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Early Transfer, a Warning Signal

When transfer rates indicate a problem rather than a success.

September 21, 2022

Community colleges provide critical access points into higher education. Nearly 80 percent of community college students express an intent to earn a bachelor’s degree. So surely, whenever a community college student transfers to a university, we should treat it as a success. I used to think so, too, but then I met Ryan.

Ryan attended community college before transferring to the state’s flagship university. Ryan loved the community college; he thrived in the small classes and individualized professors. But he had a transfer experience that should cause us all pause.

“I developed friendships and enjoyed my classes,” he told me. “But something strange happened as I approached the final few courses. I noticed that many of my classmates were no longer there. I heard that a few had transferred, but I wanted to finish my associate’s degree first.”

Ryan made the decision to stay and finished out the program. What should we make of Ryan’s decision to stay and finish while his friends transferred early? Many of my community college colleagues would say Ryan’s friends’ transfer should be seen as a success. They had achieved what they needed and successfully made the jump. When colleges calculate their completion rates (that ever-critical measure for our institutions), should they count Ryan’s friends as having “completed”? In the state where I work, transfer from a community college is treated as a completion for purposes of performance-funding allocations. But Ryan’s decision seems equally appropriate as well. Community college is more affordable, more accessible and gets you a degree in case something comes up and you need to step away. So, to many of my colleagues, both should be treated as success.

But after Ryan transferred, on the first day of class, the professor assigned a project using a technique Ryan had never heard of. As Ryan glanced hopelessly around the room for other baffled students, he found his old classmates, those who had transferred early, doing the assignment with apparent ease. After class, frustrated and confused, he pulled aside a former community college classmate. The classmate explained that the community college program didn’t teach the same techniques as the university. He had transferred early to take the last few lower-division courses at the university. This is where everyone had gone in those last few courses. They hadn’t simply left but had inside knowledge that their time would be better spent transferring early.

Ryan ended up having to drop the course and go take the same courses I had done at the community college at the university. “Why didn’t the institutions talk to each other?” he asked. “It cost me thousands of dollars but, more importantly, added months to my ability to graduate.”

The prevailing theory among community colleges was (and largely still is) that transfer from a community college should be treated as a completion as far as institutional performance is concerned. Organizations such as the Voluntary Framework for Accountability and the IPEDS outcomes measures provide “transfer rates” as a success measure parallel to that of completion.

But Ryan’s story left me questioning this. Some students transfer not because they want to, but because the higher education system fails them. In Ryan’s case, early transfer (i.e., transfer prior to completing an associate degree) was a warning sign. Some students had figured out that completing the associate degree was not in their interest. They skipped the last course or two and transferred directly to the university. How could the institutions and the state system they are a part of not see this problem more clearly?

Organizations like the National Student Clearinghouse, the Community College Research Center, the U.S. Department of Education, the National Community College Benchmarking Project and the American Association of Community Colleges have all produced frameworks (or at least some metrics) for measuring transfer. These frameworks advocate for transfer to be measured irrespective to the associate degree award or the ability to translate that degree into a bachelor’s degree. This way of thinking will continue to miss ways in which transfer rates indicate a problem rather than a success.

In 2016 the Community College Research Center released its “Track Transfer” framework for measuring institutional and state effectiveness in transfer. The report recommended five metrics: three community college metrics, one university metric and a final combined metric. The National Student Clearinghouse picked up the report and produces an annual snapshot of transfer using these metrics. Institutions can purchase their metrics from the NSC. These reports are foundational and fill a huge gap in the field on how to effectively measure transfer success. Unfortunately, they also left some big gaps.

Space does not allow for a full review of all five metrics, but none of them measure the student’s ability to convert an associate degree into a bachelor’s degree. They focus instead on transfer-out rates, transfer-in rates and bachelor’s completion but ignore whether an associate degree helps, hinders or is part of the student experience. They do measure a “transfer with award” rate but don’t track that group through to bachelor’s completion. The framework leaves out the essential value proposition of community colleges across America, the value that Ryan thought we had: an affordable, flexible, quality associate degree that fit nicely into a bachelor’s degree.

Clearly in some (perhaps even most) cases, early transfer is not indicative of a severe problem like Ryan experienced. But my experience suggests that unless you have built out robust relationships between the college and university faculty, these types of discrepancies will continually creep into the transfer experience. Early transfer may not always be a problem, but it is rarely the optimized outcome. Two-year colleges strive to provide robust programs of study that prepare students academically and socially for the university experience that follows. When students transfer prior to completing the program of study, they may be telling us (the institutions and systems that serve them) that something isn’t right. This process failed Ryan (and the students who transferred early). Better transfer metrics would account for the value of associate degrees and measure a student’s ability to convert that into a bachelor’s degree efficiently.

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Jeffrey Aird

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