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Congratulations! Your college just signed another articulation agreement. You dedicated the work, time and resources to smooth the transfer pathway. Then why are students still struggling to transfer and losing so many credits in the process?

Higher education institutions rely on articulation agreements -- formal agreements that define course equivalencies between colleges -- as their primary means to improve transfer. While articulation agreements are beneficial as a procedural and legal framework on course credits, many institutions stop their work there. This leaves community college students to navigate the transfer pathway on their own. Even with articulation agreements in place, students commonly find they’ve taken too many courses that don’t transfer and are missing courses that they need. These excess credits cost time, waste money and increase the risk of attrition. To meaningfully improve transfer student success, higher education institutions need to invest in strategies beyond articulation agreements.

Even as articulation agreements have proliferated, the six-year bachelor’s degree-attainment rate of students who begin at community college has only increased two percentage points over the past 10 years, from 12 percent of students beginning in 2003 to 14 percent of students beginning in 2013. Even for students who do successfully transfer, 43 percent of credits are lost during the transition -- equivalent to almost an entire semester of classes.

Articulation agreements aren’t designed to increase graduation rates. Rather, they are constructed only to articulate courses, which determines, for example, which English course at a two-year institution is similar enough to an English course at the four-year institution to have the course credits accepted. While articulation agreements can spark dialogue between leaders at two- and four-year institutions, bringing faculty together to discuss course content and providing information on course equivalencies and credit transfer, they are not built to support students, provide clarity, lessen complexity or promote degree completion. Even articulated courses can become excess credits if students take courses that do not count toward their degree requirements or change majors during their course of study.

While articulation agreements may be helpful to administrators, they do not meet the needs of students, confirms Holly Herrera, associate provost for transfer initiatives and academic partnerships at Columbia College Chicago. Transfer students need more support, clarity and guidance than what this narrow legal document can offer.

What Transfer Students Need

While articulation agreements can be a component of a successful transfer strategy, two- and four-year institutions need to also work together on student-centered strategies, including strengthening advising, creating guided pathways and aligning course curriculum, to get transfer students the resources and supports they need.

Many students begin community college without knowing what they want to major in or where they want to transfer to. Articulation agreements can’t guide students or consider their interests, but high-quality and timely advising can. Early advising, including guided exploration of career interests and early selection of a transfer destination, can ensure students are on track from before they register for their first classes and on a pathway that fits them through to graduation. Coordinating advising between institutions, including making university advisers accessible to community college students, can help ensure transfer students take the right courses and follow the right procedures before they transfer, so that they are prepared to succeed the moment they step onto the four-year campus.

While articulation agreements specify course equivalencies, they do not indicate pathways from start to finish. Guided pathways, where the road to a degree is laid out in a clear and constrained series of classes, can help students and advisers determine which courses a student should take and the course sequence, minimizing credit loss.

Finally, institutions must work together to make sure students are learning the right things at the right time. Aligning course curriculum -- for example, making sure that the lower-level math courses are teaching exactly the skills needed for junior-year engineering courses -- will prepare students academically for transfer while also fostering trust between faculty members at two- and four-year institutions. While articulation agreements can be helpful in dictating course equivalencies, they do not encourage frequent meetings to re-evaluate course content and align evolving curricula. In addition to ensuring greater academic preparedness for transfer students, through this collaboration university faculty will gain a better understanding of the rigor of community college courses and ideally reduce any biases.

How to Get There

To move beyond a strategy centered on articulation agreements, first and foremost, two- and four-year institutions need to build strong relationships through mutual trust, as well as a joint responsibility for transfer student success and a shared commitment to continuous improvement. Some 2021 Aspen Prize finalist institutions have notable transfer strategies that they built through strong relationships with their partner institutions. San Jacinto College pairs early career exploration with mandatory advising prior to course registration to get students on the right track quickly and minimize credit loss from inadvertent course selection or a change in program of study. San Antonio College created 1,000 transfer advising guides with 13 four-year institutions that indicate which courses a student needs to take to transfer into their major with junior standing, with students losing a maximum of three credits during transfer compared to a national average of 13 lost credits. Lastly, the faculty at Broward College participate in retreat days with their counterparts at Florida Atlantic University and Florida International University, their most common transfer destinations, to review curriculum and student outcomes data, and they have revised courses as a result.

The University of Central Florida and six community colleges exemplify how a strong partnership can improve transfer beyond what any set of articulation agreements can. At its core, their DirectConnect program is a joint admissions program: UCF provides guaranteed admission to students earning their associate degree at any of these community colleges. But the partnership goes much deeper. These institutions conduct frequent meetings between all levels of faculty and staff -- including the six presidents who meet annually -- and continuously re-evaluate practices enabled by data-sharing agreements. UCF and Valencia College have even created a data dashboard with data specific to transfer students disaggregated by race and ethnicity and income, which they disseminate every term to facilitate evidence-based improvements. After 13 years of the partnership, UCF awarded the 50,000th degree to a DirectConnect student in 2019.

Community colleges support a diverse population of students, serving higher proportions of students from low-income backgrounds and students of color. While 80 percent of students who start community college say they want a bachelor’s degree, only 14 percent of community college students are successful in attaining one. When schools rely on articulation agreements alone, students with the fewest supports are harmed the most and will continue to be left behind. Two-year and four-year institutions need to jointly break down the barriers that are preventing community college students from persisting, and recognize that articulation agreements can’t do that alone.

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