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During the pandemic, transfer between community colleges and universities shrank by 11.5 percent. These transfer numbers—which reflect the overall enrollment decline at community colleges of 17 percent—are unlikely to rebound without major intervention. And this isn’t just a community college issue: four-year colleges and universities hold a significant stake here. On average, one in five new university students come via community college transfer pathways, many from chronically underserved Black, Latinx and lower-income communities. Faced with the twin challenges of enrollment and equity, university leaders across the country are issuing a charge: fix transfer.

The good news: fixing transfer is entirely within our reach. For instance, we know that 80 percent of new community college students say they want a bachelor’s degree. Yet only 31 percent of entering community college students transfer to a university within six years, which has remained steady for several years. To maintain pre-pandemic numbers of transfer students in the face of a 20 percent community college enrollment decline, we’d need to increase the national transfer rate to 39 percent. With so many students saying they want to attain a bachelor’s degree, we could set our sights even higher. If universities simultaneously increase transfer students’ persistence and completion rates, we could approach transfer student numbers last seen in the enrollment peak of the Great Recession.

The bad news: if by “fix transfer” we mean ramping up the recruitment of transfer students, that just won’t cut it. If universities recruit transfer students to a broken transfer system, the students won’t stick around. That’s especially true when barriers to transfer success collide with soaring costs of living and stronger wages in jobs that don’t require degrees. According to a recent Gallup–Lumina Foundation survey, 76 percent of university students and 63 percent of community college students cite stress as the primary reason they would stop out. The survey also found that the majority of students not enrolled in higher education cite cost as the primary barrier. Engaging with a broken transfer system is both costly and stressful, posing risks to both access and success.

The best way to overcome the transfer enrollment slump is for university and community college leaders to work together to strengthen transfer’s value proposition for students. The value proposition will differ depending on the local context, but, based on our research and fieldwork, a few building blocks could include:

  • Step-by-step transfer pathways that provide substantial financial savings when followed, without credit loss
  • A personal coach or adviser to help at every step of the transfer journey
  • Guaranteed low-cost or free four-year tuition and fees
  • Clear links between transfer pathways and high-demand local employment
  • The ability to earn while working toward a degree
  • Starting transfer pathways in high school through state-subsidized dual enrollment

Let’s be clear: on the surface, these value propositions seem simple (as they should be), but they are bold reforms. Together, they would fundamentally change transfer student experiences. Anything less will not get us above a 39 percent transfer rate. Success will take collaboration, hard conversations, project management, innovation, accountability and financial and human capital investments. It will take leadership from across institutions, in particular from the presidents.

These bold reforms are exactly what we are aiming for through the Transfer Student Success and Equity Intensive, a partnership between the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program and the American Association of State Colleges & Universities. Over the course of a year, we’re working with the presidents and teams of senior leaders, faculty and staff from 32 universities and 33 of their partner community colleges to develop and advance transformational transfer models that set forth clear value to students. The early direction of the partnerships is promising, such as the work between Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay or Olympic College and Western Washington University. After our first cohort of 15 partnerships completes the program in October, we plan to share their innovative approaches here to inspire transformation across the field.

In the meantime, university leaders can ask their teams: What is our value proposition for transfer students? Is that enough to motivate community college students to reach their higher education aspirations amid the complexities of day-to-day life—caring for families, working multiple jobs, commuting across rural or urban America, enduring financial hardships and the still-very-real pandemic stressors? Is it enough to support every community college student who hopes to transfer and earn a degree from our institution?

Keep asking until the answer to those questions is a resounding yes. Then—and only then—will we have fixed transfer.

Tania LaViolet is a director at the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program.

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