Strengthening the College Transfer Pathway

Higher education leaders have a major problem from which they cannot hide. The transfer pathway from community colleges to four-year colleges and universities is badly broken. And, it's partly their fault.

The facts are clear. Just 20 percent of first-time, full-time community college students seeking an associate degree earn one within three years. Only 35 percent complete their degree within five years. Eighty percent of community college students begin their studies with plans to transfer and earn a bachelor's degree. But just 25 percent transfer within five years. Shockingly, only 17 percent of these will earn a bachelor's degree within six years of transferring.

America has a responsibility to provide access to higher education. But the country also has a duty to make certain that opening the door to access leads to a degree. While not everyone needs a college degree, millions of American jobs mandate a bachelor's degree as an entry requirement. Set against tough global competition, access across higher education is a national imperative.

The Edvance Foundation, founded by senior higher education officials to look at sustainable solutions to higher education policy challenges, examined this problem. Building on pilot projects funded by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, it undertook an 18-state listening tour with hundreds of higher education leaders to understand this problem.

The Foundation also commissioned the largest study ever undertaken in the United States of 414 private colleges and universities to look at how transfers worked between community colleges and these four-year colleges. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided additional support for the research study that was recently released.

There were good reasons to begin with private colleges. These institutions have higher four-year graduation rates than the public sector schools. They were a good starting point because surprisingly America does not have a national clearinghouse to track transfers. Absent data, the central questions were : Why do private colleges graduate their students more quickly and at higher rates than others? Could transfer students achieve the same levels of success?

What surprised the Foundation was that our research found systemic obstacles throughout the transfer process at private colleges. Credit evaluation is highly inconsistent. While 68 percent of private colleges have transfer agreements, they are subjective, uncoordinated, and active at only a few feeder community colleges. Only 9 percent have an "early assurance" program that guarantees scholarship support to high-achieving community college students.

There are additional hurdles that transfer students must face. Over half of the private four-year colleges and universities do not offer transfer programs or ongoing support for transfer students. Less than half offer tailored support for them. And only 10 percent require a grade point average of 3.0 or better, making it more likely that transfer students will arrive on four-year campuses unprepared to cope with the rigors of four-year colleges.

Set against this backdrop of dismal transfer and completion rates, what makes the private colleges and universities attractive to transfer students?

The fact is that most private colleges and universities have capacity allowing them to accept transfer students to fill empty seats. Further, they have the safety net of services and counseling that could create an attractive transfer environment. But to be successful we found that the private colleges must adjust their admission review process, financial aid practices, and support services to accommodate transfer students.

For their part, the students need counselors to guide them along the transfer pathway. Applicants must be indentified early and trained to meet four-year standards and expectations. Technology can help, especially with early identification and bridge training to prepare students academically. Faculty must be at the center to establish consistent norms for the admission of credit.

In the end, it may be the familial, social and cultural barriers - rather than financial - that determine the number of potholes on the transfer pathway. The Foundation's listening tour found that private college and university leadership would be willing to carve money from their admission budgets to support regional transfer counselors, if the end result was a well-prepared transfer student.

The Foundation's findings do not call for massive new government -based programs when better, more efficient use of financial aid and admission recruiting budgets can meet students' needs. It's more a philosophical than a financial argument. Can the decentralized system of American higher education link its sectors together to imagine the possible? Can it put the pieces together in a different way and measure the results?

We know almost nothing about transfer students. Improvements begin with annual data, a good tracking system, and regional, scalable projects that provide evidence-based results. It is unlikely that bureaucracy-laden solutions mandated by state governments will improve transfer persistence and graduation rates. Yet we know that with the right support transfer students can graduate in a timely fashion at rates comparable to the general student population.

Maybe the best solution is to move the bureaucrats and legislators aside and let the system fix itself. Isn't it about what our students need to succeed?