At many broad access institutions, the Number 1 student success challenge is to bring many more community college transfer students to graduation.
Across the City University of New York system – the nation’s largest urban public university system, with 274,000 students enrolled in 11 senior colleges, 7 community colleges, and 7 post-graduate institutions – transfer students comprise a majority of those receiving bachelor degrees.
These transfer students are much more likely than “native” students to come from underrepresented, low-income, and first-generation backgrounds – and their graduation rate is significantly lower than those that arrived on campus as freshmen.
Part of the difference in graduation rates lies in differences in the transfer students’ characteristics: In their pre-college preparation and their high school and community college performance. Transfer students also tend to have more job and family commitments and are more likely to commute to campus.
But even when transfer and native students are evenly matched demographically and academically, transfer students are still less likely to graduate. Why is that the case?
Interviews conducted by such scholars as Harvard’s Christina Ciocca Eller and Brooklyn College’s Eduard Sklyar identify one important factor: Many transfer students feel like outsiders not fully integrated into their new institution.
Their outsider status carries a number of profound implications. Many:
- Receive inaccurate information (often from peers) about when it is best to transfer (for example, before or after receiving an associate’s degree), which of their courses will apply to their preferred major, course registration procedures, and graduation requirements.
- Feel overwhelmed by the transfer application, credit transfer, course registration, and application to major processes (as well as by higher education’s many acronyms and jargon) and find it difficult to obtain help from professional advisers.
- Feel that the credit evaluation process is arbitrary, unpredictable, and slow, and quickly become discouraged and disheartened.
- Undergo “transfer shock” when confronting the very different academic expectations of their new institution; as a result, many experience a sharp decline in their grade point average, and compensate by reducing the number of credits that they take, prolonging the path to a degree and raising the risk of dropping out.
But the problems transfer students face are not just a matter of misinformation or anxiety-inducing misperceptions. Worse yet, many transfer students:
- Are unable to register for at least one course on their degree plan.
- Find it difficult to enroll in their preferred major.
- Discover that their community college courses were not well aligned with the 4-year institution’s expectations and that many of the courses they took do not apply to their chosen major.
What, then, is to be done?
A broad consensus has emerged about the steps that 4-year institutions need to take. States, public university systems, and WICHE (the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Educaiton, with its Interstate Passport) are making it much easier to transfer general education courses taken at community colleges to 4-year institutions. A handful of states and systems have gone further, requiring high demand programs at bachelor degree granting institutions to apply certain specific courses to major requirements.
But more needs to be done. 4-year institutions need to:
- Reach out to prospective transfer students while they are still enrolled in community college. The goals are two-fold: To ensure that community college students feel confident that the 4-year institutions will welcome them, and to make certain that they receive accurate information about the transfer process, deadlines, and degree requirements.
- Offer orientation and advising sessions targeted at transfer students. It is especially important that all transfer students receive a detailed degree plan – a roadmap of courses required to earn a bachelor’s degree in their preferred major. Transfer students need to know about important deadlines and available support services.
- Make entry into specific majors as seamless as possible. Departments need to establish clear policies about admission into a particular major as well as which courses will and will not count toward that major. To the extent possible, departments need to expedite evaluation of transfer credits and to recommend courses that students might take in community college to prepare for their major.
- Address adjustment issues. To address transfer shock, a 4-year institution might offer summer boot camps or “bridge” courses or supplemental instruction to ease the transition into upper division courses with high DFW rates.
To foster a sense of belonging, the 4-year institution should sponsor welcome events, orientations, and other programming aimed specifically at transfer students. It might also consider peer and faculty mentoring and engagement programs similar to that offered to native freshmen, including, study skills workshops, experiential learning opportunities, and extracurricular activities.
Bias against transfer students persists, even though there are many reasons to believe that such students are more determined, diligent, and tenacious, on average, than those who start out a 4-year school. They are also more diverse, along every dimension, and are often more mature, bringing a wide range of life experiences (as veterans, parents, and jobholders) to their studies.
There are, of course, faculty at bachelor degree granting institutions who assume that community college courses are less rigorous and that transfer students are less well prepared and less academically capable. It is certainly the case that students who start out at more selective schools tend to benefit from more from more opportunities for lab work, research, and participation in student organizations, as well as the power of peers to influence on educational outcomes and from alumni networks. However, it is not at all clear that institutional prestige and reputation equate with pedagogical quality.
Our 4-year campuses need to encourage a new attitude. Faculty, administrators, and staff must remember that most students attend community colleges because these institutions are less expensive, more readily accessible, and better accommodate those with complicated lives.
Those of us at 4-year institutions need to ask ourselves: If we only have two years (on average) to serve transfer students, what can we do to ensure that connect with the college, take part in the co-curricular and extracurricular activities that undergird the 4-year college experience, and become successful graduates and engaged alumni?
Steven Mintz is special advisor to the President of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives.