Transfer Matters More Than Ever

It's never been more important for college leaders and policy makers to value the role of community college transfer programs, despite President Trump's recent suggestions to the contrary, write Stephen Handel and Eileen Strempel.

March 19, 2018

At the 16th Annual Conference of the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students (NISTS) in Atlanta last month, the talk was all about President Trump’s State of the Union address, in which he called for a greater focus on vocational education. He followed up with statements suggesting that community colleges change their names and stating that few understood their mission.

Fearing a national debate that pits work-force training against transfer and the baccalaureate degree, conference participants -- who included two- and four-year higher education professionals and faculty who help students transfer and earn a baccalaureate degree -- were determined to emphasize the need for both. They support efforts to prepare students to train for careers that will allow them to earn a family-sustaining wage after college. But these professionals also believe that the long-term solution for solving the nation’s widening economic chasm is not to focus on vocational studies, but to focus on both work-force training and transfer.

The president’s emphasis on vocational education is laudable, but not news to millions of Americans. Community colleges, where much of this training is conducted, enroll more undergraduates than any other postsecondary segment in the United States (41 percent of all undergraduates, according to the American Association of Community Colleges). Since the fallout from the Great Recession, many more families look to community college as an affordable higher education option. The popularity of community colleges is not because they limit access and opportunity to vocational and other sub-baccalaureate credentials, but because they expand and build on these important markers of educational achievement.

The transfer function of community colleges remains a pivotal element of the community college mission. This function is critical because it provides students with an opportunity to earn a four-year degree, especially students who lack the resources to enroll at a traditional four-year institution. This degree is not only the ticket to a wider variety of professional occupations, but it also provides access to graduate and professional schools that train the nation’s doctors, architects, engineers and teachers.

Providing access to higher education via low-cost community college is essential in an America increasingly stratified by income. The widening economic divide in America reflects a 21st-century Gilded Age in which the top 1 percent controls more of the country’s wealth than at any other time in the last 50 years, according to The Washington Post. In the late 19th century, community (then “junior”) colleges were invented to provide “ladders of ascent” for individuals who had no other way to improve their economic lives. That investment, which includes over 1,100 community colleges today, is the abundant fruit from the most transformative innovation since the invention of the free public high school.

This emphasis on transfer is not misplaced academic elitism or a dismissal of the need for students to emerge from their postsecondary education to get jobs. Rather, it reflects the harsh reality of a world that needs more students with the skills to prepare for a lifetime of economic productivity, critical thinking and democratic participation. Apprenticeships, work-force training and associate degrees in high-skill fields contribute to the nation’s economic and social fabric and must be supported. But since the Great Recession, 73 percent of new jobs required a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Moreover, the president’s focus on sub-baccalaureate credentials fails to account for the fact that most first-time community college students want to transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree.

Research supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted by the College Board’s Advocacy and Policy Center show that just over 80 percent of community college students intend to transfer and complete a bachelor’s degree and beyond. These individuals know that the ticket to economic prosperity requires ongoing training and education, which is the necessary outcome of a high-quality bachelor’s degree.

Today, community colleges serve a diverse population of students, far more than public or private four-year institutions. The majority are first-generation, low-income and traditionally underserved community members, precisely the populations who are predicted to grow most dramatically in the coming decades. The College Board estimates that two-thirds of community college students have a household income below $50,000 a year -- including their parents’ income if they are dependents -- with half of these below $30,000. This means two-thirds of our nation’s community college students are Pell eligible.

An effective community college transfer process has the potential to be a powerful catalyst for individual economic mobility and heightened lifetime earnings for low-income students and, in turn, transform our society. Collectively we must commit to providing proactive, consistent advising and support to community college students as they navigate their collegiate pathway.

Fortunately, best practices are emerging that create sustained and strategic partnerships dedicated to the success of our nation’s transfer students. Strategies include outreach and advising that have long been recognized as vital to helping students moving across institutional boundaries. NISTS embraces a transfer ethos that abandons the single gesture of transfer and moves toward a longitudinal and personal transitional advising and mentoring framework that transcends the boundaries of two- and four-year institutions. Through a strategic plan designed to foster a transfer-affirming culture, NISTS has outlined a road map to improve transfer student success, no matter what the student’s educational goal may be.

Transfer flourishes when there is an explicit partnership with the nation’s four-year colleges and universities. Appreciating the student diversity that accrues from a strong commitment to transfer students, many of the nation’s most prominent universities actively recruit community college students. For example, the success of transfer and transition students at the University of Cincinnati allows that institution to double the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to African-American students.

During the past two years, the University of California system admitted and enrolled more transfer students than at any other time in the 150-year history of the institution, with nearly a third of those students coming from communities long underserved by traditional higher education. The inspiring efforts of committed transfer practitioners challenge our policy makers to match these promising practices with a coordinated national response to foster our future work force and citizens. Whatever our response, unless we articulate a more comprehensive solution, we will miss the opportunity to realize transfer’s full potential to combat our nation’s economic inequality at scale.

Our political discourse is already debased by a distracting discussion around the “value” of postsecondary education; let’s not further debase it by staging a false dichotomy between “vocational” education and “traditional” higher education. Of course, both are part and parcel of a nation that has valued educational outcomes for over 100 years. Students need postsecondary skills. What they also need is a means of ascent to earn whatever additional educational benefits a university or college can provide for them. Transfer offers that.

If President Trump's focus on work-force skills is exclusive, he is unlikely to have few supporters here in Atlanta. But if his policies and the work of the Department of Education are designed to boost higher education opportunities for community colleges in all facets of their mission -- transfer, work-force training and developmental education -- he will have forged a coalition of individuals who have always seen community colleges, and the transfer function, as a pivotal avenue of access for students who wish to increase their social and economic mobility.


Stephen Handel is associate vice president for undergraduate admissions at the University of California Office of the President. Eileen Strempel is senior vice provost for academic affairs at the University of Cincinnati. The co-authors are members of the advisory board for the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students.

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