Transfer, Texas Style

Educators in Lone Star State trade ideas on how to get more community college students into four-year programs.
May 22, 2009

Public universities in Texas are betting that community college transfer students will help them respond to their state’s call to drastically improve college-going and graduation rates. As a result, higher education leaders are trying hard to share stories of success at promoting transfer.

Today, educators will gather at multiple sites around the state for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s Transfer Success Conference. The gathering will focus intently on the massive Closing the Gaps 2015 program which, among other goals, has challenged the state to provide access for 630,000 more students and graduate 210,000 undergraduates annually by 2015.

Marc Cutright, director of the Center for Higher Education at the University of North Texas, said that only by encouraging successful transfers from the state’s community colleges to its four-year institutions could Texas hope to reach its participation and graduation goals. Nationally, more than 60 percent of students who earn a bachelor’s degree do so after having attended more than one institution. Cutright noted that this figure is closer to 80 percent in Texas.

Texas has already made a number of statewide reforms to encourage transfers in recent years, including the adoption of a common course numbering system and a core curriculum that is guaranteed to transfer to any public institution in the state. Still, Cutright argued that the impetus for further improvement was not revision of the state transfer policy.

“State transfer policies don’t help that much,” Cutright said, even of those recent changes in his state. “There’s not much difference in the success of transfers in low-policy and high-policy states. We believe people who are closest to the ground know what’s best for their students. We want our institutions to think locally but act globally.”

At the conference, a number of institutions that have been recognized as Successful Transfer Enhancement Programs (STEP) are being touted as “best practices” for institutions around the state to emulate.

As Cutright said, “Why invent something when you can steal it? We don’t need a lot of new solutions. A lot of them are already out there.”

Transfer Student Scholarships

The Automatic Transfer Student Scholarship at the University of Houston at Clear Lake was recognized for “best practices in enrollment management.” As Clear Lake is an upper-division institution – only serving juniors and seniors at the undergraduate level – all of its students transfer in. Most come to the institution from one of the many low-tuition community colleges in the surrounding area. Taking twelve credits at Houston Community College costs only $672, while a similar course load at Clear Lake costs $2,322. The goal of the scholarship was “to reduce the transfer cost shock” experienced by most of these students and make Clear Lake “a more affordable option” for them.

But Clear Lake officials wanted to craft a transfer scholarship that avoided a number of the pitfalls of those around the state and actually encouraged student persistence toward a bachelor’s degree. Most of the other transfer scholarships in Texas required full-time enrollment, were non-renewable, had a distinct application process and had a minimum grade point average of 3.0. These are all qualities that limited participation.

Clear Lake officials noted that, if they adopted the common scholarship model used by most of the other institutions in the state, they would eliminate more than half of the university’s transfer student population from eligibility. They also found that they would not have an ideally diverse student population if they kept the minimum GPA requirement at 3.0. To make matters worse, they already received relatively few scholarship applications from transfer students in the past because the process of filling out a separate application “was perceived to be cumbersome.”

Last fall, as a result of these findings, Clear Lake officials introduced a transfer scholarship attuned to their institution’s unique needs. The application for admission also serves as the scholarship application, so no additional paperwork needs to be filed. Students only need to enroll in a minimum of 9 credit hours per semester to be eligible for the money. Students must have a minimum of a 2.75 GPA to qualify for $800 per year. Those with a GPA greater than 3.0 receive $1,000 per year. The scholarship is also automatically renewed for a second academic year if the student completes at least 18 credit hours and their GPA is equal to or greater than their GPA at time of transfer.

So far this year, Clear Lake has awarded 676 scholarships.

Yvette M. Bendeck, associate vice president for enrollment management, said the program shows promise of generating additional tuition revenue in the near future. As the average full-time semester at Clear Lake costs $2,400, the scholarships are only partial. This, Bendeck said, will only encourage more students to enroll in further courses, helping boost the institution’s tuition revenue and causing the program to pay for itself.

“Once you determine that you want to foster student enrollment with the cost of higher education, this program is adaptable anywhere,” Bendeck said. “Other institutions need to look at their population and determine what characteristics are keeping students from enrolling. We wanted to support first-generation students, so we set our GPA a bit lower. You need to make an assessment with recruitment points that will help you break even.”

The Reverse Associate's

El Paso Community College and the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) were recognized for “best practices in external collaboration.” Recently, and because of an influx of them into the college, the community college’s Career Services department began focusing explicitly on “reverse transfers” – those students who transfer from a four-year institution to a community college.

Carla Cardoza, director of career services at the community college, said these students were often “lost” upon arrival at the college and many felt as if they had to “start over,” despite all of their work at the four-year institution they left. The community college began counseling these students and identifying which of their credits would transfer toward an associate's degree. This counseling provides these students with a renewed goal and a path by which to earn a degree. Many, as it turns out, are already qualified for an associate's.

This process not only gave many “reverse transfers” some form of credentialing, it also encouraged the community college officials to look for other students who might already be qualified for an associate's degree but, for whatever reason, had not received it.

The community college, Cardoza said, is now sorting through all of its students who have transferred to UTEP in the past five years to find those who have not earned an associate's degree. As the transfer-guaranteed core curriculum in Texas requires less than what it takes to earn a two-year degree, many students who leave for four-year institutions simply do not complete one. Of the 350 “reverse transfers” who will graduate from the community college this spring, Cardoza estimated that most of them are actually students currently attending UTEP who had not earned their associate's degree.

“A lot of the students who transfer just give up or think, ‘I still need to work on my night job to get my bachelor’s degree,’ ” Cardoza said. “Without something like an associate's degree, they might give up sooner. But, with an associate's degree, they have a chance to get a better job while they earn their bachelor’s degree. It not only benefits them financially but also raises their self-esteem. It shows them that their work has not been in vain and that they’ve been working toward something.”

The practice also provides a boon for the community college, who can now count these students among their graduates without having spent any extra on them. So far, Cardoza said the college’s graduation rate has not risen substantially because of the practice, but she expects the benefit to be measurable as the college begins to keep more transfer data.

Aligning Prerequisites

UTEP was also recognized for “best practices in curricular education” as a result of another collaboration with El Paso Community College. The sheer volume of transfer students flooding into UTEP from the nearby community college tipped officials off to a strange quirk in both of their engineering programs that did not quite align their curriculums, and shortchanged transfers in the process.

Peter Golding, associate dean of undergraduate studies and engineering education research at UTEP, said UTEP did not offer a prerequisite for its engineering program at the community college, even though it offered subsequent courses for the beginnings of the discipline there. So, a student at the community college would have to take an engineering prerequisite at UTEP before they could take subsequent engineering courses back at the community college. All of this hopping around prior to any formal transfer between the institutions added up to a curricular alignment that Golding called “dysfunctional.”

In 2004, UTEP lobbied the community college to offer the relevant prerequisite. Now, more than a third of the engineering students at UTEP have transfer credit from the community college. Also, Golding noted that transfer students now have finishing test scores comparable to those of students who have completed all of their engineering coursework at UTEP.

“Ten or fifteen years ago, students who went to community colleges were viewed as second-class citizens,” Golding said. “You have to destroy the myth that there is a difference between these students and our students.”

Golding noted that university officials were so pleased with the success of this program alignment that many other degree programs will soon offer relevant prerequisites at the community college this fall.


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