Repairing the Potholes on the College Transfer Pathway

It has been instructive to watch how higher education leadership, including policy makers, work to improve how students transfer from community colleges to four-year colleges and universities.

Everyone with "skin in the game" recognizes that the best approach is to create a seamless pathway, removing obstacles that students face when they transfer. The approaches run the full gamut, from local grassroots efforts with particular groups on specific problems backed by local corporate and foundation support, to grand bureaucratic solutions mandated by state governments.

Advocates typically concentrate on public colleges and universities. Community colleges are overwhelmingly public by history, purpose and design. It is natural to seek partnerships with the four-year public sector. At the four-year level, it makes even more sense. Public colleges and universities dominate the higher education market, especially west of the Mississippi River.

Whatever the approach, most transfer advocates agree on the need to focus on some basic issues. These include:

  • Students seeking transfer do not receive the level of counseling necessary to move among sectors, with community college counselors overwhelmed by the size and range of issues presented by their caseload;

  • The 80 percent of students who arrive on two-year campuses wishing to pursue a four-year degree must have clear choices;
  • There must be better coordination between two-year and four-year institutions;
  • Four-year colleges must establish a rationale behind transfer acceptance policies; and
  • There is no ongoing national research program to track transfers among sectors to promote better policy.
  • To address what has become a national transfer crisis, the Edvance Foundation focused on a series of multi-year pilot projects supported by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation to investigate best practices at highly selective public and private colleges and universities. With additional program support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and others, the Edvance Foundation undertook an 18-state listening tour and webinar series and administered the largest survey ever undertaken between two-year and four-year private colleges and universities to explore transfer practices.

    Over 400 private institutions participated in this survey. The results will be released later this week.

    The Edvance Foundation's findings are important in part because of the growing emphasis by some of the presidential candidates on proposals like free community college tuition. While we can debate the merits of these proposals, it is increasingly clear that access is being defined more narrowly by the cost of attendance.

    There is little doubt now that American higher education will need to look at how it finances itself; indeed, there are some quiet studies already underway. But the Edvance Foundation's transfer study findings suggest that cost is just one factor and may not be the driver behind a two-year student's decision to remain in school and consider a four-year degree. The problem facing these students is too complex to be reduced merely to dollars and cents.

    For policy makers, it might be wiser to think about a comprehensive system of American higher education in which the student is a lifelong learner. Students opt "in" or "out" as their personal and professional interests and circumstances warrant.

    The problems faced by transfer students illustrate this pathway problem. If a community college applicant believes that free tuition translates to timely graduation, the student may be correct. But money doesn't break down the familial, social and cultural barriers that dampen persistence and increase drop out rates. Is there counseling in place to support new two-year students or will many of them get lost as the under-resourced bureaucracy grows haphazardly to support a huge influx of them?

    If the students seek a four-year degree - as most entering two-year students suggest that they will - is there a relationship between what the student is taught and the skills and preparedness levels that will be necessary to succeed at four-year colleges? Is the four-year college prepared to adjust to the new challenges that transfer students bring?

    If free two-year tuition pushes the percentage of first-time students in the general first-year student population from 46 percent today to something dramatically higher, will tuition-driven four-year public and private colleges and universities have the financial resources to meet new demands as their own student application pools shrink? Is the likely alternative a weaker higher education system overall?

    Before we propose massive new federal funding programs that change higher education dynamics, our policy leaders must appreciate the impact and "all in" cost of what they propose. The guiding principal should be: Do no harm. It's one thing to get students on the educational highway. It's quite another to keep them there.

    And for community college transfer students, the lesson is simply to fix the potholes first.