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President Biden’s American Families Plan, announced last month, calls for more than $100 billion to provide two years of free community college for all students. This is a great opportunity for those who might have thought higher education was out of reach. But the vast majority of students who start at community college aim to achieve a bachelor’s degree, and few do so. To provide meaningful opportunities for social mobility in a world of free community colleges, colleges and universities must make efficient, effective transfer a priority.

Those seeking a model should look to San Antonio College, which won the 2021 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence earlier this month. SAC, one of five community colleges in the Alamo Colleges District in Texas, has built a comprehensive transfer system that gets and keeps students on track. The Alamo Colleges have built clear pathways to a bachelor’s degree and provide inescapable, personalized guidance for students. What’s more, SAC creates strong connections with four-year institutions and continuously evaluates systems and student outcomes to improve processes.

These practices have resulted in strong outcomes. Students in the Alamo Colleges District complete their associate degrees in 65 hours, on average, compared to a national average of over 80 hours, helping students maintain momentum (and preserve financial aid dollars). SAC students transfer at rates eight percentage points above the national average. The rate at which transfer students attain their bachelor’s degrees also exceeds the national average -- and at several partner universities, students who transfer from SAC attain their credentials more quickly than students who began there as freshmen.

Providing extremely clear pathways in coordination with four-year schools

Guided pathways are an important component for saving students time and money in pursuit of their degree. The Alamo Colleges District has over 1,000 Transfer Advising Guides (TAGs), which lay out pathways to 26 Texas colleges and universities within a compact. The TAGs are a result of close coordination between faculty, student services and administrators at SAC, Alamo Colleges District and university partners.

The TAGs tell a student in a given program which courses they need to take each semester to transfer to a specific university with junior standing in their major. Students who follow TAGs are guaranteed to only lose a maximum of three credits, or one course, upon transfer, compared to a national average of 13 credits. In addition, about half of the transfer pathways are “seamless,” meaning that transfer students won’t lose any credits upon transfer and will save an average of $40,215 if transferring to a public university within the compact.

Prioritizing early transfer planning

To get students on the right pathway as soon as possible, SAC works to understand their goals and ambitions during their first semester and help them make choices early that will facilitate a smooth transition to a four-year school or the workforce. SAC students are expected to select their transfer destination by 30 credits -- and, unlike at many colleges, they are encouraged to do so even earlier.

In new student orientation, group advising sessions that occur immediately upon enrollment, and a student success course, called Learning Frameworks, that is required for first-time-in-college students, SAC provides information about pathways, careers and transfer, and gets information from students about what they want to study and where they might want to go.

At orientation, students choose one of six broad educational pathways (such as public service or health and biosciences) and attend group advising sessions based on their area of interest. During these sessions, advisers provide information on the necessary course work for the degree, review TAGs and begin working with students on individualized student plans (ISPs). In the Learning Frameworks course, students create a personal mission statement, identify individual goals and develop a plan to get there. Their instructors bring in advisers to work with students on their ISPs and make appointments with a transfer representative, many of whom are stationed at SAC, to work with students on their applications, connect them to financial aid and scholarships, and provide information on course equivalencies.

Advising with a concrete agenda

The “guided” portion of SAC’s guided pathways is especially strong. The Alamo Colleges District has built a highly organized and robust advising structure, called AlamoADVISE, where each student sticks with an adviser throughout their journey, and the adviser is embedded in their degree program. Advisers work with SAC faculty and faculty from partner universities to stay up-to-date on course changes, departmental requirements and other information highly relevant to transfer students -- which is made easier because advisers specialize within degree programs.

Advising is one of a small number of strategic priorities at SAC, and dedicated funding ensures a relatively low caseload for advisors of 380 to one. Students must meet with their adviser at 15, 30 and 45 credit hours. These checkpoints are paired with clear milestones and expectations for each advising session, in which advisers scaffold student progress with stepping-stones, like getting students to choose their guided pathway and understand transfer options by 15 credit hours, commit to a transfer destination by 30 hours and plan for transfer -- including by getting application and financial aid information -- at 30 credit hours and beyond. Throughout this process, advisers constantly check in with students and revise their ISPs to make sure they are on track to graduate and transfer.

Integrating continuous improvement

There is a strong commitment to continuous improvement and accountability throughout SAC, which has helped to improve transfer student outcomes. Advisers in the Alamo Colleges District go through trainings to effectively guide their students and must complete a set of core competencies annually. These competencies include identifying a student’s intent to transfer, understanding advising milestones and using TAGs to direct student course work. SAC advisers also monitor student success indicators for students in their caseload each week and reach out to those who appear to need extra support.

After each advising session, students complete a survey of the advising appointment, probing whether they learned what they needed to (about satisfactory academic progress, for example) and collecting information on student satisfaction (“Was the adviser prepared?”). Advisers review the results each week and work to address ongoing issues.

Finally, professors and academic leaders pay attention to curriculum alignment and transfer student success. Each year, SAC and university partners gather by discipline to update the TAGs and discuss whether courses and academic expectations are aligned and whether transfer students are successful. SAC also tracks how graduates perform at transfer destinations, with a completion team meeting weekly to assess transfer student outcomes by program.

It took SAC time to develop the comprehensive practices that serve transfer students so well. SAC and the Alamo Colleges District began designing their guided pathways model in 2010, AlamoADVISE launched in 2014 and the Texas compact that created the TAGs was formed in 2016. With all the pieces in place, outcomes improved: the time to degree immediately dropped and has continued to decrease ever since, and after a few years transfer outcomes came to exceed the national average. Ultimately, the college was named the best in the nation because of a comprehensive set of well-designed systems and a commitment to never remain idle.

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