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We should assume this much about community college students -- they have strong aspirations for academic and career success and hopes of finishing what they start. An aspiration for the large majority of students starting community college is to earn a bachelor’s degree. In fact, when asked to name their goals for attending college, 78 percent of entering students responding to the Survey of Entering Student Engagement (SENSE) indicated transferring to a four-year college or university as a goal. However, only 31 percent of community college students transfer to a four-year institution -- and of those who do transfer, less than half earn a bachelor’s degree within six years.

Producing better transfer outcomes requires community college leaders to better understand how transfer supports are currently embedded in the student experience. Eighty-eight percent of entering students responding to SENSE reported that they never used their college’s transfer support services. This is not completely surprising, as 52 percent of entering students reported not knowing their college had transfer support services.

A key component of the guided pathways implementation model is helping students develop full program plans based on career and transfer exploration. Learning students’ interests about transfer and articulating transfer opportunities within their selected programs of study, as early as possible, can help students get on a path and stay on track toward meeting their goals. Without this exploration and planning, students may not consider transfer and additional educational opportunities that could lead to career advancement and higher salaries. Furthermore, when students don’t have a clear pathway to follow, they may take excess credit hours, which waste time and money.

Students desire valuable guidance around transfer, as illustrated by focus groups facilitated by the Center for Community College Student Engagement. In one group, a student shared, “A transferring center would definitely be useful here. I do have credits that aren’t transferrable. I have credits that aren’t even useful for the nursing program.”

Another student said, “If you don’t know what it takes to transfer, and when you’re so eager to transfer and you didn’t get the right information, you’re more than likely not gonna transfer and you’re gonna be devastated.”

And another said, “I didn’t understand anything about college and how I had to take my classes and how the A.A. worked and how it would fit in as I transferred to a different university. No one in my family has ever gone to college.”

Having conversations about transfer is not only important for the entering student population, but it is critical that students beyond their first semester receive support in this area as well. When asked for advice on how community colleges can help transfer students, a student in a focus group said, “I feel like [I] definitely would have benefited if they would have implemented a [transfer] program. Like when you are about to complete your associates for them to send you to an adviser and say, ‘Hey, what is your plan for after you get your associate's degree? Do you plan on going to university? What do you plan on studying?’”

The data also reflect that not all returning students are having these important conversations about transfer opportunities and processes. Forty-four percent of students responding to the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) said a staff member did not talk with them about the overall process (application, financial aid) for transferring to a four-year institution, and 24 percent reported that a staff member did not talk with them about which of their credits would transfer toward a program or major at the four-year institution of their choice.

Forty-eight percent of CCSSE respondents who reported transfer as a goal said they never used transfer advising services. However, when students who intend to transfer use transfer advising services, they are more engaged -- and the more they use transfer advising services, the more engaged they are across all CCSSE engagement indicators.

When students in focus groups describe positive experiences with advising and transfer support services, they speak of feeling well prepared for what is to come.

One student said, “[My adviser] squeezed as many transfer credits as she could out of what I had previously done. I came out feeling very prepared for the semester and really excited about the classes I was gonna take.”

Another student said, “I got to know the academic advising … pretty well. I spoke to them about transferring and requirements to transfer … I was definitely planning on transferring, and they were very helpful in finding exactly what classes or pointing me in the right direction to find what classes I needed to take and what would transfer and wouldn’t transfer.”

As community college leaders do the work to improve culture and processes for their transfer students, the following questions that Texas community colleges focused on during a virtual Pathways Institute hosted by the Texas Success Center this spring can be used to support conversations about how institutional practices may need to be redesigned to advance outcomes for transfer students -- so that more students will have the opportunity for transfer and be well prepared for what is to come.

  • Are students getting on the right paths early enough? Are they choosing a premajor and transfer destination within the first year?
  • Do you have strong (academic program) maps, well aligned to successful transfer and bachelor’s attainment? Are they kept up-to-date?
  • Are students taking the right number of credits?
  • To what four-year institutions are your student most frequently transferring?
  • Are the program maps being honored by the four-year institutions?
  • Are your students completing the associate degree before they transfer? Do you see any gaps or trends by race/ethnicity?
  • Are your students completing a bachelor’s once they transfer? At what rate? Do you see any gaps or trends by race/ethnicity?

Linda L. García is executive director and Courtney Adkins is assistant director of publications at the Center for Community College Student Engagement. The mission of the center is to provide “aha” moments about the student experience. Follow the center on Twitter: @CommCollSurveys.

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