The New Reverse Transfer

February 18, 2009

Stephanie Jamiot is a community college transfer student, but not the kind one might expect. Instead of following the steady flow of students who move from two-year institutions to four-year institutions, she is one of a growing number of so-called “reverse transfers” who leave four-year universities to attend community college.

Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland -- Ohio's largest two-year institution and the one Jamiot currently attends -- had an 11 percent increase in the number of “reverse transfers” this spring compared to last. These students mostly come from public and private institutions around Ohio. Nationally, the American Association of Community Colleges notes that a third of all two-year students previously attended a four-year institution. The recession has led to surge in community college enrollments this year, and some experts believe these "reverse transfers" are an important and sometimes overlooked portion of that growing student body at two-year institutions.

Last year, 210 students came from Cleveland State University, the largest group of transfers to Cuyahoga. Among other public institutions, 197 came from Kent State University and 150 came from the University of Akron. Sixty-one students even came from the state’s flagship, Ohio State University. Another 61 came from Baldwin Wallace College, the private institution from which more students transfer to Cuyahoga than from any other. Twenty-nine and 14 students came from two other private institutions, John Carroll University and Case Western Reserve University respectively.

Jamiot matriculated as a pre-med student at Wright State University -- located outside of Dayton, Ohio -- in 2006 with the ambition of becoming an anesthesiologist. After completing most of her general education requirements and starting her pre-med curriculum, she had a change of heart and became a nursing major, wanting to pursue a career as a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA). The transition between programs at Wright State, however, was a difficult process for Jamiot, and she was distressed to find that most of the science credits she had earned as part of her pre-med track would not count towards her nursing major.

“A number of courses that I would have had to take were going to be repetitive,” Jamiot said. “With of all that I was going to have to stay another [a fifth] year to complete the program. Also, it just wasn’t the best fit for me. My advisor and I didn’t always get along.”

After two years of credit difficulties at Wright State, Jamiot decided to move back home with her parents outside of Cleveland and attend Cuyahoga, where she started last fall. Most of her credits from Wright State transferred seamlessly, and she plans to graduate with an associate degree in nursing next year and eventually finish up her baccalaureate degree from Cleveland State before becoming a CRNA. In addition to saving tuition money -- $219 per credit hour at Wright State versus $80 per credit hour at Cuyahoga -- she said she is more engaged and motivated at the community college.

“My largest classes at Wright State had 300 people, but my largest classes at Cuyahoga maybe have 100, if that,” Jamiot said. “You get to know your professors better in this setting. Here, I’ve gotten to know a lot more of the nurses in my program and become closer to them. At Wright State, I never got the opportunity to sit down with nurses and watch them do what they do.”

She acknowledged that some might view her choice as a step down, but she says she is getting a better education.

“I do have some friends who wondered why I was going back home [to community college], but when I got the chance to explain my situation to them they were very supportive and told me to do what was best for me,” Jamiot said. “Right now, I think a lot of the reason [students reverse transfer] is financially motivated, and a two-year program is going to cost you a whole lot less. Then, once you get your associate degree, getting into and adjusting to a four-year college is a lot easier.”

Though Jamiot did not cite financial hardships directly, Cuyahoga officials said most of the “reverse transfers” they welcome have made the decision to come to a community college because attending a four-year institution is no longer economically feasible for them. Peter Ross, Cuyahoga vice president for enrollment, said his institution has taken advantage of this by actively marketing the college’s affordability in comparison to some of the state’s public universities. He added that he expects the number of “reserve transfers” to continue to rise as the economy worsens.

“I’ve been in the transfer world of higher education for about 25 years, and I’ve never seen numbers like this at a community college,” Ross said of the college’s 11 percent increase in reverse transfers. “I think we’re going to see students who were traditionally four-year college bound -- either public or private -- come to us to for foundation courses at more reasonable rates before moving on.”

Still, he admitted there were some challenges with these students. As with most students at the community college level, there remains a concern about those who abandon their programs before earning an associate degree. Reverse transfers, he said, may need even more counseling to ensure they know how their credits are being handled at their new institution. If this process is long and confusing, he noted that some of these students may chose not complete their degree.

“We want these students to leave here with a degree,” Ross said of reverse transfers. “Leaving us without getting an associate degree impacts their ability to go on and get a baccalaureate degree later. In their mind, we’re a stepping stone. Still, it’s very real those students might not get an associate degree. They got side-tracked once – in that they came here from somewhere else – and who knows if that’ll happen in the future?”

This year, with such a high number of reverse transfers, Cuyahoga started its first formal group counseling sessions and meetings for these students. In the past, Ross said counselors met with these students if assistance was request. Now, he said the college’s more proactive engagement of these students is meant to help streamline what is often a lesser-known and confusing process for both the transfers and those at the institution.

Bonita C. Jacobs, executive director of the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students at the University of North Texas, said, in spite of these difficulties, “reverse transfer” may be more likely to ultimately transfer onward to a four-year institution after earning their associate degree than those of their peers who have only attended a community college.

“When asked why some community college students don’t transfer onward, my colleagues will often say that life happened to them,” Jacobs said, noting that only 20 percent of associate degree graduates end up transferring to four-year institutions. “Those who don’t transfer often say these institutions seem like big, scary places, where it’s easy to get lost. I would think the opposite for [reverse transfers]. Since they’ve already gone there, maybe some of the mystique is gone. Most probably always knew they were going to go back eventually.”

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