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Mind the Gap: Transfer Student Edition

Mind the Gap: Transfer Student Edition


There are a wide variety of reasons that students begin their postsecondary education at community colleges. Cost is certainly one of the primary motivations, but that’s not limited to just the amount for tuition. “Heading off” to school also comes with room and board, meal plans, parking passes, and other ancillary dollar amounts that go into campus life. The financial burden is simply too great, even for high-performing students.

Other prominent reasons for beginning higher education at community college is preparedness—some students simply don’t feel ready to attend a 4-year university, especially those that haven’t pinned down a major yet. Then there’s the portion who need the flexibility that community college offers: part time classes, evening classes, and commuter friendliness.

All of these are great reasons to earn an associate’s at a community college before finishing up a bachelor’s at a 4-year institution. The big problem is that students aren’t making it through the transfer process.

The Evidence

The Community College Research Center (CCRC) conducted a study in 2016 that produced some alarming results. Around 80% of the surveyed students entering into community college planned to transfer to a 4-year university after earning their associate’s degree to complete their general education credits. Unfortunately, only 14% of those students actually earned a bachelor’s degree within the next six years.

What’s most upsetting is that a good number of these degree completers are academically qualified to earn a bachelor’s. The Talent Blind Spot study, published by The Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, confirmed that “more than 50,000 high-achieving, low- and moderate-income community college students do not transfer to a 4-year institution. Approximately 15,000 of these students have a 3.7 GPA or higher….”

They have intent. They’re capable.

So, What Is the Problem?

Plainly stated, the problem can be found (and solved) within the colleges, universities, and community colleges themselves.

One of the biggest obstacles for transfer advising is simple: counselor’s are shorthanded. There can often be as many as 614 students per 1 advisor, which leaves very little room for individualized planning.

On top of that, transferring from a community college to a 4-year institution can be more difficult than initially applying for college these days; there are income barriers, prior education barriers,  information and counseling gaps—all of which transfer students have to navigate.

The step that generally becomes a community college student’s worst fear occurs when he/she has to transfer credits to the 4-year school. If a student’s community college credits aren’t accepted, ultimately it will cost students more time and money than is expected, which eventually leads to even further drop out. In fact, of those students who do make it to a 4-year university, it takes them between 6 and 7 years to complete their bachelor’s degrees.

What’s the Solution?

Many colleges, both community and 4-year, have been working on fixing this problem for years. In fact, the Ohio Department of Higher Education has been working on their system for 25 years now. To combat it’s very low baccalaureate completion rate for transfers, California and several other states now offer a joint transfer program. This type of system guarantees admission and credit transfer to a 4-year institution once an associate’s degree has been earned, which streamlines the process.

Tips to begin taking advantage of the untapped potential that is transfer students are simple:

1.Get Started By Arming Yourself With Knowledge (Read the Studies)

There are several great studies out there on transfer students and their untapped potential. A handful of those studies have been linked in this article alone, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The Aspen Institute even offers an entire playbook on how to better your transfer process, utilizing all resources at both 2-year and 4-year institutions.

At the core of all strategies for upping the number of students completing baccalaureates is one, unshakable tenet:

2. Make transfer student success a priority.

From the community college end of the spectrum, some 2-year schools are setting “bachelor’s degree” as the default goal for all students, until (and unless) they’re told otherwise. Advisors talk about where students are intending to transfer, as well as assisting in choosing a major—one of the largest pain points when it comes to transferring credits.

There’s a critical role that 4-year institutions should fill, as well. Some have begun an exchange program of sorts with professors, having them teach classes at community college and offering a hand in advising students intending to transfer. There are even some universities that are building satellite buildings right on community college campuses.

All of these advising opportunities are really about encouraging students to do one thing: plan. Pinning down a major is crucial to ensuring that the students are taking classes that will count for credit at a 4-year university when they transfer. The name of the game, from the moment students begin registering for classes at community college until the day they matriculate with their associate’s degree, is planning.

While it might seem hokey, using career advising tests can help stimulate students into thinking about where they want to end up. Not to toot our own horn, but we have a career quiz that may come in handy. There are also a whole host of other in-depth options, like 16Personalities. These aren’t designed to tell students what to do with the rest of their lives, but it can help them reflect on their strengths and weaknesses.

The fact of the matter is this: institutions that provide clear pathways to transferring through partnerships with community colleges paired with tailored advising are the ones who enroll and typically graduate the most transfer students.

While there’s no perfect solution in place yet, by asking questions of your department, of your institution, you and your team can be a part of the initiative to increase the number of transfer students graduating with a baccalaureate degree. What can your institution do to ease the transition from community college to earning a baccalaureate?


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