The growing number of reverse-transfer policies popping up at universities and colleges across the country seems to go hand in hand with national pushes to ease transfer pathways for students and to help more earn college degrees.
Reverse transfer gives community college students who have transferred to four-year institutions the ability to send credits back to their two-year institutions in order to receive associate degrees. Multiple national foundations have helped 15 states create initiatives to encourage reverse transfer programs, including efforts in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas. Last year the National Student Clearinghouse announced it would create a national automated system for exchanging reverse transfer student data.
The University of North Carolina system received a Lumina Foundation grant, for example, to develop a reverse transfer initiative. So far more than 1,400 transfer students from North Carolina's community colleges have earned their associate degrees through the process.
But some experts have raised questions about awarding associate degrees to students who are already on track to complete bachelor's degrees.
"What's the purpose for it being done? If it's just to increase the numbers, it's probably not worth the effort," said Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College. "If states and colleges have to go through this accounting process in searching for students who should have earned an associate degree, why didn't students know about that to begin with and how coherent of a program is that really?"
Jenkins said he's more concerned about the vast majority of community college students who don't transfer at all, despite expressing the intention to do so, than those who successfully transfer without an associate degree.
"Reverse transfer can have benefits, but it does not address the larger problem, which is the gross inefficiency of the transfer process that results in 80 percent of students who enter higher education through a community college intending to earn a bachelor's degree, but fewer than 20 percent earning one," he said. Jenkins added that it would be better if associate degrees and other credentials were intentionally built into programs designed by both two- and four-year institutions to make transfer easy and efficient.
However, reverse transfer programs that have strategic purposes can create real benefits, he said. There are various ways colleges and universities can go beyond just awarding degrees to boost graduation rates, Jenkins said. Some of those strategic purposes range from the awarding of "motivational" degrees on the way to a bachelor's degree to making sure former students have an earned credential that will help in the labor market if they drop out or are looking for a better job while completing a four-year degree.
"The associate degrees with the clearest labor-market value tend to be those based on a coherent program of study in a technical field, like nursing and allied health, or accounting or manufacturing," Jenkins said. "Associate of arts degrees have some labor-market value, although it is not as great as one would expect, since it signifies completion of a lower-division general education curriculum."
Jenkins also points to programs that have built-in reverse transfer like the "1+3" programs in engineering and biosciences at El Paso Community College and the University of Texas at El Paso. These type of programs allow students to start at the community college and then transfer to the university after a year, where they receive their associate degree once they've completed the lower-division course work.
A reverse-transfer degree could also serve as a motivator to four-year completion, although there isn't much data to show the impact it can have for students already on the four-year track.
But that intermediate motivation is one reason why Portland State University offers reverse transfer to their students.
"One of the things we do hear from students is it's motivating, because some students who are ready to transfer full time to the university feel like they have nothing to show for it," said Sona Andrews, provost and vice president for academic affairs at PSU.
And for transfer students who don't complete a four-year degree, having "some college" and no degree may not be enough on the job market. According to a Pew Research Center report released last year, two-year degree holders or those with some college credits and no degree have median annual earnings of $30,000, compared to $45,500 among bachelor's degree holders between the ages of 25 and 32.
The higher the level of education, the more a person can expect to earn over their lifetime. So someone with some college credits but no degree earns on average $1.5 million over their lifetime, while a person with an associate degree earns, on average, $1.7 million over a lifetime, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.
According to the Education Commission of the States, about 1.2 million people hold more than 60 college credits but no degree that recognizes their skill or knowledge. The National Student Clearinghouse puts that estimate higher, at about two million people.
Previously Earned Degrees
For reverse transfer advocates, it's better to have a way for students to retrieve a degree they've already earned, just in case something keeps them from completing a four-year degree.
"For an adult learner who stopped out and they're back, they see the value of that associate degree immediately and they know life happens. If they have to stop out of school a second time, then at least they have that degree to help them in the job market," said Gloria Gammell, program manager of academic affairs and student success at the University of Tennessee system. "Even for our traditional-age students, we let them know that life can happen to them, too."
Tennessee's reverse-transfer initiative started as part of the state's goal to increase the percentage of adults with college degrees from 33 percent to 55 percent by 2025. But the program requires students to opt in to allow their university to share academic records with their community college, and vice versa.
This year the University of Tennessee system and the Tennessee Board of Regents contacted 7,500 students to let them know they were eligible, but only 23 percent, or 1,755, opted to participate in reverse transfer. Those students learn in December if they can successfully receive their associate degrees. Earlier this year -- when the program was first unveiled -- 347 reverse-transfer degrees were awarded.
Gammell said students simply don't know about the program or they're confused about the details and wonder if they have to pay to get their transcripts or even if the program is free.
"If you paid for a Mustang in the parking lot, wouldn't you take it home?" she said. "They paid for this degree and earned it."
Another benefit of reverse-transfer programs -- which doesn't directly affect students -- is the relationship it can establish between universities and community colleges.
"It very likely helps to build trust between two- and four-year institutions, in particular by recognizing the value provided by community colleges, by giving credit where it's due," Jenkins said, adding that these initiatives may also help allay concerns from community colleges over four-year universities "poaching students to take their more profitable lower-division courses."
At Portland State University, officials found two reasons for establishing a reverse transfer program -- co-enrollment between the university and seven area community colleges, and because students weren't sure when they could transfer to the university.
Some students were waiting too long to transfer, or some were waiting until they picked a major or until they earned an associate degree, said Andrews. "We wanted students to see this seamlessness between community college and university. We have co-admissions between us and local community colleges so students can take courses at both institutions at the same time. So it didn't make sense for students' credits to transfer in just one direction."
Co-admission between the university and nearby community colleges gives students a chance to pay lower tuition and take courses that fit their schedules. The program has been in place for years, but students previously could only transfer their credits in the traditional two-year to four-year direction. The reverse transfer aspect is more recent and started about two years ago, Andrews said, adding that 70 percent of Portland State's students are transfer students, so the university has found it essential to work closely with its community colleges.
"It's not about the numbers and how many degrees can we award, but how can we give students recognition and a credential for credits they earned," Andrews said.
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