According to the most recent statistics, 44 percent of students who transfer from a community college to a four-year institution earn a bachelor’s degree within six years of their initial enrollment. Many more eventually graduate -- demonstrating that these students are indeed “college material.” But their path to a degree isn’t an easy one, often involving loss of credits and barriers to entry to their preferred major.
Then there’s the elephant in the room: the fact that most community college students who hoped to earn a bachelor’s never transfer at all. Of all community college students, just 13 percent eventually earn a bachelor’s degree.
What can we do to increase the number of community college students who are transfer ready? And what can we do to reduce the obstacles that delay time to degree?
Here are four straightforward steps that four-year campuses can take.
Step 1: Educate the campus about transfer students.
Transfer student success is a team effort, but someone must take the lead. Every campus should identify transfer student champions to advocate for transfer students and communicate with feeder institutions.
Faculty consciousness about transfer students needs to be raised. Faculty, especially at broad-access institutions, need to recognize the importance of transfer students -- and avoid giving in to damaging stereotypes and stigma. At many urban publics and regional comprehensives, community college transfers constitute a majority of undergrads -- but too many attrit during or immediately after the first year.
Transfer student champions should encourage their colleagues to think more intentionally about transfer students’ challenges and needs and the barriers to transfer student success. Faculty, administrators and staff need to understand that the reason many transfer students leave or take a long time to graduate has as much to do with campus policies and practices as it does with the life challenges these students face. Every policy -- from application and admissions to the awarding of financial aid and course registration and major requirements and on and on -- should be reviewed from the perspective of transfer students.
The transfer student champions also need to celebrate and publicize the experiences of transfer students.
Step 2: Make the transfer process more seamless.
Many of the steps that need to take place seem patently obvious, but that doesn’t make them less important. To reduce credit loss, four-year campuses need to share more information with their two-year feeder schools, including which courses count toward specific majors. Faculty need to better align the junior- and senior-year college curricula. Degree maps can offer transfer students a clear pathway to a degree and make sure that the students are well prepared for academic success and timely completion.
Step 3: Improve the onboarding and ease the transition of transfer students.
Four-year institutions need to move proactively to help transfer students navigate the application and financial aid process. They need to provide junior college counselors and transfer students with accurate, timely, clear and useful information about credit transfer, course registration, financial aid and campus support services. They should also provide special transfer student orientation sessions and ensure that credit transfer evaluation takes place quickly. In addition, they should encourage transfer students to take advantage of bridge programs and boot camps -- which will require schools to make admissions decisions earlier and conduct transcript evaluation more quickly.
Step 4: Provide targeted programs and services for special transfer student populations.
Transition programs can benefit all transfer students. These might include:
- A dedicated orientation program for transfer students, providing transfer-specific information and building a sense of community.
- Bridge programs and boot camps to better prepare students for academic success.
- A transfer center, a one-stop resource center for transfer students
- Special sections of high-demand/high-DFW courses targeted at transfer students.
- Supplemental instruction opportunities.
- Outreach and peer mentoring programs to connect transfer students to campus and provide practical advice.
But specific groups of transfer students have special needs that need to be recognized and addressed. Targeted programs for veterans, parents, adult learners and students with disabilities, among others, can make a big difference by cultivating a sense of belonging. Remember: a laissez-faire attitude will certainly contribute to lower rates of persistence and completion.
Of course, implementing this four-step program is easier said than done. The barriers are many. There’s a mind-set problem: failing to recognize transfer student success as a pressing problem or stigmatizing transfer students as less qualified and less well prepared.
Then there’s the “silo” problem: treating two-year and four-year institutions as separate and autonomous entities, each acting independently rather than as a continuum.
Then, too, there’s a diffusion of responsibility problem: with no individuals responsible for tackling transfer issues, students inevitably fall through the cracks.
And then there’s the “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” problem: the failure to feel a sense of urgency that grows out of a sense that transfer students aren’t “ours” and, therefore, their problems needn’t be the object of special efforts.
There’s every reason to think that the number of transfer students will rise, as more students seek affordable educational options that offer more flexible scheduling and more employment-focused programs. Since bachelor’s degrees remain essential to supporting a middle-class family, four-year institutions have a moral and political obligation to do more to recruit and welcome transfer students and take active steps to ensure that these students succeed.
Steven Mintz is senior adviser to the president of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives.