The Leaky Pipeline

Improved transfer pathways from community colleges to four-year institutions may be the best answer to America's college completion woes, say three influential groups that will prod states and colleges on transfer.

December 11, 2015

The national college completion push has stalled, with graduation rates now going the wrong direction. Perhaps the best way to turn the tide, a new coalition argues, is to fix the inefficient and often neglected transfer pipeline from community colleges to four-year institutions.

“We’ve got to have much more urgency around this issue,” said Josh Wyner, vice president and executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. “There’s room for improvement on both sides.”

Aspen has teamed up with the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College and Public Agenda on a project to prod states and colleges to do a better job on transfer.

To kick off the campaign, the groups plan to release a report next month from CCRC and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center that will expose the contours of the problem. It won’t paint a pretty picture.

For example, the groups say the leaky transfer pipeline contributes to higher education’s equity gap, which is growing. That’s because research shows community college students who transfer to four-year institutions are more likely to be from low-income backgrounds than are their peers who first enroll in bachelor’s degree programs, even at nonselective colleges.

And while 80 percent of community college students say they eventually want to earn a bachelor’s degree, few ever do.

New completion data from the clearinghouse, released last month, found that just 38 percent of students who first enrolled at a community college earned a degree (associate or bachelor’s) within six years. And that rate is declining -- down one percentage point from last year.

“The transfer system is inefficient. It’s very confusing to students,” said Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at CCRC.

Public Agenda conducted focus groups in Indiana three years ago to see how the transfer process worked for 333 students from eight Indiana University campuses and eight Ivy Tech Community College campuses. The research was conducted in cooperation with the two institutions, with a goal of improving the transfer process. (Note: This paragraph has been changed from a previous version to clarify and correct details about the Public Agenda report.)

Most of the students told stories about how they experience college as a maze, rather than as a clear pathway, according to a report Public Agenda released about the focus groups. Many said courses they took at Ivy Tech, which is the statewide community college system, did not transfer to Indiana, or that transfer credits did not count toward their majors.

“Only 11 of the 25 courses I took transferred,” said a student at Indiana. “And of the classes that transferred, not all of them transferred for my degree. I lost so much time and money.”

Likewise, students often described the college advising system as being unhelpful or even misleading about the transfer process. And students said they received inconsistent and confusing information about how to make the jump.

“The [Indiana University]/Ivy Tech relationship is kind of like a three-legged race,” a student at Indiana said. “They’re really bound together in a way that is undeniable, but they’re not in sync. It's very difficult, I think, on both sides.”

Outliers and Exemplars

Indiana and Ivy Tech are hardly the only institutions to struggle with coordination on transfer. In fact, the Public Agenda report describes how the flagship university’s regional campuses have made strides to improve their transfer relationship with Ivy Tech. And the problems that remain in Indiana are common at many institutions around the country, Jenkins said.

For example, he said many regional four-year universities do not hold new student orientations for transfer students from community colleges. And that’s despite evidence the low-cost orientations can make a big difference for students.

“The colleges aren’t doing all the things they know that work for incoming freshmen,” said Wyner.

A significant driver of the problem, according to Jenkins, is the ambition and mission creep that infects many regional four-year universities and often leads to neglect of transfer students, who make up fully one-third of the sector’s new students.

“They think they’re Harvard and don’t realize the world has changed,” he said.

Even so, there are outliers. CCRC and Aspen have seen wide variation in the retention and graduation rates of transfer students at four-year universities. The forthcoming report will break down those differences at the state level, following 1.2 million community college students who first enrolled in 2007 to see how many transferred and earned a bachelor’s degree.

The data in the report will be sliced and diced in some novel ways. For example, it will show how lower-income students fare in comparison to their wealthier peers when it comes to transfer (not good).

Aspen has observed some of the best transfer relationships in the country firsthand, as part of the group’s vetting of candidates for its prize for community college excellence. Wyner said some of the winners, such as California’s Santa Barbara City College or Florida’s Valencia College and Santa Fe College, have been successful with the bachelor’s degree attainment rates of their former students.

For that to happen, however, Wyner said the two-year colleges need to closely collaborate with nearby public universities. That certainly has been the case for Valencia’s transfer partner, the University of Central Florida, which guarantees admission to Valencia graduates. About 30 percent of Valencia students transfer to a four-year institution, with 80 percent of those transfers going to UCF.

“Those who enter Valencia with their sights on UCF get counseling all along from both schools,” Aspen said in its 2011 write-up of Valencia as the first winner of the prize. “Representatives from the community college and from the university work together to analyze student data and align programs.”

As part of the new project, Aspen plans to release a playbook on what works in transfer partnerships. And the group will begin to focus in part on four-year institutions, which is a shift.

“This is relevant to the entire spectrum of four-year colleges,” Wyner said. “We’re starting to engage the four-year sector. And transfer is the natural place to start.”

The timing is right, in part because of the spread of performance-funding formulas (at least 33 states have those formulas in place) and the financial pressures most public colleges are facing, said both Wyner and Jenkins. As a result, many public universities need transfer students to boost their enrollment numbers -- not to mention the tuition dollars those students bring. And four-year institutions need transfer students to stick around and graduate to avoid being dinged on funding formulas.

One goal of the project, Wyner said, is to change the way college completion is viewed. So far, related metrics and accountability measures are based on graduation and transfer rates of individual colleges. What happens to students after they leave an institution, however, often is not well understood.

“We now need to move to that next step,” Wyner said, “where multiple institutions own the awarding of a credential. That’s a much harder thing to do.”


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