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One way to boost graduation rates is to issue degrees to students who’ve already earned them, which often doesn’t happen with associate degrees.

Roughly half of students who earn a bachelor’s degree after transferring to a four-year institution from a community college fail to receive an associate degree, said Janet Marling, director of the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students at the University of North Texas, citing data from the College Board. And 80 percent fail to in California.

This isn’t necessarily a problem for students who get a diploma from a four-year college. But transfer students are often left holding no credential if they drop out, even after earning more than 60 credits, sometimes many more.

In addition, many students transfer away from community colleges before earning an associate degree, and count as failures toward institutional graduation rates. Indeed, a student who leaves after two semesters to drop out looks the same as one who transferred to a top university.

The growing acceptance of “reverse transfer” may change this pattern, thanks in part to the national completion push. The term applies to several approaches, including the granting of associate degrees by four-year institutions, sometimes retroactively, for previously earned credits, or as part of “pathways” where transfer students finish their associate degree at a four-year college. Also, a growing number of students go back to earn an associate degree, often in nursing, after getting their bachelor’s degree in another field.

Reverse transfer is a student-centric approach, Marling said, which seeks to help students understand the importance of the often-overlooked associate degree milestone.

Policymakers have taken notice, as have Complete College America and the Lumina Foundation, which recently announced a grant program to encourage reverse transfer at a larger scale. In the past, most successful reverse transfer agreements were between individual institutions. The University of Texas at El Paso and El Paso Community College, for example, are considered trailblazers. But broader cooperation is cropping up in some states.

Hawaii may be the furthest ahead in statewide coordination, said Holly Zanville, a program director at Lumina, and Maryland is also moving that way. The basic idea behind reverse transfer is to give “credit when it’s due,” Zanville said, which is the name Lumina gave to its new grant program.

Tennessee’s private colleges recently developed a pathways approach for its community colleges, through which students can transfer before receiving associate degrees and still earn them at private colleges, under jointly-designed curriculum plans. And New Hampshire’s community college and public university systems are now working together to make sure transfer students in STEM fields get their associate degrees.

Colleges in some states have beaten lawmakers to the punch on reverse transfer, while others are responding to legislative pressure.

“When your state legislature starts to mandate it, you take notice,” Marling said.

Big Job, Big Pay-off

While there are few, if any downsides to reverse transfer, it’s not as easy as it sounds. In some states four-year colleges lack statutory approval to grant associate degrees. And not all four-year institutions are eager to get into the game.

“The faculty don’t see that as their role” at some universities, Zanville said.

When they do, reverse transfer is still a big job. Meaningful associate degrees should be tracked to a curriculum, which requires coordination between community colleges and four-year institutions. That means working together on everything from course-numbering to degree requirements, said Ross Gittell, chancellor of the Community College System of New Hampshire.

“There are lots of details,” he said, and they typically require compromise and adjustments on both sides. New Hampshire began with STEM, because it is most deeply tied to the state’s economic development. But Gittell said the plan is to expand reverse transfer to other disciplines. “We have to start someplace.”

Tennessee’s Legislature in March passed a bill that seeks to ease the transfer of credits between community colleges and four-year institutions. The bill also authorized reverse transfer agreements between all regionally accredited colleges, including private institutions.

“Regional accreditation creates a zone of academic trust,” said Claude O. Pressnell, Jr., president of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association.

Some of Tennessee’s private colleges have academic offerings that the state’s public institutions do not, like the sign language program at Maryville College. Under the new agreements, Maryville can now grant an associate degree in sign language to transfer students.

A typical example of how this works, Pressnell said, is for faculty members on both sides of the transfer divide to develop a 41-credit core for students to complete at a community college before they transfer and finish the rest of the associate degree requirements at a private college.

These arrangements aren’t just good for students, said Pressnell. “The benefit to us is that it creates an enrollment stream.”

To get there, however, required plenty of work. Pressnell said more than 600 faculty members collaborated on designing the degree pathways. And reverse transfer requires an ongoing, high level of communication between colleges.

“It’s not about counting mindless seat hours and face time,” Zanville said.

The payoff, several observers said, could include a powerful impact on student motivation, by rewarding students with an achievement on their way to a bachelor’s degree, which can often take six to eight years, or more. “That’s a long time with no recognition,” said Zanville.

And for students who drop out of a four-year college, Pressnell said a previously-earned associate degree “may actually encourage them to come on back and finish that bachelor’s degree.”

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