining or exacerbating disparities.
There are many actions that people, institutions and legislatures can take to facilitate transfer student success. These actions include the use of financial incentives and legislative actions. I will focus here on actions that people within colleges, and colleges and university systems themselves, can take, actions growing out of the A2B work. The following checklist gives six possible ways to increase the pipeline’s flow. This list is based on the evidence we have obtained in A2B and is not comprehensive.
- Provide accurate, complete, timely, easily accessible information to everyone involved in transfer. This item has a great many subparts. Multiple constituencies within a college—students, advisers, faculty, administrators—are not taking optimal actions concerning transfer because of having inaccurate or no information about various aspects of transfer.
- Students don’t know how their credits will transfer and therefore do not know which courses to take or which transfer destination will maximize credit transfer.
- Advisers don’t know some transfer policies.
- Faculty also don’t know policies or how transfer students are faring at their colleges.
- Administrators sometimes don’t even know where their students are transferring from or to.
- Everyone sees their piece of the elephant, but transfer is, by definition, an entity encompassing, not just multiple classes, or multiple departments, but at least two institutions. Therefore, optimizing transfer student outcomes involves people having information beyond their areas of expertise and usual institutional involvement. Some specific solutions:
- Collect accurate, relevant data;
- Push it to everyone who has anything to do with transfer (accompanied by lots of explanation); and
- Use technology when the amount of information is beyond some people’s capacity (e.g., Transfer Explorer, AKA T-Rex).
- Recognize and take into account the fact that associate- and bachelor’s-program faculty likely have different views about what is causing the vertical transfer pipeline leaks (if they even know that such leaks exist). Associate-program faculty tend to believe it is lack of credit transfer, and bachelor’s-program faculty tend to believe it is lack of adequate preparation. Therefore, when these two groups of faculty try to work together to facilitate transfer, they prioritize different solutions. Complicating such joint work further, many faculty (as well as administrators) have conflicts of interest concerning policy and curriculum changes.Some specific solutions: ensure that college leaders take the lead in setting the tone for facilitating transfer, give faculty accurate data and other information that directly speak to their concerns, give faculty all possible opportunities to work productively together, and recognize that at some point it may be necessary for a higher authority to step in.
- Help vertical transfer students feel a sense of belonging in their bachelor’s colleges. Prospective transfer students are often apprehensive about the transfer process and feel alone and out of place at their new colleges. Some specific solutions: make application to a bachelor’s program the default for community college graduates in some majors, provide prospective transfer students with useful information and human contacts at their new colleges, for example by pairing up new (even prospective) transfer students with old transfer students who have followed the same transfer path; and give new transfer students opportunities to make friends at and connections to their new (even prospective) colleges, such as by (pre-)transfer student orientation activities.
- Make good use of vertical transfer students’ time. Vertical transfer students’ time is precious in more than one sense. First, a long time spent in college is the enemy of completion. The longer college takes, the more opportunity there is for events (such as a car breaking down or being laid off from a job) to result in vertical transfer students, who often have few resource reserves, draining out of the pipeline. Second, because vertical transfer students are, on average, older than many other student groups, they tend to have more noncollege—e.g., family—obligations. Some specific solutions: help students enroll in the courses they need; ensure these students have course schedules that accommodate their other time commitments; offer at least some online courses; don’t put students into remediation unless data show they would then be more likely to graduate and offer only corequisite, not prerequisite, remediation; encourage students to take as many credits each semester as feasible; and provide drop-in on-site childcare.
- Ensure that vertical transfer students have sufficient financial support. Vertical transfer students’ financial aid may be more likely to run out before bachelor’s graduation than that of other students due to transfer students frequently having credit transfer problems necessitating course repetition. Compounding this problem, colleges may dedicate more financial aid and scholarships to freshmen than transfer students. Some specific solutions: don’t focus financial aid just on first-time freshmen; have dedicated financial aid for transfer students, and provide enough funds—for books and fees and transportation, not just tuition—so that students can devote as much of their energies as possible to their studies.
- Ensure that credits transfer as applying to bachelor’s degree requirements, and not just as electives. Estimates range up to 43 percent for credits lost by vertical transfer students. Some specific solutions: set policy that all courses transfer as at least electives, establish a common core of courses (the general education requirement) that transfers seamlessly among colleges and whose requirements individual colleges cannot augment, align across colleges at least the first several courses of majors, establish joint associate-bachelor’s admissions to some majors along with a single associate-bachelor’s curriculum, and establish a student appeals procedure for credit transfer.
What is at stake if we don’t address the items on this list?
- Enrollment, which has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels and is threatened by a decreasing supply of college-aged people, will not recover, due to loss of students at multiple points in the vertical transfer student pipeline.
- Inequities will continue to exist because students from underrepresented groups, who are more likely to enroll in community colleges, will continue to face more challenges in obtaining bachelor’s degrees than do students who begin college in a bachelor’s program.
- Equal opportunity for higher education that many of us believe is an essential characteristic of our country, the assurance that anyone, given they work hard and learn, has the right to obtain associate and bachelor’s degrees, will continue to elude us.
None of this is easy. Understanding these problems can be difficult and eliminating them can take resolve, time and/or money. Further, there may be different, strong opinions about how to address these problems or even doubts that these problems exist, possibly putting at risk administrators who persist in pursuing solutions. But with every tick of the clock, thousands of transfer students, including many from the most vulnerable groups in our colleges, are dripping or even gushing out of the higher education pipeline to a bachelor’s degree.
This work, with our partners Ithaka S+R and MDRC, has been generously funded by the Ascendium, Dell, ECMC, Heckscher, Ichigo, Mellon and Petrie Foundations, as well as by CUNY and the Institute of Education Sciences.