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The college student pipeline from associate’s programs to bachelor’s degrees is notoriously leaky. Some 80% of associate’s-degree students wish to obtain at least a bachelor’s degree, but six years after beginning college, only about 11% have done so. Some students leak out of the pipeline prior to transfer, and others after transfer (possibly due to, for example, the posttransfer decrease in GPA that is sometimes seen—what is known as transfer shock). These leaks disproportionately affect students from underrepresented groups—students who make it through the pipeline are more likely to be White and have greater financial resources (see NISTS’s 2022 conference presentation #2332).

Many factors are involved in the size and timing of this pipeline’s leaks. At The City University of New York (CUNY), which has 20 undergraduate colleges and approximately 25,000 new transfer students per year, we have been conducting multiple projects designed to help characterize, understand, and decrease these leaks (the TOP, GROWTH, and ACT projects, described in a previous blog post, and collectively known as A2B, for associate’s to bachelor’s transfer). These efforts have included obtaining the views of the various constituencies that are involved with the vertical transfer pipeline.One such constituency is, of course, the students themselves. Their descriptions of their past experiences, of the environments in which they are living, and of their goals can provide valuable clues regarding who does and does not make it through the pipeline and why.

With these aims in mind, TOP (the Transfer Opportunity Project, funded by the Institute of Education Sciences) conducted a survey of all full-time and part-time associate’s- and bachelor’s-degree students at CUNY. In addition to the over 31,000 responses we received (a 17% response rate), we have much demographic and academic information concerning each student, thanks to CUNY’s institutional databases.  The information we obtained from this work is far too extensive to describe in one blog post, but following are some of the highlights.

As compared to respondents who are in either associate’s or bachelor’s programs and have never transferred, the vertical transfer respondents are older, more likely to be working, more likely to be part-time, and more likely to be caring for someone more than 10 hours per week (31% reported providing such care, compared to 28% and 18% of never-transferred associate’s- and bachelor’s-degree respondents, respectively).  The vertical transfer respondents were also the most likely respondent group to report being worried about having enough food (a mean of 3.0 on a 7-point scale ranging from 1 [never] to 7 [always]). Thus, the vertical transfer respondents appear to face relatively more challenges with their time and resources than do some other groups of CUNY students, challenges that could be involved in their leaking out of the transfer pipeline.

Feeling engaged with and belonging at their colleges may also be a challenge for the vertical transfer population. Our vertical transfer respondents reported that at their previous (community) colleges they were better understood by their instructors, fit in better, and had less trouble making friends, than at their current (bachelor’s) colleges. The vertical transfer students were also less likely to participate in extracurricular activities than students who had never transferred. Greater demands on the vertical transfer respondents’ time (as indicated in the previous paragraph) may have contributed to these engagement and belongingness findings. Regardless, on the whole, vertical transfer respondents appear to be less connected to their bachelor’s colleges than their never-transferred classmates, perhaps contributing to their stopping out of college and never completing their bachelor’s degrees.

However, in some critical ways the vertical transfer respondents did not differ from the associate’s- or bachelor’s-degree students who had never transferred. All three of these respondent groups reported the cost of higher education and grades as the most concerning challenges for obtaining a bachelor’s degree, and they all reported credit transfer as the stage of the vertical transfer process that presents the largest barrier for students. Yet although almost 50% of respondents reported academic plans, current courses, and/or financial aid as topics they most sought to discuss with advisors, only around 10% said that about the topic of transfer.

Why did vertical transfer respondents choose the particular colleges in which they enrolled? Overwhelmingly they reported that it was because the college had a particular program, not because of the college’s location or reputation. Perhaps this finding helps explain why approximately 58% of the vertical transfer respondents reporting commuting more than 40 minutes to campus. These commuting times would seem to provide yet another reason why vertical transfer students may find it difficult to complete their bachelor’s degrees.

One intriguing finding came from asking the vertical transfer respondents to tell us the month and year when each step of their transfer process had occurred. The results indicated that the median amount of time between transcript evaluation and the start of classes was less than two months. This means that most of these vertical transfer students did not have full information about the courses for which they should register until after registration had been open for many months, at which point many, if not all, desirable courses were already full. From TOP’s  other research, we know that many students are accepted to transfer but never attend the new college (what we call transfer melt). Perhaps vertical transfer students’ inability to obtain desirable class schedules contributes to transfer melt.

Finally, overall, our respondents seemed to know little about CUNY transfer policy and practice. For example, when asked if “more credits transfer from an associate’s- to a bachelor’s-degree program if you have an associate’s degree,” less than 10% of the respondents gave the correct answer (false). In fact, there are individual rules for transferring each of the CUNY college courses to each of the 19 other CUNY colleges, and what else a student has taken and degrees a student has earned make no difference in a course’s transfer rule.

So, then, where are students getting their information about transfer? By far the most common source reported by our students is websites.  However, as shown by this survey’s results, and by other research (e.g., our paper in press in Community College Review), websites can be woefully lacking in good, comprehensive information about transfer. And without good information, students cannot make optimal vertical transfer decisions that will keep them on track to their bachelor’s degrees.

In summary, these students’ reported views give us several pieces of information that may help us decrease the leaks in the vertical transfer student pipeline. One lesson we learn is that it is crucial to make good use of these students’ time. At least at CUNY, these students are older than other students, with many responsibilities and time demands. This makes it critical that their education be efficient, as well as effective, including by not requiring them to repeat courses that they took at their community colleges.

We also find evidence suggesting that transfer shock may not be due to, or may not be entirely due to, student characteristics or inadequate preparation at the community colleges. The impossibility of obtaining a good course schedule, and of obtaining desirable professors, may contribute. Also contributing may be the lack of belongingness—the social disconnection—that many vertical transfer students report. Therefore, ensuring that transfer students get good course schedules starting with their first semester after transfer, and facilitating these students’ formation of friendships and engagement at their new colleges, may help decrease the leaks.

The survey results also tell us that students appear to need better information and to be better informed about transfer policies and practices in order for them to make optimal transfer choices, with websites being a primary candidate for communicating such information.

Finally, to the degree possible, students’ concerns about credit transfer need to be addressed by ensuring that credits transfer as applying to degree requirements, and students need to have full knowledge of how their credits will transfer far ahead of registration.

None of these are easy fixes. But they are also not impossible. Over 31,000 students have reported their views about transfer. Will we listen? Will we act?


Alexandra W. Logue is a research professor at the Center for Advanced Study in Education of The City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, and the Principal or Co-Principal Investigator of each of the A2B projects. From 2008-2014 she was Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost of CUNY, a system of 25 colleges and free-standing professional schools.


David Wutchiett is a Data Analyst/Scientist at CUNY’s Office of Applied Research, Evaluation and Data Analytics where he has supported research and evaluation projects spanning the topics of transfer, student persistence, and Census response. David received a M.A. in quantitative methods in the social sciences from Columbia University.

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