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.