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A transfer fair at Northern Virginia Community College


When students can transfer smoothly from community colleges to four-year institutions, students, families and taxpayers realize the benefits of incredible cost savings as well as the economic and social returns that come from earning a bachelor’s degree.

But often it is not smooth. Despite high levels of baccalaureate aspiration among community college students, transfer and baccalaureate completion rates remain critically low. Research shows that, among a nationally representative sample of students who enrolled in a two-year institution with the goal of attaining a bachelor’s degree, only 23 percent succeeded within eight years. And outcomes are worse for low-income students and underrepresented minority students (black, Latino and American Indian) -- populations that begin their education in community colleges at disproportionately high rates.

The good news is that we know we can do better. During the 2015-16 academic year, researchers from the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program and the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College visited six high-performing transfer partnerships -- including six two-year and eight four-year schools -- to understand how higher education can better serve undergraduate transfer students. Among these highly successful community college-university transfer partnerships, we found several common threads. Among the most important: presidents dedicated to aligning internal leadership, priorities and resources, as well as external partnerships, to improve transfer outcomes.

Internally, highly effective community college presidents set the tone on their campuses that what counts is not only associate degree completion and transfer, but baccalaureate completion. That means repeatedly speaking about the importance of transfer, often while referencing data about transfer and bachelor’s degree attainment in conversations with faculty members, staff, the cabinet and the board. It also means calling attention to the need for equitable baccalaureate attainment outcomes for all students to assure that low-income and underrepresented minority students are being well served. In the end, the presidential commitment is reflected in resource allocation: Do staff receive release time to build clear program maps? How much funding is dedicated to transfer advising?

At the four-year level, effective presidents have engaged in similar efforts but often must start by raising awareness about the importance of transfer students. Nationally, nearly half of all undergraduates who complete a four-year degree enrolled at a two-year college at some point before graduating. But on individual campuses, many faculty and staff are not aware of the prevalence of transfer students. Recognizing this, presidents (and other senior leaders) at four-year colleges and universities that have achieved strong outcomes often start by presenting data on the significant numbers of college transfer students at their institutions, disaggregated whenever possible, which creates awareness and urgency around the great responsibility they share with community colleges for bachelor’s degree attainment among transfer students.

Highly effective presidents understand that it is not enough to concern themselves with only their institution’s half of the transfer journey; they must understand and take ownership of students’ success across the entire four-year experience. They know that community colleges and universities can best serve transfer students if they jointly own the entire transfer experience through to baccalaureate attainment. Furthermore, they understand that increasing transfer student outcomes on average is inadequate; they can only attain their institutional goals by making sure that transfer student outcomes become equitable across the student population.

In the most successful cases, presidents at both two- and four-year colleges build, maintain and highlight strong relationships with the presidents at partner institutions. Through regularly scheduled meetings between presidents and provosts, announcements regarding the progress of their partnerships, and joint public appearances regarding the importance of college completion, these efforts send a signal to both campuses -- and the surrounding community -- that both institutions are dedicated to working together to achieve student success.

Whenever we present to presidents and senior leaders The Transfer Playbook, a guide that distills what we learned about highly effective transfer practices through our college visits, their next question is always how to get started. Here’s an idea: get leaders from both two- and four-year partners together to discuss data and other information about the transfer student experience in its entirety, beyond each institution’s part of the “two-plus-two” arrangement. Guiding questions for this review might include:

  • How many total credit hours do transfer students accumulate on their journey to the baccalaureate?
  • How long does it take students to complete the bachelor’s degree?
  • What is the transfer rate between the partner institutions, disaggregated by race/ethnicity and Pell status? How do the demographics of the transfer student population compare to the entering cohorts at both institutions?
  • What is the baccalaureate completion rate of transfer students, disaggregated by race/ethnicity and Pell status?
  • How much remaining eligibility do Pell students typically have when they enter the four-year college? How often do they exhaust that eligibility before completing the bachelor’s degree?
  • Are students who complete the associate degree prior to transfer earning bachelor’s degrees at higher levels than those who don’t? Does that vary by major?
  • Through transfer-student focus groups, what do students have to say about their pathway to the baccalaureate and how difficult or seamless it was for them to navigate across both institutions?

A jointly appointed cross-institutional working group can review transfer student data, examine institutional practices and policies, and identify areas where there are strengths, weaknesses and gaps within and between institutions. Reporting to the presidents with recommendations for improving the transfer student experience and strengthening the relationships between institutions allows the colleges to create a joint agenda for improving transfer success.

It’s unsurprising that leaders at many two- and four-year colleges have paid less attention to transfer student bachelor’s degree attainment than graduation rates of students who start at their colleges. After all, federal data reporting requirements and state accountability systems typically do not track baccalaureate success rates for transfer students. But making concerted efforts to improve transfer students’ baccalaureate completion rates is essential if our nation is to deliver the bachelor’s degrees that can fuel our economy. Given the rising number of traditionally underrepresented students in the United States, the majority of whom start at a community college, the talent our nation needs cannot be fully developed without better transfer outcomes. Moreover, given the cost savings associated with successful transfer, improving two- to four-year transfer represents one of the most promising scalable strategies for improving baccalaureate attainment rates nationwide, especially in an era of declining public resources.

It is time when more community colleges and four-year institutions take joint responsibility for the bachelor’s degree attainment of community college transfers. For that to happen, community college and university presidents must lead the way.

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