10 Tips to a Successful Transfer from a Community College

on May 23, 2017

Here is one of higher-education’s more discouraging realities: Most community college students, who would like to obtain a bachelor’s degree, never do.


Only 14 percent percent of students who start at a community college end up transferring and earning a bachelor’s degree within six years.


Among the students who do transfer, 36 percent of low-income students obtain a bachelor’s degree while 44 percent of middle and upper-income students do.


A major reason why so many students aren’t successful is that the path to obtaining a bachelor’s degree is littered with potholes.


The experience of my best friend, whose daughter is attending a community college in San Diego, illustrates the challenge. My friend, who is a physician, decided that the best way to get her daughter through community college as quickly as possible and on to a bachelor’s degree was to help her pick her classes.


“I was stunned at how complicated the process is,” she complained to me. “Even with an advanced degree, it’s hard to figure out.”


How to Successfully Transfer


If you are a community college student, here are 10 things that you can do to boost your chances of ultimately making a smooth transition to a four-year college:


1. Study for Placement Tests


Community colleges routinely require entering students to take placement tests in math and English. Studies have shown, however, that these tests are essentially blunt instruments that unfairly consign too many students to remedial courses that must be taken without credit.  According to Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, 30 percent of the time, the test takers are underplaced in English and math courses.


To avoid getting stuck in remedial classes for no credit, students should study for the placement tests.  Go to the community college’s testing center and ask what are the best ways to study. A staffer should be able to recommend materials.


According to a study by the Center for Community Student Engagement, almost half of colleges surveyed offer placement test study aids, but only 28 percent of student said they used them. 


One helpful and free test-prep resource to check out is the Khan Academy. 


2. Appeal the Placement Verdict


If you get tested into remedial courses, you should consider appealing. Students who show enough gumption to appeal are more likely to succeed in skipping remedial classes that they feel are unnecessary. A high school grade point average is more relevant than placement test results in predicting student success.


3. Don’t Front-Load General Education Credits


Although students assume they need to sample a wide variety of courses at the beginning of college, this will often lead to earning excess college credits, which will slow down their pursuit of a bachelor’s degree.


Students fall into the trap of taking general-ed classes that won’t apply to their eventual majors when they want to transfer. Community colleges encourage this behavior by offering a cafeteria model of choices with an overwhelming number of disconnected courses and programs.


“When they wander around in the general eds, they are going nowhere,” Jenkins observes.  


4. Don’t Delay Selecting a Major


Community college students who successfully transfer are more likely to pick a major early, says Natalie Jansorn, director of scholarship programs at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. This is especially important for majors in the sciences, engineering and nursing that have a lot of prerequisites.


Students should be getting a taste of a potential major or area of study  such as social and behavorial science, business, education or criminal justice, beginning in their first semester.


Not sure about a major?


Seek help at the career center where you can take a career test and ask about internships and work-study opportunities. Also seek informational interviews with people in careers that seem interesting.


Jansorn says you’ll be better off if you pick a major early even if you decide to switch to another one than students who delay selecting one at all.


5. Develop a Plan


It’s essential to start community college with a plan on how you are going to ultimately transfer. No one expects you to be able to write one all by yourself. Go to your career transfer office and see what the academic path will be for a particular major or at least a broad field. 


A growing number of community colleges – 250 by Jenkins’s estimate - offer guided academic pathways for students. Students who think they might be interested in a health field, for instance, would have a course of study to follow.


Identifying a list of classes to take, especially classes that will count for credit at a four-year college, helps students make and measure progress toward a goal.


6. Network


It’s important to meet frequently with transfer advisors at the community college and also talk with professors in your intended academic field.


7. Take a Student Success Course


Community colleges routinely offer a student success course that shares critical information about such skills as studying and time management. Community colleges have reported that students who take these optional courses are more likely to stay in school and transfer to four-year universities.


In fact, a study from the Center for Community College Student Engagement concluded that students who complete a success course is more likely to earn better grades, have higher overall grade point averages and obtain degrees.


8. Check out Potential Universities


Early on you need to know what kind of classes are required to transfer to particular four-year universities. It’s quite common for students to lose 10 to 15 percent of their credits during a transfer and you want to reduce that possibility.


Talk to the transfer advisors at the four-year institutions, as well as professors at your intended department. Unfortunately, transfer requirements can vary from department to department at a university so you will also have to do your research on that level.


9. Check the Price


Be sure to understand what your costs will be at a four-year institution before transferring. Some universities offer net price calculators for transfer students. When they are offered, use them. Many universities provide scholarships and financial aid to transfer students. Schedule a talk with a financial aid administrator.


10. Hang in there


Although it can be tough navigating the community college system and transferring successfully, the good news is that students who do persevere do just as well as students who start at four-year universities.


You can get a great education at a community college, but to succeed you need to be your own advocate.


Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on Amazon.com.

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