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Last year we reported some results from our comprehensive faculty survey on student transfer conducted at the City University of New York, the nation’s largest urban public university, with over 220,000 matriculated students across its 20 predominantly undergraduate institutions. Our findings were based on the responses of almost 3,900 full- and part-time faculty across community and bachelor’s-granting college sectors, for an overall response rate of 22 percent and a response rate among full-time faculty of 33 percent.

The central point of that piece was how little faculty across both sectors know about vertical transfer—transfer from community to bachelor’s colleges. Vertical transfer is the most common form of transfer, and it is important for promoting equity and social mobility in the U.S. Community colleges are where many low-income, underrepresented minority and first-generation college students start college. If those students want bachelor’s degrees—and at least 80 percent of them do —then they need to transfer from community to bachelor’s colleges.

Our data suggested that both community and bachelor’s college faculty lack basic information about the transfer status and challenges of their students, the transfer policies and practices that exist in their colleges and across the university, and the implications of those policies and practices for transfer student outcomes. We argued that what faculty don’t know or get wrong about transfer can inadvertently harm students.

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Whereas our earlier post summarized general findings across community and bachelor’s college faculty, the focus here is on our central research question: What are the potentially consequential transfer-related differences in experiences and views of community and bachelor’s college faculty? As the sending and receiving colleges in vertical transfer, these two sectors are uniquely interlocked. Yet, by definition, they have different missions and goals and, in practice, they have different levels of power and influence. Bachelor’s colleges hold more cards in vertical transfer because only they have the power to deny students admission and credits—and ultimately the bachelor’s degrees they seek. If faculty from community and bachelor’s colleges have unequal power, little transfer-related information and different experiences, perceptions and concerns, then it can be very hard for them to come together to support transfer students in reaching their goals.

What we found, in fact, was pervasive, systematic differences between community and bachelor’s college faculty in what they know, do and perceive about vertical transfer matters, and what they think should be done, if anything, to facilitate vertical transfer.

In general, community college faculty reported being more aware of transfer-related matters than did bachelor’s college faculty. For example, 52 percent of community college faculty reported knowing which of their students are transfer-involved students compared with 32 percent of bachelor’s faculty. When asked how they know the transfer status of their students, 70 percent of community college faculty said that they ask their students directly, compared with only 21 percent of bachelor’s college faculty. Community college faculty reported being more engaged in transfer activities than bachelor’s faculty: for example, 36 percent reported communicating with colleagues from other colleges a few times a year on matters like course articulation and curricular alignment, compared with 27 percent of bachelor’s faculty.

Faculty perceptions of the support for transfer students also varied by sector. Community college faculty were more likely than bachelor’s faculty to report that there are opportunities at their colleges for vertical transfer students to get advice tailored for them (50 percent versus 38 percent). On seven-point scales where 7 means strongly agree, community college faculty were more likely than bachelor’s faculty to agree that bachelor’s faculty do not do enough to make vertical transfer students feel valued (averages of 4.6 versus 3.3). Community college faculty were more likely to report that, in some people’s minds, there is a stigma attached to attending a community college (averages of 5.4 versus 4.6).

Faculty perceptions about the value of community college coursework and student academic preparedness again varied sharply by sector. On seven-point scales, bachelor’s faculty were more likely than community college faculty to agree that students learn more in a bachelor’s course than a community college course with the same name (averages of 5.4 versus 4.5). Bachelor’s faculty were more likely than community college faculty to agree that it is sometimes advisable for vertical transfer students to retake courses in their major at the bachelor’s college even if they did well in those community college courses (averages of 3.9 versus 3.4). Bachelor’s faculty were also more likely than community college faculty to agree that bachelor’s-college starters are more academically prepared for advanced work than are community-college starters (averages of 5.0 versus 4.5).

The survey also asked faculty to indicate what aspects of the transfer process challenge students. In both sectors, faculty named getting transfer credits applied to bachelor’s degree requirements as the top challenge (63 percent of community college faculty and 57 percent of bachelor’s faculty), followed by having financial aid last until receipt of the bachelor’s degree. But after that, perceptions of major challenges diverged: 52 percent of community college faculty named being admitted to the desired bachelor’s major as a significant challenge compared to 36 percent of bachelor’s faculty, and 55 percent of bachelor’s faculty named getting credits evaluated in time to register as a major challenge, compared to 40 percent of community college faculty. Only 33 percent of community college faculty named getting good grades in bachelor’s programs as a major challenge, compared to 44 percent of bachelor’s faculty.

Clearly, faculty from both sectors see challenges in transfer. What do they think might improve the process? When asked whether the CUNY Central Office should do more to facilitate credit transfer, 57 percent of community college faculty said yes, compared to 40 percent of bachelor’s faculty; 4 percent of community college faculty said no, compared with 11 percent of bachelor’s faculty.

CUNY’s community colleges are open access, but CUNY’s bachelor’s colleges are selective to varying degrees. CUNY’s data show that its most selective colleges pose more challenges for transfer students than selective colleges, for example, by taking longer to evaluate accepted transfer students’ transcripts. To better understand the potential effects of selectivity of bachelor’s colleges, we compared the survey responses of faculty from the five most selective bachelor’s colleges with those of the other five (selective) bachelor’s colleges. In comparison with faculty from the selective colleges, faculty from the most selective colleges reported less engagement with transfer, less awareness of the conditions of transfer students, less support for transfer students in their colleges, less confidence in community college coursework and the academic preparedness of community college students, and less interest in resources or data to improve transfer.

These findings support these conclusions:

  • Where faculty sit, whether in community or bachelor’s colleges, in selective or most selective bachelor’s colleges, is where they stand on transfer issues.
  • Faculty from both community and bachelor’s college sectors care about vertical transfer, but they seem to care most about different things. Community college faculty are more concerned about how their students are treated at bachelor’s colleges; bachelor’s college faculty are more concerned about the level of academic preparedness of vertical transfer students. Both concerns are legitimate, but they are not aligned and therefore may conflict.
  • Given that faculty in different sectors tend to have different views, and that many faculty, especially bachelor’s faculty in the most selective institutions, do not perceive that transfer is a priority at their colleges, it is no surprise that it can be difficult for faculty to work together across institutions to smooth transfer paths.
  • The most selective bachelor’s colleges may be the least welcoming of interventions that facilitate and increase vertical transfer of all higher education institutions.

There is little reason to think that entrenched views, policies and practices are going to change spontaneously. For meaningful changes to occur, higher education leaders—especially those in bachelor’s-granting institutions—will need to make the case for facilitating vertical transfer and vigorously incentivize and support this work. Vertical transfer is not only an equity issue, it is also a window into institutional effectiveness. When vertical transfer doesn’t work—when prospective transfer students are given nonoptimal advice about course-taking, or bachelor’s faculty deny the transfer of degree-applicable credits—then students, their families, their communities and taxpayers—and ultimately the reputations and enrollments of the institutions themselves—all lose out.

Given the stakes in vertical transfer, if higher education leaders fail to act soon, then their institutions may lose highly valued autonomy in determining their own policies and practices, and state legislatures (as they already have in many states) may move in to fill the void.

Vita Rabinowitz, a social psychologist, is a Leadership Fellow of the Heckscher Foundation for Children and professor emerita of Hunter College. She is a former provost of Hunter College and former executive vice chancellor and university provost and interim chancellor of CUNY. Yoshiko Oka is a research analyst in the CUNY Office of Applied Research, Evaluation and Data Analytics. Alexandra W. Logue, an experimental psychologist, is a research professor at the Center for Advanced Study in Education, Graduate Center, CUNY, and a former executive vice chancellor and university provost of the CUNY system.

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