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“Should I Stay or Should I Go?” is the title of a 1982 hit by the band the Clash, and this phrase expresses, in a nutshell, a big choice faced by all community college students with a goal of a bachelor’s degree: Should potential vertical transfer students stay at the community college until receiving their associate degree, or should they transfer sooner to a bachelor’s program?

How should we advise students making this choice, and should we promote or incentivize particular choices? What does it mean to be student-centered in this work? What actions by administrators, staff and faculty would indicate that they are being truly student-centered? These do not seem to be complicated questions. Actions qualifying as student-centered are ones that put students’ own needs and preferences above those of others. In this post, I will discuss what it means to be student-centered using the example of vertical transfer.

Circular image highlighting the three components of the associate to bachelor's degree

City University of New York

First, let’s make clear what choice we’re talking about and then discuss the benefits of the choice alternatives. About 42 percent of postsecondary students start in community colleges, almost all in associate degree programs. However, over 80 percent of new community college freshmen wish to obtain at least a bachelor’s degree, which usually necessitates transferring to a different college. The question is: Should these students stay at the community college until receiving their associate degree or should they transfer to a bachelor’s program before that point, assuming they have the opportunity?

Let’s consider the benefits that are thought to accrue to students who stay in community college as long as possible, ultimately earning their associate degrees:

  • Community college tuition is usually lower than bachelor’s college tuition, and financial aid may therefore go further if the student starts at a community college.
  • Students will have an assured (associate) college degree, which can be beneficial in the job market if something happens to prevent them from obtaining their bachelor’s degree.
  • Often claimed is a greater bachelor’s graduation rate for vertical transfer students compared to students who began college in a bachelor’s degree program. However, when students with the same number of accumulated credits are compared, students who have just transferred vertically are less likely to receive their bachelor’s degrees than students who began college in a bachelor’s program.
  • Some students believe that it is easier to earn high grades at community than bachelor’s colleges. (However, there is little evidence about this—many students’ GPAs actually increase following transfer.)
  • Students, particularly those from underrepresented groups, tend to feel a greater sense of belonging at associate than bachelor’s colleges, and a sense of belonging is associated with greater college success.
  • Community colleges may have, on average, better academic advising than do bachelor’s colleges. The guided pathways model and the City University of New York’s ASAP program are both increasingly widespread community college programs that involve intensive advising.
  • A community, as opposed to a bachelor’s, college may be closest to a student’s home or work and/or have better childcare.
  • Community college students can take advantage of programs, such as CUNY’s Justice Academy, that simultaneously admit them to an associate and a related bachelor’s program and that seamlessly transition them from associate degree receipt to bachelor’s program enrollment.

Next let’s consider what benefits are thought to accrue to community college students who transfer to a bachelor’s program before earning their associate degrees.

  • A community college student may be better able to pursue a particular academic interest at a bachelor’s college. 
  • A student will be less likely to have taken advanced community college courses that will not count toward the student’s bachelor’s major.
  • Students may be more likely to be admitted to their desired majors—some selective bachelor’s majors only admit students who take most or all of their major courses within that bachelor’s program (i.e., they will not admit advanced transfer students).  
  • On average, community colleges have lower graduation rates than bachelor’s colleges and, all else being equal, students are more likely to graduate when they attend colleges with higher graduation rates. 
  • For students interested in becoming involved in research as an undergraduate in order to enhance their future job or graduate school opportunities, or simply due to their desire to learn more deeply about a field or topic, there may be more opportunities to do so at a bachelor’s than an associate institution due to the lower teaching load and greater emphasis on research at the former (on average).
  • Again because of the relatively greater involvement in research of faculty in bachelor’s programs, the sooner students transfer, the more opportunities they may have to get to know and obtain references from research-active faculty, which can be useful for postbachelor’s employment or graduate school.
  • Students will have more opportunities to meet and network with other bachelor’s program students who may be helpful with students’ careers.
  • For the many disadvantaged students who attend community colleges, the major life events that happen frequently in college students’ lives may result in a need to move and thus a need to transfer. Only a transfer to a bachelor’s program will allow such a student to avoid having to transfer twice, each time with disruption and possible credit loss.
  • Some bachelor’s colleges now have “reverse transfer” policies whereby students who transfer from associate to bachelor’s programs before finishing their associate degrees can, after taking some courses in a bachelor’s program, receive their associate degree without re-enrolling in the associate program.
  • Transferring sooner rather than later may increase the probability of a student’s admission to a Ph.D. program—some Ph.D. programs may have a bias against students who are associate degree holders.

Some items in these two long (but hardly exhaustive!) lists are true of some students and colleges, but not of other students and colleges. Every student’s situation is unique, and therefore there can be no uniform recommendation regarding at what point a particular community college student should transfer to a bachelor’s program.

These individual differences make it hard to advise potential vertical transfer students concerning when they should transfer. Many different factors need to be considered to identify the optimal choice for each student.

Taking a truly student-centered approach and advising each student on what is best for them to do is hard for additional reasons. One is that it may be difficult for college administrators, staff and faculty to have all the information needed to help students make optimal choices, either information about the students themselves or information about the students’ options.

Another reason is that community college faculty and departments, as well as the colleges themselves, can significantly benefit from students staying as long as possible before transferring to bachelor’s programs. The longer students stay, the more courses they take, the more tuition revenue the colleges receive, the more advanced courses the faculty can teach (and faculty often prefer advanced courses), and the higher the colleges’ graduation rates (public metrics sometimes count only graduation, and not vertical transfer, as a student success, but that is changing). The student’s staying may thus be good for the faculty member and/or the institution but may not be the best alternative for the student. Administrator, staff and faculty advice to students may be influenced—consciously or subconsciously—by their having a conflict of interest. Being truly student-centered means taking a hard look at the possible benefits and detriments to an actual student transferring and putting the students’ needs and preferences first.

In the 20-college CUNY system, how each course transfers is independent of any other courses a student has taken or of any degrees the student has earned. Therefore, in terms of community college course credit transfer, there is no advantage to a student staying at a community college until receiving an associate degree. Yet there is a pervasive belief among faculty and students, and even administrators, that more of a student’s credits transfer if a student has an associate degree. One community college provost, on learning of the inaccuracy of this belief, said, “Well, it should be true!” Yet, if students with an associate degree have more of their credits transfer, would we not be disadvantaging the students who want to, or need to, transfer and who are one course short of an associate degree? How is it helping the student if we establish incentive systems that compel students to stay in community colleges until receiving their associate degrees? Yes, a student who stays may accrue certain advantages, but a student who stays may also miss out on the advantages that can accrue from being in a bachelor’s program.

Financial and other incentives for an institution and its members can run counter to what is best for individual students, resulting in students being given—consciously or unconsciously—nonoptimal advice. We all need to take a hard look at what is best from the student’s point of view and search for ways to manage institutions’ budgets and success metrics, as well as ways to manage faculty work, such that we can facilitate the best possible advice and support for students. Students are the group with the least power in an institution, and we are morally obligated to honor our commitment to provide them with an excellent education. This includes helping them make the optimal choice of when to stay and when to go.

Alexandra W. Logue is a Research Professor studying transfer at the Center for Advanced Study in Education, Graduate Center, CUNY. From 2008 to 2014 she was executive vice chancellor and University Provost of the CUNY system.

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