Ready for the Transfer Wave?

Economic and social factors are reshaping the market for transfer students, and colleges must better understand who they are and what motivates them, writes Marc Cutright.


February 4, 2011

Community college enrollments continue to swell across the country, and a substantial portion of this growth comes from the presence of students who, maybe just a year or two ago, never thought they’d be there instead of going directly to the university from which they intend to earn a bachelor’s degree. But the financial squeeze has come from two directions.

The first is the general economy, in which college savings have dwindled, jobs have disappeared, and the odds of a fast recovery seem remote. The second is the reaction on the part of many institutions and systems, a reaction to their own fiscal problems, to raise tuition rates even beyond the inflationary patterns of decades. The tipping point is starting to show up in the rearview mirror.

These new community college students, however, still intend to get the bachelor’s degree, even if there’s an unanticipated detour on the route. So it is likely that we’ll see even stronger growth in demand for transfer credit acceptance. The issue is that students entering higher education through community colleges generally have not been as successful at getting four-year degrees. We’re trying to push more students through a decidedly leaky pipeline.

Many solutions will be based in knowing just who these coming students are. Community college and transfer students are, of course, delightfully diverse. But there will be significant, evidenced differences among these students, I believe, particularly compared to conventional, direct-entry first year students at a university. Recognizing these differences and dealing with them — or failing to do so — will mean that some universities will be winners in this new “market,” and some will be losers. More critically, getting this right as a nation will make a difference in whether we will accomplish national goals for higher education attainment — or possibly even backslide.

As an associate of the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students, I have the opportunity to follow these trends closely, and to read and sometimes make modest contributions to the research in this area. Following is what I think some are going to be some of the sector’s big transformational factors. I also believe that every one of these elements is rushing toward us at an accelerating pace.

Transfer students will come to us with more savvy about the system and how to use it

Transfer “justice” is a concept in circulation in the transfer-advocacy community. The idea is that students should be treated fairly in the evaluation, acceptance, and degree-application of their early credits. They should have convenient access to correct, timely information about following the best paths to transfer success, and someone at the sending or receiving institution — or both — should take responsibility to see that these things happen.

But all too often, credits are tossed out by receiving institutions or their disciplinary faculties without real examination of course content or the putting aside of untested assumptions about community college quality. A student may have vastly different results in credit acceptance, depending on whether Bob or Lisa is on the credit-evaluation desk that day. Websites, print materials, and the advice of counselors can be woefully disconnected from actual practice and even compliance with state regulation.

More of our new transfer students will simply have more social capital — more “insider” knowledge and stronger support systems. When those factors meet institutional caprice, more challenges to rulings can be expected, more push exerted from students who, for example, have parents who attended college and know which buttons to press.

This isn’t just an issue of demographics. More web-based sources of information, many with no institutional ties or bias, will be available to all. Increasingly it will be easier for anyone to self-educate on the best strategies for transfer, student rights in these matters, and evaluations of institutions that “get it” — or don’t.

The term “helicopter parents” has been used, usually disparagingly, about parents that intervene in the educational careers of their traditional-college-age children. If that’s the analogy, then get ready for the helicopter squadrons if these justice issues are unaddressed. But perhaps a better parallel could be a courtroom. Judges — institutions — may not be ready for the coming of lawyers and amicus curiae briefings, but come they will. And to extend that analogy, why should a student need to be his own jailhouse lawyer to get fairness, anyway?

Transfer students will have friends — and sympathetic ears — in the halls of government

A natural extension of the idea that students will come with more savvy is that they will look for fairness outside the institution if they can’t get it to their satisfaction within. For public institutions, this means government, and particularly legislatures. As costs for education go up for both governments and students, we can expect perceived consumer rights to trump deference to institutional prerogative, and we’ll see even more external regulation of transfer processes and acceptance of credits.

Advocates of government intervention may see this as a good development. Certainly, this trend is simply a matter of established fact over the past couple of decades. The problem is that most research has failed to demonstrate differences in ultimate outcomes for “strong” policy states as compared to “weak” ones. Is this the result of poor policies or poor implementation? We don’t really know. (Some colleagues and I are conducting a research project to look at these issues in Texas.)

The bottom line is that, at least for the short term, imposed policies and procedures are unlikely to yield many results, even if compliance is difficult and eats resources. Systems and institutions that would rather not be subject to heavier yokes of rules are advised to address the issues through consistent and progressive institutional action based on solid and plentiful data.

But regulations may be lightest of government interventions. We can expect government to explore and implement more funding formulas that weight transfer student emphasis and success. State funding tends to be zero-sum. The success of competitors might be supported from money reallocated from your institution.

Transfer students will act increasingly on the realization that your institution is not the only fish in the sea

The transfer expert and scholar Stephen J. Handel has examined the difference in the institutional and independent resources that are available to conventional, right-out-of-high school students to help them pick and succeed at a college, compared to similar resources for transfer students. The disparities are stunning, even while some 60% of college graduates in this country have applied credits from more than one institution to their degree.

Nationally, books, websites, and information-based advocates for these students will grow in number and visibility. Some individual institutions and systems have awakened to this student market and are addressing it with recruitment and promotional efforts, at least. Some are making structural changes in credit evaluation processes, more actively creating articulation agreements, and creating special support services to transition transfer students. Many are not.

Students will have not only increased access to web-based information, but also increased access to distance-based degree completion programs that will liberate them from the local environment and institutions, particularly if those institutions are not doing substantive outreach and service. Transfer has historically been primarily a local phenomenon. Community college and other transfer students tend to pursue degree completion at closely situated universities, whether due to familiarity, outreach by the university, or the place-anchoring circumstances of job and family. But when, for example, a community college graduate in Sugar Land, Texas, can complete a bachelor’s degree through offerings from 400-miles-away Wichita Falls at in-state tuition, with financial aid eligibility, and without leaving home, is there any doubt that such programs can get more students with quality programs and even modest marketing? Institutions that depend implicitly on a “take it or leave it” approach to transfer students may find more students saying, “I’ll leave it.”

The great diversity will include more veterans, and they’re more than just well-traveled

The wind-downs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will swell the number of veterans returning, with educational ambitions, government assistance, and bigger knots of transfer credits than ever before. We know that many of these students will have accumulated lots of credit hours, from multiple institutions. When a soldier in Iraq can study Farsi by distance as offered by an American community college, many veterans will come to us not with their national service as an interruption of their higher education, but as the foundation of it.

Expect these new civilians to know more about their status and options as well. The American Council on Education has taken a commendable leadership role in advocating for these students, organizing institutional efforts, recognizing commendable university efforts, and making solid information available to enlisted personnel and veterans.


Transfer students will continue to come to us with widely varying circumstances, ambitions, resources, and needs. Some will be “just like” conventional university students; some will have unique needs. We will need to discover and make more individually serving our one-size-fits-all approaches to their acceptance — in all senses of that word — and adapt to the fact that they represent a significant contribution to our futures. It is not just a matter of institutional well-being. It is a matter of national priority, and fulfilling the mission to do good, not just to do well. In this case, the efforts will benefit both ambitions.


Marc Cutright is an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Texas, and an associate of the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students. This essay is adapted from Transfer Students in Higher Education: Building Foundations for Policies, Programs, and Services that Foster Student Success (2011), edited by Mark Allen Poisel and Sonya Joseph, and published by the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.


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