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Zoom meetings, online shopping, self-checkout machines, cloud-based technologies … You’ve probably experienced these during the pandemic more than ever. They are signs of an accelerated shift toward digitization and automation that’s far faster than experts predicted, and they will put a premium on bachelor’s degrees in the labor market. To ensure a more equitable future of work, higher education leaders across the country must intensify efforts to improve bachelor’s attainment for community college students.

Workforce automation has ramped up dramatically because of COVID-19. By 2030, 17 million U.S. workers will need to transition occupations in the post-COVID economy, according to projections by the McKinsey Global Institute. The disruption will disproportionately affect younger, less educated, and lower-wage workers from communities of color. As the nation prepares to retrain an unprecedented number of workers, educators must develop strategies for vocational studies as well as equitable bachelor’s degree attainment.

Since the Great Recession, most of the growth in well-paying jobs was concentrated among those requiring at least a bachelor’s degree. Amid the pandemic, all signs point to this trend persisting. The equity implications of this are striking: each year, only about one-quarter of bachelor’s degrees are awarded to young adults from the bottom half of the income distribution, while bachelor’s attainment for Black and Latino adults trails their white peers by 14 and 21 percent, respectively.

These inequities in bachelor’s attainment were unacceptable before the pandemic hit. Now, after bearing the brunt of the economic and public health crises, lower-income communities and communities of color need the full support of higher education through the transitioning economy. If today’s attainment disparities don’t change, the country risks setting back mobility and opportunity for an entire generation.

Enter community college transfer, unsung hero of college access.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, this statistic is familiar: 80 percent of entering community college students -- who are more likely to hail from lower-income, Black and Latino backgrounds -- want a bachelor’s degree or higher. Unfortunately, the latest statistics indicate that after six years of starting postsecondary, only 31 percent of new community college students will transfer to a four-year institution, and only 14 percent of the original cohort will complete a bachelor’s degree.

How can we realize transfer’s full potential? The Transfer Playbook, co-authored by the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program and the Community College Research Center (CCRC), outlines essential strategies for effective partnership between community colleges and four-year colleges to support greater and more equitable transfer student success. To keep pace with the demands of the changing workforce as the future of work becomes a daily reality, here are three big ideas that build on the playbook’s fundamentals:

  1. Start with a vision for transfer student success, not exclusive course equivalencies. We’ve seen a tendency for educators to default to articulation agreements and course equivalencies as the main mechanisms to support seamless transfer. That gets to only one part of the challenge. The transformational change we need requires a broader, holistic vision for transfer student success. Leaders must set expectations for the success of the whole student -- strong learning outcomes, timely progression, completion, inclusion, postgraduate success and affordability. And -- yes -- credit transfer and applicability. Rather than dictate the terms of transfer, articulation agreements can fit within and support this broader vision. For an example of this in practice, take a look at the University of Utah’s Transfer and Articulation Design Principles.
  2. Link transfer pathways to careers. Students have many good reasons to pursue shorter-term, vocational credentials. Ambiguity about the job opportunities afforded by a bachelor’s degree is not one of them. We must make sure we link transfer pathways to careers, so that students can understand the options. For instance: an associate of arts followed by a bachelor’s in philosophy can lead to a career as an analyst at a government agency or nonprofit group. Neglecting to make these links clear is an equity issue. A compelling example of supporting students in making these connections: Virginia Commonwealth University’s Transfer Major Maps, which highlight career opportunities for different majors. These maps also show clear descriptions of course sequences for timely graduation.
  3. Devise innovative pathways to expand opportunity. We tend to think of transfer in the traditional sense: two years of community college plus two years at the four-year level (though few students experience transfer this way). The pandemic forces us to be creative: Where is the need? How can we mobilize transfer to meet it? Possibilities include 1+3 and 3+1 pathways, dual admissions, dual enrollment, course sharing through community college consortia, re-engaging adult learners with some credits but no degree, and employer-supported transfer pathways. One increasing area of interest: transfer from vocational associate degrees -- a practical path amid the changing workforce needs. There is a lot of room for innovation in this space, but for ideas about where to start, Salt Lake Community College and the University of Utah piloted supporting transfer from vocational degrees to liberal arts bachelor's using existing articulation agreements.

When the workforce last experienced an upheaval during the 2008 recession, record numbers of students across the country enrolled in community colleges -- including millions of Pell Grant recipients and students of color. Yet the national transfer student outcomes remained unacceptably low, so America missed a major opportunity to advance equity and success.

This time, we know the strategies proven to improve transfer student success, and we need to act now to implement them. Amid the crisis management, leaders of the nation’s two- and four-year institutions must have the foresight to advance equitable transfer student success so that those hurt most by the pandemic can thrive, whatever the future of work may hold.

Tania LaViolet is a director at the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program.

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