Building the Higher Education Transfer Pipeline

Nationally, about 80 percent of community college students claim that they want to earn a bachelor's degree, but only about 38 percent of students who first enrolled at a two-year college actually earn a degree of any kind -- whether two-year or four-year -- within six years.
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Paul Fain had an interesting story in Inside Higher Education this month. Mr. Fain looked at transfer success rates for students who participated in the Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society and the Dell Scholars program to determine some of the factors contributing to higher graduation and transfer rates for participants in these programs.

Mr. Fain reviewed a recent study by Monica Marlowe, Phi Theta Kappa CEO Lynn Tincher-Ladner, Stephanie King, and AACC President and CEO Emeritus George Boggs who looked at the completion and transfer successes of high achieving community college students by following 11,000 students who were members of the Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society.

Eighty-five percent of the Phi Theta Kappa students earned either an associate or bachelor's degree within six years. Further, an additional seven percent were still enrolled at four-year colleges and universities and actively working on a degree, translating into a 92 percent success rate, according to these researchers.

The same results were true for students participating in the Dell Scholars program that provides individualized counseling and financial support to low-income students who pursue bachelor's degrees.

Nationally, about 80 percent of community college students claim that they want to earn a bachelor's degree, but only about 38 percent of students who first enrolled at a two-year college actually earn a degree of any kind - whether two-year or four-year - within six years.

Critics responded by arguing that Phi Theta Kappa represents the best and brightest of the community college students. In the IHE article, for example, Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at Columbia University's Teachers College asked, "So what does that mean for community colleges? That they should console themselves because some students do well enough even though overall outcomes are subpar?"

Mr. Davis confuses the issue. Rather than providing a reason to console community college leaders, the study provides a compelling case for how colleges can help more students be successful.

Tincher-Ladner's research addresses this issue, showing that Phi Theta Kappa students still outperform students with an equivalent GPA.

"Phi Theta Kappa members are just as likely as their peers to have taken at least one developmental course," she said. "What this demonstrates is that there is something about Phi Theta Kappa that breeds persistence and creates completers."

There's a lot at stake here. Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown's Center for Education and the Workforce estimates, for example, that by 2018 the United States will need 22 million new college degrees--but will fall short of that number by at least 3 million post- secondary degrees at the associate's level or better.

In a significant way, both studies - and their critics - are asking the right question. They start with the assumption that American higher education has done an abysmal job of providing a pathway for transfer students seeking a four-year degree. But they also point to key markers - rewarding excellence, intensifying and individualizing counseling, providing financial assistance, and creating leadership and "hands on" work experience opportunities - as critical.

As members of Phi Theta Kappa, the 130,000 deserving high achieving students have access to more than $87 million in foundation and transfer scholarships and an opportunity to participate in service learning opportunities. And they have a network as students become more engaged in scholarly and extracurricular activities.

What's the real lesson here? There is no single solution to improve transfer rates. For community colleges trying to move the needles of transfer and completion, it may be most important to open and expand the Phi Theta Kappa chapters on their campuses. It's a homegrown and flexible tool that proves the hypothesis.

Of the 130,000 students who join Phi Theta Kappa, an additional 1.2 million eligible students do not. There's enormous opportunity to capitalize on the program.

To answer the good questions raised by critics like Mr. Jenkins, there are students who will not qualify for membership in Phi Theta Kappa or receive a Dell Scholarship. For this group, however, many of the same rules of the game may apply. Yet the solutions found that will most improve transfer rates will be as individualized as the students that they serve.

For too long American higher education has concentrated on bureaucratic answers to the very human questions related to improving participation, persistence and graduation rates for transfer students. That's not entirely bad, for instance, since credit hour protocols vary widely across higher education.

The study released by the Edvance Foundation in November - Strengthening the Transfer Pathway - supports the need to build consensus from the mishmash of decentralized responses to application guidelines, credit acceptance and assessment and tracking practices.

But the point is not to dispute the method that moves the students along the transfer pathway. In the end, it should be about what best serves the students. At whatever achievement level, America needs college transfer programs that work.

The answer will likely come through broad guidelines on individualized counseling, student financial support, readiness programs, acculturation strategies and a safety net, and good assessment and tracking. And, it will benefit enormously from the work of Phi Theta Kappa and the Dell Scholars program, whose presence and tactics should be represented more broadly on community college campuses across America.

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