Increasing numbers of state policy makers are awakening to the difficulty community college students have transferring their credits toward a degree at four-year colleges and universities. They are right to be worried. Research has found that fewer than 60 percent of community college transfer students could transfer most of their credits and 15 percent were able transfer very few and essentially had to start over. The resulting waste of time and money -- not to mention lost human potential -- represents one of the biggest challenges to student success U.S. higher education faces today.
Acknowledging the problem and fixing it, however, are two different things. And attempts to address the issue at the state level, while doing some good, may have unintended negative consequences. The good news is, as some states are starting to show, this can be fixed.
When state policy makers consider how to address the large numbers of credits lost during transfer, they face a conundrum. Premajor requirements for different programs of study vary, and the same major at two different four-year colleges can have different program designs, course requirements and levels of academic rigor. For instance, a bachelor’s degree in psychology at one state university may align with medical school requirements, and thus require more science courses than a psychology program focused on the field more generally.
In the face of this often overwhelming variation in four-year degree requirements, policy makers in some states have put their trust in a common denominator: ensuring transferability of nonmajor lower-division courses, often referred to as the general education core, and leaving the major-specific requirements to each individual four-year institution. In Mississippi, for example, this guarantees transfer to a four-year institution for the community college student who completes 41 credits from a broad array of approved courses. Similar rules exist in Ohio, Texas and several other states.
Sound good? Not so fast.
In states where such rules exist, the gen-ed core at many community colleges has become the default curriculum for the first two or three semesters. On one level, this makes sense. Community college advisers and faculty members reason that counseling students to complete the gen-ed core first will reduce credit loss and preserve students’ options when selecting a four-year transfer destination and a major.
But preserving options may be the enemy of student success. In fact, if pursuing the gen-ed core becomes a reason to delay program choice, it can actually limit students’ options and reduce the chances for degree completion in three important ways.
First, choosing a major or at least a broad field of interest before transferring can help ensure that students take the right gen-ed courses -- courses that will both transfer and count toward their major. For example, many science courses taught at community colleges count toward gen-ed requirements, but only some of those courses are rigorous enough to align to the STEM major tracks at most four-year universities. Similarly, undergraduate psychology programs at four-year colleges increasingly require courses in which students learn research methods, instruction that is often lacking in community college introductory psychology courses. Consequently, community college students seeking to transfer in psychology may not have the foundational research skills of a student who entered a university as a freshman.
Moreover, in many majors, it is essential for students to begin their major-related courses as soon as possible if they are to have any hope of graduating in four years. Science majors need to take a series of rigorous courses with laboratory components that are nearly impossible for a student to handle in their final two years. The same goes for engineering and nursing. Studio art and architecture majors have studio courses that realistically cannot be completed in the junior and senior year. For many majors, programs are thus designed to ensure that students spread demanding major-related courses over more than two years. Delaying program choice prohibits students from doing so. If students don’t take some of these courses early on, they may essentially have to start over when they transfer.
Finally, without a sense of direction, students may struggle to feel connected to their academic course work as they complete their gen-ed courses. When a student interested in accounting can take accounting classes while simultaneously working on English and Math 101, she can better see how these courses add up to an associate degree and then a bachelor’s -- while remaining engaged in her area of interest. Clear direction is an essential counterweight to the many challenges and demands that can pull students away from studying, attending class and, ultimately, completing their degrees.
However, these problems can be resolved. Under pressure from policy makers to better meet the growing need for STEM workers in the state, higher education institutions in Washington State have worked together to develop field-specific pathways, including an associate of science in transfer that four-year colleges report provides strong preparation for majors in biological sciences and engineering and computer sciences.
Research by the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges indicates that students with these “AS-T degrees” who transfer to a university are more likely to earn a bachelor’s in STEM fields and to complete fewer credits overall than students who followed the more general education-oriented statewide transfer agreement. In other fields, state “major-related transfer degrees” are being created that will transfer for both general education credits and most major-specific credits required by universities in the state. Major-specific transfer pathways are at various stages of development in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Tennessee and a few other states.
Still, these systems are far from perfect. Because program-specific premajor requirements can vary across four-year colleges and universities, the chances that students will take courses that fail to transfer toward major requirements will always be present. Even in states with field- or major-specific pathways, four-year institutions need to develop program-specific transfer guides to help students and their advisers understand requirements unique to their programs. But systems like those in Washington State offer a way to pursue two important objectives simultaneously: increasing efficient credit transfer and helping students find direction.
It will be years before such polices are developed and refined in every state. In the meantime, community colleges and their four-year partners must understand the limitations of guaranteed gen-ed credit transfer and help prospective transfer students develop a sense of direction as early as possible. Only by doing so can they deliver what students and taxpayers expect in an era of increasingly scarce resources: college degrees that students can earn affordably and relatively quickly.
Joshua Wyner is executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. Davis Jenkins is a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College.
After each college shooting, we are left wondering, “How could have this tragedy been prevented?” Unfortunately, that is not an easy question to answer.
Each college shooting is distinct when it comes to the shooter’s motivation, the identities of victims and the readiness of the institution to respond to the attack. However, according to research by the U.S. Secret Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Education, someone often is aware that a person is planning an attack before it occurs yet does not effectively intervene. If all threats of violence were taken seriously and reported, preventing attacks on campuses would be much more possible.
As a salient example of this, Hartnell College in Salinas, Calif., recently averted a probable tragedy when someone reported to the police that a student was talking about shooting up the institution. In that case, police and mental-health professionals worked together to evaluate the student and found him to be a credible threat to campus safety, with both the means and the desire to cause harm. They subsequently detained him and placed him under psychiatric care.
The reality is that we always hear about the tragedies and hardly ever hear about the campus officer who de-escalates a dangerous situation, the psychologist who prevents a murder or suicide, or the student who reports a rancorous roommate to the dean of students because of safety concerns. How many people have heard about the averted shooting at Hartnell College compared to the tragedy that occurred several months ago at Umpqua Community College, where nine students were killed?
In the aftermath of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, colleges have improved their information-sharing procedures and put in place better violence-prevention safeguards. Campus police, mental-health professionals and student affairs officers now work together to mitigate threats of violence. Such professionals are trained to identify potentially violent students, and they employ research-based threat-assessment protocols.
They are better prepared than ever to protect college communities. But they still need something more. They need people who hear about a potential violent act to come forward and say something about it.
It takes courage to come forward and report a potentially violent student. However, not doing so literally can cost lives.
Common barriers that keep people from reporting threats of violence include:
not trusting authority figures
worrying about being perceived as a “snitch”
being afraid of being personally targeted by a perpetrator
worrying that the person being reported will get in serious trouble, and
expecting that college administrators will not take the threat seriously.
Research that I reported in the Journal of School Violence and Psychology of Violence discusses ways to reduce these barriers. What I found was that ensuring a healthy climate is the core of effective violence prevention on college campuses. Essentially, people’s willingness to report threats of violence increases when they feel connected to the campus community, have confidence in college administrators and trust campus police officers. If every person on the campus community feels engaged and connected, they will work to protect each other’s safety and well-being.
Colleges can do a lot to make students feel connected and engaged. Some obvious and relatively easy actions include hosting frequent social events that encourage student, faculty and staff members to mingle; supporting a diverse array of clubs and recreational opportunities; and openly celebrating diversity. Also, while colleges are good at sponsoring events that resonate with involved students, such as members of fraternities and sororities, they need to think creatively about how they can support and engage all students -- even and especially those not affiliated with a formal campus organization. Nobody should feel isolated or like a loner at college.
In addition, colleges can encourage people to report threats by having anonymous telephone tip lines and maintaining the confidentiality of those who call or write in. In this regard, as early as at freshman orientation, colleges should proffer the message that students should report a threatening peer and provide them with information on the tip line. Furthermore, colleges should also send the clear message that reporting a threat does not necessarily mean that the person being reported will get in trouble. They can emphasize that, instead, professionals who also have in mind the interests and rights of the person being reported, as well as the safety of the campus community, will evaluate him or her carefully and make thoughtful decisions.
The take-home message is that although it is not possible to prevent all college shootings, many of these tragedies can be prevented if people are willing to report potential and actual threats of violence. Working to create a campus culture of trust and accountability, one that promotes individual investment in the good of the community, will help. We’re all in this together.
Michael L. Sulkowski is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona College of Education in the School Psychology Program. He also is the chair of the Early Career Workgroup of the National Association of School Psychologists.