SEATTLE -- Community college students are no more likely to transfer to four-year institutions in states where there are articulation agreements designed to ease such transfers than they are in states without them, according to a new study. But having more tenured faculty members at community colleges does make a difference.
The research appears to challenge conventional wisdom that these agreements -- adopted with fanfare in a growing number of states -- are key to encouraging such transfers. And Betheny Gross, the researcher who presented the findings Friday at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said she was surprised by the results, too.
Many in the audience said that they were surprised as well, at least initially. But as discussion continued, many in states with articulation agreements expressed doubts about their effectiveness. This doesn't mean Gross or those in the audience oppose articulation agreements. Rather, a consensus seemed to emerge at the session that they are "necessary but not sufficient" to encourage transfer, as one administrator suggested.
Articulation agreements spell out how community college students can earn credit at four-year institutions. These pacts followed years of complaints from community colleges and their students that those with two years of credits at community colleges would find themselves unable to transfer some of their credits. Four-year institutions would sometimes respond that the transfer students seemed unaware of degree requirements – although many advocates for two-year institutions have long believed that snobbery played a role in these decisions, with four-year institutions assuming unfairly that community colleges lacked sufficient rigor.
The result of these mismatches in expectations was a situation in which many community college students hoping to finish a bachelor's degree in two years at a four-year institution found themselves taking longer (and paying more). Under articulation agreements, the theory goes, four-year institutions commit to awarding credit if transfer students take certain courses and fulfill certain requirements pre-transfer.
Gross – an analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education of the University of Washington at Bothell – analyzed national data for students who entered community colleges from high school. She acknowledged that this is just one subset of community college students, but said that these students were particularly likely to transfer later. (Dan Goldhaber, also of the center, was co-author of the work, which was supported by the Lumina Foundation for Education.)
The initial hypothesis was that some parts of articulation agreements may be more important than others. So the researchers analyzed data for students in states with different kinds of articulation agreements to see whether particular provisions mattered more. There were "hints," Gross said, that certain factors may make a greater difference. There were very slight positive associations – although below the level of statistical significance – for students being more likely to transfer if they live in states where articulation agreements provide for automatic transfer of credits when an associate degree has been completed, or for common course numbering in two-year and four-year institutions.
Among members of racial and ethnic groups, Gross did find that having statewide articulation agreements increases the likelihood – well beyond statistical significance – of Latino students transferring. But that is the only group with such an impact.
While the study did not find the expected impact for articulation agreements, it did find another characteristic that matters: the percentage of tenured faculty members. For every 10 percent increase in the share of tenured faculty members at a community college, students were 4 percent more likely to transfer to a four-year institution. Many community colleges rely on non-tenure track instructors for much of the teaching, and Gross said the finding suggested that there are educational benefits for not doing so. But she also said she realized that community colleges and states – facing a severe budget outlook right now – may not be likely to act based on this finding.
Several in the audience linked the faculty role to the way articulation agreements may or may not have the desired impact.
"It's all about advising," said one community college administrator who tracks the transfer success of students at his institution. For students who get good advising, articulation agreements work, because someone will guide them to take the courses that will transfer. But there are far too few people doing academic advising at his and other colleges, he said. Faculty members may or may not understand the articulation agreements, and students don't. "We aren't getting the information out," he said.
A four-year college official said that he had expected his state's articulation agreement to have a big impact and that officials were surprised when one didn't materialize. "We saw a much smaller group of transfers until we initiated a series of steps – we got our advisers meeting regularly with their advisers. We got our faculty meeting their faculty. When they sat down, we saw a clear bump in the number of transfers we were getting from the community colleges with which we shared a campus," he said.
Several people said that articulation agreements that focus on transfer of credits alone may end up frustrating would-be transfers. If the agreements don't assure students admission to majors (which may be competitive) or completion of certain general education requirements, the credits transferred may not seem like much of a gain to the student. "Getting accepted means you get to eat lunch in a different place," said one person.
Issues of geography also come into play. Several cited states where community colleges serve diverse populations in urban areas and the four-year institutions that would be academically good matches for them are in rural locales. The best articulation agreements around may make little difference, audience members said. One said that in states like this, a better state policy may be to encourage more four-year institutions to set up branch campuses at community colleges or in urban areas.
Even as educators in the audience found themselves agreeing with the finding that articulation agreements may not be the cure-all for which some hope, they also said that they were needed. Articulation agreements force discussions and require four-year institutions to at the very least justify why credit isn't being awarded -- opening the door to policy shifts by two-year and four-year institutions to ease transfer.
"You don't know the problem areas if you don't have an agreement," said one audience member. Another said the agreements "are a buffer against institutional error, especially by flagships."