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Earlier this year, California governor Gavin Newsom urged the University of California, Los Angeles, to create a guaranteed pathway for community college students to transfer to the highly selective institution. The plea—or perhaps threat, given $20 million of state funding is on the line—comes amid a broader push in California and elsewhere to create more seamless pathways between two-year colleges and four-year universities. 

For good reason. Community college is the port of entry into higher education for roughly half of all students. Among those students, 80 percent plan on one day earning their bachelor’s degree. Only one-quarter of community college students enroll in a bachelor’s program, however. Even fewer ever earn a four-year degree. At the 100 most highly selective colleges and universities—a cohort that includes Ivy League institutions, but also schools like UCLA, the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan—community college transfers make up just 5 percent of undergraduate students.

A wide range of roadblocks stands between community college students and their enrollment at a four-year institution. More hurdles yet litter the path to earning a degree. COVID-19 has only exacerbated these challenges, with community college transfers to four-year institutions falling by 14.5 percent, or about 78,000 students. This decline disproportionately affects women, Black and Latinx students, those from low-income backgrounds, working adults, and first-generation college students.

We must halt and reverse the transfer slide. That requires redesigning transfer practices and policies so the needs of students are placed at the center of the process, not the bureaucratic needs of an institution. Here are three ways we can reimagine community college transfer for the better.

Create a seamless ecosystem of course credits. Research shows that students lose about 43 percent of their credits when they transfer. That’s about a semester’s worth of hard work and money spent. A bewildering patchwork of articulation agreements means some courses transfer to certain institutions and not others.

A common course-numbering system would eliminate this confusion, giving students clarity on what courses will count toward their degree. In Texas, 134 community colleges and universities have entered into a cooperative to create such a system. The Texas Common Course Numbering System (TCCNS) provides greater transparency to learners and helps facilitate the transfer of freshman and sophomore-level general academic coursework.

Institutions can go even further, however, and create more seamless transitions between not only universities and community colleges, but high schools. National University, for instance, has developed a teacher education pathway in partnership with both a local high school and a local community college. Aspiring teachers complete up to eight general education courses that count toward an associate degree while they are still in high school. National then provides guidance to those students on which courses they need to take in order to transfer to National University and earn their bachelor’s degree and teaching credential. Well-marked pathways like these can reduce expense and time to a degree, increasing the likelihood of success.

Guarantee admission for community college students. Many students enter community college hoping to one day transfer to a four-year institution, only to face the demoralizing realization that despite all their efforts, many institutions remain frustratingly out of reach. A guaranteed transfer program would provide students with a clear road map from community college to a four-year institution, alleviating the anxiety of credit transfer and admissions. Co-admission programs could further streamline the process by allowing students to secure a spot at a four-year institution while still at community college, fostering a sense of continuity and support.

Even prior to Newsom calling on UCLA, six of the nine undergraduate campuses in the University of California system offer guaranteed admission for community college transfer students. The UC Transfer Admissions Guarantee requires community college students to complete certain general education courses, as well as coursework tied to specific UC majors. They also need to earn a minimum GPA. This initiative not only alleviates some of the uncertainty around transfer but provides greater clarity about what courses community college students should focus on.

Reorient student support around the busy lives of learners. Our system of higher education is not built for the busy lives of most community college students and community college transfers. Two-thirds of students who attend public two-year colleges work while enrolled, and nearly one-third of those learners do so full-time. About 15 percent of community college students work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Nearly one-quarter are parents. In response, more and more institutions are working to ensure academic advising and student support services are available beyond traditional business hours.

Just as importantly, some colleges and universities are creating joint admissions and advising programs that can provide a comprehensive support network that spans both community college and university environments, guiding students through the transfer process and ensuring they have the tools to succeed. George Mason University, for example, has partnered with Northern Virginia Community College to provide an integrated approach that connects both institutions. NOVA students enrolled in the ADVANCE program can access personalized success coaching and support from the moment they enroll at the community college until the day they graduate from George Mason.

The community college transfer process has long been in dire need of a student-centered makeover. The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on marginalized learners have made reform all the more urgent. By removing the many artificial barriers currently in place and creating fair policies that treat community college students like the qualified, driven learners they are, we can ensure that every student can attain the education they deserve no matter where they begin their college journey.

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