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Six years after I transitioned from working at a university one on one with community college transfer students to researching transfer outcomes and reforms, two things have remained unchanged: lots of hard work is going into supporting transfer students, and yet only a fraction of entering community college students realize their goal of completing a bachelor’s degree. My work studying how educators can improve transfer outcomes has only emphasized what I knew already: transfer students aren’t the problem; rather, college-created barriers are holding transfer students back.
We simply cannot afford to underutilize the community college transfer pathway as a driver of more equitable college attainment. Bachelor’s degrees are increasingly required for "good jobs," which are more resilient to economic downturns. Yet our educational system is failing to provide equal opportunity to a bachelor’s and beyond, exemplified by continued underrepresentation of Black and Latinx adults with bachelor’s degrees. The community college transfer pathway is a promising mechanism for addressing such inequities: community colleges enroll almost half of undergraduates, including even higher proportions of Black, Latinx and Native American students, and the vast majority (81 percent by last estimate) of entering students are seeking a bachelor’s degree or above.
However, the community college transfer pathway is not living up to this promise. These six-year outcomes haven’t budged in the past five years: of 100 new-to-higher-ed, degree-seeking community college students, about 30 will transfer to a four-year institution, and only about 14 will complete a bachelor’s degree. And the current system, underperforming as it is, works twice as well for white students as it does for Black and Latinx students, and twice as well for higher-income students as for lower-income students. Even for the 14 percent who made it through to a bachelor’s degree, researchers have documented a "transfer penalty" of additional time to degree and excess credits (again, stratified along racial/socioeconomic lines), calling into question the cost-savings potential of the transfer pathway.
Behind the numbers, students experience transfer as a complicated and confusing process. Too often they are blamed for the difficulties they experience transferring, or they blame themselves. In reality, the biggest barriers to successful transfer are institutional, not individual. And although current transfer outcomes paint a bleak picture, the same research also illustrates the variation in performance on these outcomes, with some colleges and universities doing much better, demonstrating that it is possible to substantially improve.
The transfer research I and my colleagues at the Community College Research Center are doing is aimed at identifying college-created barriers along students’ transfer pathways that exacerbate inequities, with a goal of providing insight into how these barriers can be dismantled toward a stronger and more equitable transfer system. Here are some key takeaways from this work.
- Early momentum matters. Much of the low rates of community college transfer and bachelor’s completion is explained by attrition early on, and especially in the first year. In a paper with Yuxin Lin and Maggie Fay tracking entering community college cohorts in one state up to 10 years, we found that low and inequitable long-term rates of transfer and completion emerge early in students’ trajectories, with many students not meeting important early milestones like passing college-level English or math, completing 24 or more college credits, or completing an associate degree for transfer. However, students who met those early milestones were substantially more likely to transfer and complete bachelor’s degrees, with significant additional benefits for Black and Hispanic students. This research builds on related scholarly work about the importance of early momentum for longer-term success, suggesting that college reforms to close equity gaps in leading indicator "momentum metrics" are a promising approach to improving longer-term outcomes and closing equity gaps.
- Unclear pathways: Are these the right gen eds? Student transfer patterns are complex and idiosyncratic. For instance, only 8 percent of successful community college transfer students followed the “2+2” pathway. Information on transfer websites is notoriously difficult to navigate and interpret, and articulation agreements practically require formal legal training to decipher. Even if courses are guaranteed to transfer, students need to know whether credits will apply to their eventual bachelor’s degree program. The general associate degree for transfer is intended as a lower-division set of courses applicable to different baccalaureate requirements. However, our research suggests that unless students know how general education courses apply toward their desired major, which may vary by university, they may have to take additional coursework post-transfer to meet baccalaureate program requirements. Colleges, not students, should bear the responsibility for aligning transfer pathways between primary sending/receiving institutions. As it stands, the well-intentioned advice for students to get their "gen eds out of the way" too often leaves them, on their own, asking, "Are these the right gen eds?"
- Inadequate transfer advising. Better transfer information, on its own, is by no means sufficient to substantially improve transfer outcomes. Even if colleges and universities create better aligned transfer pathways to specific bachelor’s degree programs, students still need support to explore, enter, customize and progress along transfer pathways. Yet transfer advising at the typical community college is too little, too late, lacks support from major four-year destinations, and is underutilized by the students who would benefit most. A Center for Community College Student Engagement survey of 90,000 transfer-aspiring community college students found that half reported never utilizing transfer advising. Improving transfer advising is challenging without substantial investments in advising staff. But the alternative is to perpetuate a "hidden curriculum" of transfer, further stratifying opportunity.
- Post-transfer experience stymied by unreceptive cultures. Though many four-year institutions are stepping up to better support transfer, transfer students report less interaction with four-year faculty and are less likely to participate in co-curricular activities such as study abroad or undergraduate research. And community college transfer students may encounter unreceptive campus cultures at the four-year, wherein transfer students are undervalued through unsupportive campus policies, norms and faculty/staff misperceptions often rooted in community college stigmatization. Unreceptive transfer cultures intersect with problematic campus racial climates, creating further barriers for transfer students of color. The persistent idea of "transfer shock" has perpetuated a deficit-minded myth that transfer students are less capable than freshman admits. Since the original 1960s work on transfer shock, research that constructs more equivalent comparison samples finds that transfer students perform as well or better than freshman admits.
Improving inequitable transfer is possible. Community college students represent a huge source of talent in our communities: already one in five master’s degree holders and one in 10 Ph.D.s started at a community college, and almost half of students earning bachelor’s degrees enrolled at a community college at some point. Colleges and university partners are working in new and promising ways to improve transfer at scale, including creating more structured, field-aligned transfer associate degrees, scaling joint-admissions programs, prioritizing equity-minded and race-conscious approaches to reform, and integrating dual enrollment and transfer strategy to create on-ramps to bachelor’s degree pathways starting in high school.
Big and bold action is needed to address our underperforming transfer system. Major barriers to transfer success are institutionally created. Rather than asking, "Are students transfer-ready?" we should be asking, "Is our college ready for transfers?"
John Fink is a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center.