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The enormous potential of transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions presents a ray of hope among the pandemic-related enrollment declines, which have particularly affected students from marginalized backgrounds. Many high school graduates are opting out of college, but if they do ultimately enter higher education, it will most likely be through community colleges—historically a primary gateway for returning adults. We have a collective responsibility to ensure those students have clear pathways to complete a bachelor’s degree and access the manifold civic, economic and public-health benefits accompanying degree attainment. Yet efforts to improve transfer among policy makers, funders and institutional leaders overwhelmingly focus on the transitions between two- and four-year institutions in the public sector and overlook the important role of independent not-for-profit colleges and universities, which now enroll almost 20 percent of community college transfer students.

Supporting transfer access to independent colleges has broad implications for strengthening equity in our society. As a sector, independent colleges have higher graduation rates and shorter time to degree compared to public four-year institutions, and this pattern of stronger outcomes at private institutions extends to low-income Pell Grant recipients. Independent colleges are often misperceived as out of reach financially for low-income students because of the daunting sticker price, when in fact they offer more financial aid, making them financially competitive with public institutions. Further, most independent colleges offer a liberal arts education, which recent scholarship has indicated to be associated with increased well-being and participation in civic life as well as improved long-term financial outcomes.

Independent colleges are increasingly grappling with both the imperative and the opportunity to better serve community college transfer students. Yet challenges remain. Perhaps the most serious issue is that independent colleges need to do more to streamline course credit mobility. Loss of credits prolongs time to degree and can have major implications for students’ financial aid eligibility. Lack of clarity around how credits transfer also blunts the impact of investments that institutions might make to become more transfer-friendly, such as establishing centers on campus dedicated to transfer students.

So what can be done differently to promote transfer access to private institutions offering a liberal arts education at scale? A new playbook by Ithaka S+R outlines steps for independent colleges to build statewide transfer pathways based on the efforts of more than 70 such institutions in six states. Statewide transfer pathways can take various forms, from establishing block transfer of general education courses and common prerequisites for liberal arts majors to guarantees of transfer admission and access to institutional grant aid for students who meet eligibility criteria.

While the effects of these pathways have yet to be examined, early evidence points to the potential for impact. For example, 33 independent colleges in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island recently launched transfer admission guarantees for associate degree completers. According to Emily Decatur at the New England Board of Higher Education, who is overseeing this effort, 23 of these colleges recruited more than 500 transfer students to their campuses between spring 2021 and spring 2022. On average, these students transferred in with 61.5 credits and received $4.5 million in institutional grant aid, with full-time students in Connecticut and Rhode Island receiving more than $14,000 on average and full-time students in Massachusetts receiving just under $13,000 on average. These early figures—during a pandemic that has been enormously disruptive for higher education—suggest that transparency for community college students about their eligibility for transfer encourages them to take the next step in pursuing a bachelor’s degree. The transfer admission guarantees are now being implemented by independent colleges in all six New England states as well by those in Minnesota and Oregon.

Statewide transfer pathways present benefits for the receiving institutions (i.e., independent colleges), sending institutions (i.e., community colleges) and, most importantly, for community college students. In order to achieve this trifecta, facilitation by state associations of independent colleges is key. Such organizations are well positioned to align the transfer-related goals of multiple members and provide direction and personnel needed to streamline transfer across the entire sector, serving as hubs for innovation and reform.

Transfer helps meet the needs of four-year campuses looking to diversify their student body and counteract diminished enrollment or attrition, but it does not necessarily meet the needs of community colleges in terms of capturing their contributions to the ultimate success of a baccalaureate completer. Under increasingly common performance-funding policies, community colleges can be unfairly penalized for students who choose to transfer prior to earning the associate degree. Statewide pathways can encourage independent colleges to be better neighbors to community colleges through reverse transfer arrangements and by regularly sharing data with their community college partners that show how transfer students do on their campuses. Independent colleges can also build on community colleges’ existing transfer curricula for public four-year institutions when designing their own pathways, which streamlines advising for community colleges.

Pursuing statewide transfer pathways is also beneficial for community college students. They open a range of transfer destinations for students, who can utilize the same lower-division coursework for multiple four-year institutions rather than having to customize their coursework for each institution to which they might wish to transfer. This is especially true for first-generation and low-income students who may be less familiar with the complex process of ensuring their credits are maximally applied toward baccalaureate degree requirements. Many independent colleges are justifiably proud of the flexibility they offer to transfer students. But Darcie Harvey, who served as a transfer policy consultant for a grant-funded project at the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, has observed that what students really seek is transparency. Having a common transferable core of community college courses embraced by independent colleges maximizes both flexibility and transparency.

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