Growing up in a low-income family, David Machado knew he would have to find creative ways to pay for college.
After graduating from high school in Florida in 2004, he joined the U.S. Navy for the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits and a chance to gain medical experience as a hospital corpsman. And when he went into the reserves in 2010 to have more time to focus on his education, he enrolled in community college, first in North Carolina and then in Connecticut.
Though he had been planning to transfer to a state school or the University of Connecticut, an English teacher convinced him Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., would be a good fit, allowing him to pursue his passions for poetry and painting and his childhood goal of becoming a doctor.
“I fell in love with writing and what he taught, and he’d talk about Wesleyan,” said Machado, now 29.
But his road to transfer wasn’t always smooth. He didn’t find out about a program for automatic transfer to UConn until he had too many credits to qualify. His community college adviser didn’t answer his emails, so he had to drop into his office to get help. Eventually he gave up on the adviser, relying instead on the advice of professors and others, who led him to other opportunities like a summer medical education program at Yale.
Still, he didn’t always take the right classes in his two years in community college.
“I didn’t understand the transferability of classes at the time, so I was just taking classes that would be of interest and would satisfy the pre-med requirements,” Machado said. Because many of his classes only transferred as electives, and some as three credits instead of four, Machado entered Wesleyan as a sophomore.
Though as many as 80 percent of community college students want to transfer, a study by the Community College Research Center, the Aspen Institute and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released in January found that only 14 percent of degree-seeking students earned a bachelor’s within six years. And research has found many pitfalls in the process of transferring from a community college to a four-year school.
Frequently, students at community colleges are advised to take courses that end up not being accepted by the local four-year campus. When courses transfer, many are accepted only as electives and do not count toward the students’ majors. In other instances, the prerequisite courses students need to transfer with junior standing aren’t offered in a given term, and so students either lose time waiting to take the courses or have to transfer and take them at the higher university cost. Research conducted by Public Agenda on the student experience of transfer found that a number of recurring themes are embedded in the stories of students like the one above:
Well-meaning but overwhelmed and underprepared general advisers at community colleges who lack the time and resources to provide students with correct and up-to-date information about degree pathways;
Faculty advisers who are critically important but dangerously siloed;
Diffuse and scattered information resources on transfer that students have difficulty accessing or effectively navigating;
A lack of clear programs of study that carry through the community college into the four-year institution and through graduation;
Insufficient or dysfunctional channels of communication between faculty and staff within and across two-year and four-year institutions, fueled by institutions’ cultural histories of suspicion and competition.
For first-generation and lower-income students, unconfident learners and students who lack clear goals, the stakes of these challenges are particularly high. Public Agenda research found that community college students often blame themselves for the barriers they face in seeking to transfer. Students not only lose time and money as they attempt to navigate broken systems, they also lose hope in their ability to make a better life through education.
In focus groups conducted by the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, students shared some of their frustrations with the transfer process.
I’d rather look for myself than ask for somebody to answer the questions, because I’ve had cases where those questions weren’t answered correctly, and since they’re not answered correctly it’s a big, big mistake. … If you miss a deadline because somebody answered your question wrong, you start getting skeptical about the advice you’re getting.
A quote from Public Agenda’s research captures the hope deficit that is created through the problems community college transfer students face.
I’m getting tired of school. I had a plan and thought I was doing everything right, and everyone I talked to [at the school] seemed so sure they were giving me the right information, so I never questioned it because I had no idea what I was doing. But here I am and I’ve probably lost two whole semesters taking classes I didn’t need or that ended up not transferring or counting toward my major. I don’t even want to think about the money I lost, because I couldn’t afford to lose it … at this point, honestly, I don’t know if I’m ever going to finish. I’m just getting tired.
The stories of transfer students show the dogged persistence needed to make it.
Jordan Kratz came out of high school in 2012 planning to be a veterinary technician. She chose SUNY Canton in northern New York for its specialized curriculum. But by the spring of her second year, Kratz, from Ballston Spa, N.Y., decided she didn’t want to work with animals full time and applied to transfer to Ithaca College.
“I actually did a total flip,” she said in a recent interview. “I’m in communications management and design.”
Kratz, now 21, dived into research on four-year colleges with the help of her parents and advice from friends. She didn’t turn to her adviser, who was a veterinarian experienced in helping students going to veterinary school.
“I didn’t know if he would have the advice for me that I was looking for,” she said.
The Ithaca admissions office was helpful, answering questions and offering tours, but it wasn’t until she enrolled that she got the full story on how her Canton credits would apply to requirements at Ithaca. Because Ithaca has a very specific core curriculum, many of Kratz’s credits only transferred for general credit.
“On my transcript it just says, ‘transfer elective,’” she said. “It doesn’t even say what the course was.”
In order to catch up, she has to take a series of courses in humanities, creative arts, social sciences and diversity on top of the upper-division courses in her major. But because she has senior standing, the registration system locks her out of the core classes designated for freshmen and sophomores.
“I’m actually having a hard time getting into them as a transfer student,” she said. By the time she files the override paperwork and, if that fails, appeals to the dean, the classes are full.
“You would think when they know you’re a transfer student they would override you into those classes,” Kratz said.
With four more core classes to go, in addition to other requirements, she’s hoping to graduate in the spring of 2017. By then she will have many more credits than she needs to graduate, even after having taken a semester off as she transferred.
“If I did the typical four years in college I should graduate this May,” she said.
Creating the conditions for more students to successfully transfer with junior standing in their majors is the collective work of institutions, systems and policy makers. Students share in the responsibility, but systems need to work better for the majority of students who come to community college with fewer supports and less confidence than Kratz.
As institutional leaders and policy makers seek to diagnose and address a tremendous host of challenges facing transfer students, elevating the voices and perspectives of students themselves is an essential piece of the work to be done.
Alison Kadlec is senior vice president and director of higher education and workforce programs at Public Agenda. Elizabeth Ganga is a communications specialist at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College.
Improved transfer pathways from community colleges to four-year institutions may be the best answer to America's college completion woes, say three influential groups that will prod states and colleges on transfer.