'Whither Thou Goest, I Will Go'

Colleges need to do better with transfer students if completion rates are to increase, and that means new policies on data collection and transfer of credit, writes Alexandra W. Logue.

November 20, 2014

There is a large group of students — often overlooked — whose completion of college we need to better track and encourage: transfer students. We need to do a better job of collecting and following transfer students’ data and of instituting policies that help them to graduate, such as ensuring that their credits transfer. There are many reasons that these students deserve our full attention.

For several years there has been a national priority, set by President Obama, to increase the percentage of people in the United States who have college degrees, both by increasing the number of people who go to college and by increasing the percentage of college students who finish. The United States is now only 16th in the world in the percentage of young adults with college degrees, and the percentage of U.S. jobs needing college degrees is growing faster than the supply. We need to make sure that each college student completes. However, one of the largest subgroups of students — transfer students — is frequently being ignored. 

That transfer students constitute a huge group is indisputable. As early as 1999, Clifford Adelman, then at the U.S. Department of Education, in his now-classic report "Answers in the Tool Box," was noting an “increasing tendency, overlooked in both policy and research, for students to attend two, three, or more colleges in the course of their undergraduate careers.” A 2012 study by the National Student Clearinghouse showed that approximately one-third of all students who began college at any level transferred at least once within five years. 

The City University of New York (CUNY) provides a useful current example. At this urban university of approximately 240,000 undergraduates in 19 colleges, approximately 10,000 students transfer from one CUNY campus to another each fall alone. There are also many thousands who transfer in the spring, and many thousands who transfer out of and into CUNY. In fact, each year about two-thirds of all new students in CUNY bachelor’s degree programs enter as transfers. The result is that, at every one of CUNY’s 12 colleges that offers bachelor’s degrees, over half of the bachelor’s degree graduates are transfer students — the majority of graduates do not consist of students who started at those colleges as freshmen. So, when, on occasion, the CUNY faculty or administrators at these colleges talk about their college’s students as only those students who entered that college as freshmen, they are actually talking about a minority of their students. Many other colleges and universities around the country also enroll large percentages of transfer students.

In addition to the category of transfer students being very large, it deserves our focus for another reason. As shown in the National Student Clearinghouse Study, the largest proportion of transfer students consists of students moving from community colleges to bachelor’s-degree colleges. Community college students tend to be more racially and economically diverse than are students at bachelor’s degree colleges (the national percentages of students who are black, Hispanic, and from low-income families are 15, 14, and 26 for community colleges, and 11, 10, and 20 for bachelor’s-degree colleges, respectively). This pattern is true for CUNY as well, where black and Hispanic students are 10 percent and 18 percent of freshmen entering the most selective bachelor’s degree colleges, but 19 percent and 25 percent of the transfer students. And at CUNY, transfer students are also more likely than new freshmen to have been born outside the U.S., and to have a first language other than English. When you take into account that CUNY’s most selective colleges now admit far more transfer students than freshmen (e.g., 15,237 versus 7,260, respectively, in academic year 2013-2014), it is clear that CUNY’s transfer students are an important source of college degrees for students from underrepresented groups.

CUNY also provides a helpful example in understanding the multifaceted nature of student transfer. As is true nationally, the largest percentage of students transferring to CUNY’s five most selective college comes from associate degree programs at CUNY’s community and comprehensive colleges. By CUNY policy, students who need remediation must begin in an associate degree program at one of these colleges, which have expertise in providing remediation, which is needed by some 80 percent of CUNY new associate degree freshmen. Each year almost 10,000 CUNY students, having completed their remediation, transfer from a CUNY associate degree program to a bachelor’s degree program at a different CUNY college. In addition, many transfers to the five most selective CUNY colleges come from other, less selective, CUNY bachelor’s degree programs or from outside of CUNY.  However, the huge majority (at least 84 percent) of new CUNY transfer students come from another CUNY college or are living in New York City or both. Thus, the most selective CUNY colleges serve as a destination for transfer students who entered college with relatively less preparation, but who subsequently showed themselves ready for rigorous advanced work.

This all means that, if we ignore transfer students, or, to put it another way, focus only on first-time freshmen who stay at a particular college, we are not only ignoring a huge proportion of college students, we are also ignoring a huge potential source of diversity among baccalaureate graduates, including many students who have recently proven themselves able to handle college and to receive a degree. If we ignore transfer students, we are continuing to disadvantage many students who have been disadvantaged all their lives.

Though it is true that many colleges — at CUNY and nationwide — have special programs for transfer students, examples of how these students have been ignored abound. A prime example is the national student database maintained by the U.S. Department of Education: IPEDS. This important data repository is the source of data for federal education policy purposes, as well as for researchers and policy makers all over the country. Each institution of higher education in the U.S. that provides federal financial aid is required to deposit specific data in IPEDS each year. However, one type of data that is not currently required for IPEDS is graduation information about transfer students, although IPEDS will start tracking some of this information next year. 

Furthermore, when the U.S. Department of Education calculates graduation rates, these rates are currently limited to students who started and finished at a given college. The Department of Education is promising to release soon a new college rating system, but the new system cannot include anything about transfer student graduation rates until either IPEDS starts requiring sufficient data, or another data source, such as the National Student Clearinghouse, is used. It seems that we still need to heed Adelman’s 1999 advice: “When [a large percentage] of undergraduates attend more than one institution … institutional graduation rates are not very meaningful. It is not wise to blame a college with superficially low graduation rates for the behavior of students who swirl through the system.”

Similar to the U.S. Department of Education, other rating systems, such as that promulgated by U.S. News & World Report, also do not take into account transfer graduation rates. The graduation rate portion of the U.S. News ratings is based entirely on first-time full-time freshmen who go on to graduate from their original college of entry.

In addition to having programs specifically for transfer students, CUNY has perhaps been a bit ahead of the curve in terms of tracking and using transfer student data. Since 1999, CUNY has had an accountability system for its colleges, and among this system’s measures for each college are graduation rates of transfer students, in addition to graduation rates of students who started and finished at a single college. Further, in measuring graduation rates, CUNY looks at the rate at which its new college students end up graduating from any CUNY college, not just from the colleges that they first entered.

Another critical way to assist transfer students in graduating is to ensure that their credits transfer with them, and that the transferred credits count for what they were originally intended:  general education, major, or elective credit. Several recent studies have detailed challenges associated with credit transfer. To try to ameliorate such challenges, many states have mandated that some or all credits transfer among some or all higher education institutions in that state. This has not happened in New York. However, CUNY adopted its Pathways program in fall 2013.  With Pathways, general education credits taken by students at any of CUNY’s 19 undergraduate colleges satisfy the same requirements at all 19 undergraduate colleges. Credits also transfer seamlessly for the first several courses in each of the 10 majors that have the most transfer students.  All other undergraduate courses transfer as at least elective credit.

Even though CUNY is considered one university by New York State Education Law, required to have close articulation among its colleges, a principle upheld in two recent court cases, there has been much controversy at CUNY about Pathways. At CUNY it had sometimes been the tradition for faculty at a given college to decide the worth of all transfer student credits and to set the general education and major requirements for students at that college independently of any other CUNY college. As a result, many students were having significant difficulties transferring credits. This situation pitted the rights, or perceived rights, of faculty to decide student requirements directly against the needs of transfer students for support in completing their degrees.

The CUNY Pathways project can provide further understanding of why support of transfer students may be particularly important in ensuring higher education for disadvantaged students. There were two groups of students who particularly lobbied for the passing and effecting of Pathways:  disabled students and LGBT students. Students in the first group pointed out that some of the financial aid that they receive as disabled students would not pay for a course that had to be repeated when a student transferred. So, in addition to dealing with any challenges associated with their disability, they had to find money to pay for the disallowed course.  Students in the second group pointed out that they are particularly likely to transfer. The president of one LGBT organization told me that 95 percent of her organization’s members had transferred. She further explained that the LGBT status of some CUNY students, who often live with their parents and commute, can become a source of friction within the student’s family during college, resulting in the student having to move — and transfer.

Although some aspects of CUNY’s situation may be unique, there may be a general lesson to be learned from the CUNY example. Even though many students transfer for purely academic reasons (they develop a new academic interest not emphasized by their original college, they complete remedial work and show themselves qualified for college work at a higher level, they finish their associate degree and now want to move to a college that gives bachelor’s degrees, etc.), they may also transfer due to a variety of personal challenges, challenges that we do not ordinarily measure.

If we do not attend to the data concerning transfer student success (i.e., graduation), we cannot hold colleges and other relevant entities to task for that success. And that means that colleges and other relevant entities do not have any incentives to facilitate that success.  Thus not tracking transfer student data has profound implications, and likely disadvantages the close to one-third of U.S. college students who transfer within five years of beginning college. Our focus should be on the overall goal — graduation — not on freshmen who take just one of the many possible paths to get there. 

Each student has different needs. Even if our only goal is to increase graduation rates, it is our obligation to see that those individual needs are met. Without attending to transfer students’ particular circumstances as reflected in their data, without incentivizing colleges to help these students graduate and facilitating their credit transfer, increasing the United States’ percentage of young adults with college degrees will be far more difficult.


Alexandra W. Logue is research professor at the Center for Advanced Study in Education at the City University of New York Graduate Center.


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