Increasing numbers of state policy makers are awakening to the difficulty community college students have transferring their credits toward a degree at four-year colleges and universities. They are right to be worried. Research has found that fewer than 60 percent of community college transfer students could transfer most of their credits and 15 percent were able transfer very few and essentially had to start over. The resulting waste of time and money -- not to mention lost human potential -- represents one of the biggest challenges to student success U.S. higher education faces today.
Acknowledging the problem and fixing it, however, are two different things. And attempts to address the issue at the state level, while doing some good, may have unintended negative consequences. The good news is, as some states are starting to show, this can be fixed.
When state policy makers consider how to address the large numbers of credits lost during transfer, they face a conundrum. Premajor requirements for different programs of study vary, and the same major at two different four-year colleges can have different program designs, course requirements and levels of academic rigor. For instance, a bachelor’s degree in psychology at one state university may align with medical school requirements, and thus require more science courses than a psychology program focused on the field more generally.
In the face of this often overwhelming variation in four-year degree requirements, policy makers in some states have put their trust in a common denominator: ensuring transferability of nonmajor lower-division courses, often referred to as the general education core, and leaving the major-specific requirements to each individual four-year institution. In Mississippi, for example, this guarantees transfer to a four-year institution for the community college student who completes 41 credits from a broad array of approved courses. Similar rules exist in Ohio, Texas and several other states.
Sound good? Not so fast.
In states where such rules exist, the gen-ed core at many community colleges has become the default curriculum for the first two or three semesters. On one level, this makes sense. Community college advisers and faculty members reason that counseling students to complete the gen-ed core first will reduce credit loss and preserve students’ options when selecting a four-year transfer destination and a major.
But preserving options may be the enemy of student success. In fact, if pursuing the gen-ed core becomes a reason to delay program choice, it can actually limit students’ options and reduce the chances for degree completion in three important ways.
First, choosing a major or at least a broad field of interest before transferring can help ensure that students take the right gen-ed courses -- courses that will both transfer and count toward their major. For example, many science courses taught at community colleges count toward gen-ed requirements, but only some of those courses are rigorous enough to align to the STEM major tracks at most four-year universities. Similarly, undergraduate psychology programs at four-year colleges increasingly require courses in which students learn research methods, instruction that is often lacking in community college introductory psychology courses. Consequently, community college students seeking to transfer in psychology may not have the foundational research skills of a student who entered a university as a freshman.
Moreover, in many majors, it is essential for students to begin their major-related courses as soon as possible if they are to have any hope of graduating in four years. Science majors need to take a series of rigorous courses with laboratory components that are nearly impossible for a student to handle in their final two years. The same goes for engineering and nursing. Studio art and architecture majors have studio courses that realistically cannot be completed in the junior and senior year. For many majors, programs are thus designed to ensure that students spread demanding major-related courses over more than two years. Delaying program choice prohibits students from doing so. If students don’t take some of these courses early on, they may essentially have to start over when they transfer.
Finally, without a sense of direction, students may struggle to feel connected to their academic course work as they complete their gen-ed courses. When a student interested in accounting can take accounting classes while simultaneously working on English and Math 101, she can better see how these courses add up to an associate degree and then a bachelor’s -- while remaining engaged in her area of interest. Clear direction is an essential counterweight to the many challenges and demands that can pull students away from studying, attending class and, ultimately, completing their degrees.
However, these problems can be resolved. Under pressure from policy makers to better meet the growing need for STEM workers in the state, higher education institutions in Washington State have worked together to develop field-specific pathways, including an associate of science in transfer that four-year colleges report provides strong preparation for majors in biological sciences and engineering and computer sciences.
Research by the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges indicates that students with these “AS-T degrees” who transfer to a university are more likely to earn a bachelor’s in STEM fields and to complete fewer credits overall than students who followed the more general education-oriented statewide transfer agreement. In other fields, state “major-related transfer degrees” are being created that will transfer for both general education credits and most major-specific credits required by universities in the state. Major-specific transfer pathways are at various stages of development in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Tennessee and a few other states.
Still, these systems are far from perfect. Because program-specific premajor requirements can vary across four-year colleges and universities, the chances that students will take courses that fail to transfer toward major requirements will always be present. Even in states with field- or major-specific pathways, four-year institutions need to develop program-specific transfer guides to help students and their advisers understand requirements unique to their programs. But systems like those in Washington State offer a way to pursue two important objectives simultaneously: increasing efficient credit transfer and helping students find direction.
It will be years before such polices are developed and refined in every state. In the meantime, community colleges and their four-year partners must understand the limitations of guaranteed gen-ed credit transfer and help prospective transfer students develop a sense of direction as early as possible. Only by doing so can they deliver what students and taxpayers expect in an era of increasingly scarce resources: college degrees that students can earn affordably and relatively quickly.
Joshua Wyner is executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. Davis Jenkins is a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College.
The deluge of student data privacy laws proposed at both the state and federal levels attempt to provide much-needed updates to antiquated privacy regulations that allow far too many loopholes for the access and sharing of data. But in the rush to protect students’ information and keep profiteers from accessing students’ personal data, we risk losing crucial opportunities to use these data to help students, particularly those from less privileged backgrounds.
How can this be the case? In response to justifiable concerns about who has access to student data and what they do with it, many proposed student data privacy laws -- more than 140 have been introduced in 49 states, and more than 30 have already passed -- include stipulations to prevent “operators” and/or “school service providers” from sharing data, even for educational purposes.
Some, but not all, of the state bills make exceptions for nonprofit organizations like ACT, which play an important role in connecting students to crucial information and resources that can increase the likelihood that they will enroll in college, learn about scholarships and connect with organizations that support student success in postsecondary education. One of the proposed federal bills that has surfaced on Capitol Hill, the Student Data Privacy Rights Act, would, in its current form, negatively affect our ability to conduct and provide educational research for the public good, and make it more difficult for students to receive information about college opportunities and scholarships.
How many students could be negatively affected by a poorly written law? In 2014, 1.8 million students took the ACT test, including 57 percent of all graduating high school seniors nationwide. When students register to take the ACT, they have the option of completing a survey about their plans and aspirations for life after high school. Participation is voluntary, though 86 percent chose to complete the survey. By completing the survey and indicating their desire to opt in, students give permission for their information to be shared with colleges and scholarship organizations that send them information about programs and resources matching their financial needs and academic interests.
For over 50 years, ACT has been a trusted and proven partner in collecting such data. Organizations that provide millions of dollars of college scholarships to qualified students rely on ACT’s data to help them reach students who might not otherwise know that they qualify for their programs and funding. But if proposed laws lack flexibility in their definitions of “operator” or “school service provider,” these scholarship organizations stand to lose access to those data. And the end result is that deserving students would lose an important and possibly life-changing opportunity.
Among the concerns raised about sharing students’ personal data is that it can lead to them being stereotyped or pigeonholed too early in their lives. I think we have to trust students to make decisions about their data, and about the opportunities that they might or might not decide to pursue.
As a student affairs administrator at Stanford University, Dartmouth College and other institutions, I’ve worked with countless students who, at one point, hadn’t thought they were “college material,” or qualified to attend the most competitive colleges. What changed their minds and motivated them was receiving information from institutions and organizations that recognized their talent, work ethic and potential and encouraged them to apply for admission and scholarship programs. And colleges send this information after they use services like ACT to identify those who can benefit from their programs. I’d rather help students consider all of their options than deny them the opportunity to do so.
At ACT, we are developing new initiatives and partnerships to expand data-driven outreach efforts to increase college opportunity. Earlier this academic year, ACT launched the Get Your Name in the Game initiative to provide college and scholarship information to underserved students who waited until senior year to take the ACT, and who opted in to share their personal data. Our research shows that few of these students received information from colleges or scholarship programs, which tended to focus their outreach efforts on students who had taken the ACT during their junior year. To level the playing field where we could, we offered educational institutions and organizations free access to the data these students provided, in order to contact them about educational opportunities. The result is that nearly 750,000 more underserved high school seniors were connected with colleges and scholarship funders who were interested in them. Despite the promising early results of this initiative, it would have to be discontinued if the proposed laws forbid us from sharing these data.
As our federal and state governments continue to collaborate with educational organizations to sort out the details of these laws, it’s important that they are also vigilant in preserving opportunities for nonprofits to share data within strict ethical and legal standards. Responsible and effective stewards of data like ACT are already doing this.
To ensure that our data are only shared for the benefit of students, we strictly vet any organizations that request access to students’ information. Companies that charge students or their families fees for services are banned. Only organizations with an educational mission are eligible for access, and they are not allowed to share the data with any other organizations.
We also recognize that students and their families are often confused about what information is being shared and for what purposes. This is why we support the current push for greater transparency -- it’s important that organizations like ACT are clear and forthcoming about how they regulate and safeguard access to students’ data. We provide detailed information on our policies and practices on student data privacy here.
There is also a strong need for parents to educate themselves, and teach their children, about how to make wise decisions about sharing their personal data. On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, children are deemed old enough to authorize their data to be shared with these companies at age 13 -- including birth dates, personal photos and where they go to school. As a parent and former student affairs dean, I cannot tell you how important it is for parents to discuss these matters with their children.
There is a lot of monitoring that parents need to do in the current environment of massive social networks, and for-profit companies taking advantage of the ease of access to tons of data about their children. But students and their families also need to be given the choice to share their data with trusted education organizations. If data-sharing restrictions are placed on nonprofits like ACT, students and their families will lose the right to make the decision for themselves to receive information from colleges and scholarship funds.
As these laws evolve and gain clarity, policy makers should balance the need for updated safeguards while preserving the ability for proven programs that benefit students to continue to do so by virtue of collecting and sharing data.
Jim Larimore is the chief officer for underserved learners at ACT. He previously served as deputy director for student success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and has been a student affairs professional at Stanford University, Dartmouth College, Swarthmore College, NYU Abu Dhabi and Amherst College.