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Clarke University

Clarke University in Iowa is partnering with all the state's community colleges to create a transfer pathway for students in eight degree programs.

Students in those pathways who transfer to the four-year university with an associate degree are guaranteed to get junior standing. Currently, the college enrolls about 100 transfer students annually. It hopes this partnership will grow that number to 160 by 2026.

The new partnership was built up in less than a year and a half and can be at least somewhat attributed to Clarke University's new president.

Before joining Clarke, which is in the midsize city of Dubuque, Thom Chesney was president at the Brookhaven College in the Dallas College district. The move from a large public community college to a small private four-year institution may seem strange to some, but not to Chesney. He's worked as a faculty member and an administrator at all different types of public and private nonprofit institutions, in several states.

His varied experience has helped him better understand and empathize with people who work in different types of institutions, and it's led him to focus more on student success.

His previous college, Brookhaven, had just received a federal grant to build out support services for academics as well as basic needs. Seeing and realizing the hardships students go through has stayed with him.

"You can’t unlearn that," he said. "I wasn’t going to not ask the questions relevant to our students’ needs" when he arrived at Clarke.

Nearly three-quarters of the college's students receive financial aid, and many work while attending classes, he said. Chesney realized the university needed to start responding to community needs, like workforce training and adult education. While that might seem like the job of a community college, he believes Clarke is meant to also help its community.

​Transfer is a piece of that puzzle.

Nonprofit private colleges enroll only 19 percent of community college transfer students, according to National Student Clearinghouse data. Public four-year colleges enroll 75 percent.

Students have an incentive to go to a public four-year. Transfer students lose about 20 percent of their credits, on average, when they move to a public institution. They lose 40 percent of their credits when they move to a private college.

But there are also advantages. Private nonprofits tend to have higher graduation rates and potentially more individualized attention and financial aid for students. That's not necessarily the case in Iowa, where Clarke's six-year graduation rate is 63 percent, lower than the 72 percent graduation rate for Iowa's three public universities. But private colleges also outnumber public universities in the state, so they may be more convenient for those students.

These institutions also need transfer students. Badly.

The enrollment drop spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic has hit nearly every sector of higher education hard, including community colleges. But private nonprofit four-year colleges were struggling before the virus hit the U.S.

Undergraduate enrollment at Clarke University has declined over all in the last six years from 949 to 659.

"It's an alignment of doing ‘the right thing’ but also helping the bottom line," said John Fink, senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College at Columbia University.

Public-private transfer partnerships are not new. In other states, like North Carolina, private institutions have built consortia for transfer pathways. But that can take years.

So Chesney looked for another path. He decided to build a model at Clarke in the hopes that other private colleges in Iowa will follow suit.

What makes Clarke's agreement unique relative to many other partnerships in the U.S. is that it extends to all 15 two-year colleges in the state -- not just the local community college.

"The focus on not just one partnership, but thinking about having on-ramps for the entire state is huge," said Meagan Wilson, a senior analyst at Ithaka S+R. "It shows that the region is really putting the success of students first rather than having sector competition."

The partnership began with nearby Northeast Iowa Community College. The state tasked the community colleges and Iowa's three public universities to design transfer majors, so that students could graduate from a two-year college with a transfer major on their transcript. The first one was formalized in the last three years, said Kathleen Nacos-Burds, vice president of learning and student success at Northeast Iowa.

When Chesney joined Clarke, Nacos-Burds told him that accepting these transfer majors was low-hanging fruit. The majors were already created; Clarke just had to choose which ones to accept fully. It couldn't negotiate any of the requirements or courses, as they were already locked in by the state, Nacos-Burds said. Of the 17 transfer majors offered at Northeast Iowa, Clarke has accepted eight for its transfer pathways.

Because those transfer majors are the same at the state's other community colleges, Clarke is accepting those students, too.

Nacos-Burds believe the changing tide of enrollment is what is pushing more institutions to work with community colleges on transfer.

"In higher education, the educational models are changing and we can’t survive alone," she said. "We’re all thinking differently. We have to."

Enrollment is one reason why Clarke pursued this partnership. But Chesney also wants to do this work to help students.

"Do we want to grow our enrollment? Yes, but we also want to grow it in a partnership way, where if students end up not coming to us, they’re still on a path that’s beneficial to them," he said. ​

So far, the financial burden of the partnership has been close to zero. Clarke has redesigned some staff members' roles and reallocated resources to the project, but it hasn't had to add to the budget, Chesney said. He anticipates that, down the road, the college will be able to further its partnership with Northeast Iowa by sharing staff or faculty positions, potentially saving money.

Clarke is even looking to expand to community colleges in the nearby states of Illinois and Wisconsin, said Julie Cirks, director of transfer admissions.

"This is something that is important," Cirks said.

The university is also providing scholarships for transfer students, which is a critical piece to solving the transfer problem, experts say. All transfer students will get $14,300 when they're admitted, and those who are part of Phi Theta Kappa, an honor society for community college students, will receive a scholarship equivalent to half of tuition costs. Clarke's tuition for next fall is $35,740, Cirks said.

Fink, from CCRC, thinks it's great to see four-year colleges reach out intentionally to community colleges in this way. Prioritizing the completion of an associate degree first is also important, as it helps the community college's graduation rates and ensures students are prepared to transfer, he said.

"There’s a lot of indications from this program that there’s meat on the bones," Fink said. "It can’t just be an enrollment strategy. It has to also be a student success strategy."

The statewide partnership also serves as a signal that the college is open to a more diverse population, Wilson said.

"The fact that this is a small independent college with a traditional liberal arts program is interesting. Community college students have historically been disenfranchised from receiving such an education," she said. "​It’s a huge signal."

Clarke will need to ensure there is sustenance beyond the signal, though, she said. Community college students need supports to get through "transfer shock" and adjust to the culture of a different institution. They also tend to be vastly different from private nonprofit's typical students -- older, with more responsibilities, like children and jobs. Will the college adjust its services to help those students with housing or childcare?

"Having leadership who is used to that really helps," Wilson said. "This has historically been such a neglected group."

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