• September 4, 2015

Silent Partners in Transfer Admissions

Silent Partners in Transfer Admissions 1

Doug Paulin for The Chronicle

Enlarge Image
close Silent Partners in Transfer Admissions 1

Doug Paulin for The Chronicle

In the last 18 months, education leaders have made important progress in helping students who wish to transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions. California is set to standardize transfer requirements from the state's community colleges to any campus of the California State University system. Arizona, Kentucky, and Colorado have passed similar measures. At the federal level, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has directed his staff to study the extent to which community-college students have difficulty transferring credits to four-year institutions.

This interest in community colleges and transfer is unprecedented. I have worked in the field for 15 years, and I have never had so many colleagues interested in a topic that was considered an educational backwater just a few years ago. In light of President Obama's ambitious college-completion goals, legislative and policy leaders are anxious to ramp up college-completion rates, with transfer among the options of greatest interest.

Still, we have a long way to go. And the question isn't so much who has been working on the issue, but who hasn't. Where are most of America's four-year colleges and universities in the effort?

In their recent book, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Public Universities, William G. Bowen and his colleagues concluded that well-qualified students at a community college are less likely to earn a bachelor's degree than students with similar qualifications who begin at four-year colleges. "It is pretty hard to argue with the data," Bowen told an interviewer. "If you want a bachelor's and you can start out at a good four-year institution, that is what you should do."

What was less reported, although no less important in the book, was that community-college students who transfer are as likely to earn a bachelor's degree as "homegrown" students at a four-year institution. Bowen and his co-authors noted that those who cross the transfer chasm are a special brand of student, displaying a tenacity that four-year institutions should welcome. Community colleges, they argued, serve as a "sorting mechanism" to provide students who, having survived the transfer process, are ready for the rigors of the upper division.

Faint praise was never quite so damning.

Although the "penalty" of starting at a community college is a well-known secret in the research community, the understandable outcry in response to the Bowen book from community-college advocates was boisterous. Acknowledging that the institutions he represents must do a better job of preparing students for transfer, David Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, nevertheless says that much of the problem is caused by "the utterly unjustifiable practices of many four-year institutions that prevent would-be community-college transfers from enrolling with appropriate credit."

Having "sorted" myself from a community college to a four-year institution some years ago, I can attest to the difficulties of transfer in a system that is more a gantlet than an educational pathway for academic advancement. Bowen and his colleagues are right. Although transfer students perform well at four-year institutions—verifying the important role that community colleges play in preparing students to make the leap—the route from a community college to a four-year institution has never been a reliably productive route to the B.A., especially for students from underserved groups.

Improving transfer in this country, especially among those students, requires an intimate collaboration between community colleges and four-year institutions. That linkage, however, is largely unformed. Although the transfer process has been around since the beginning of the community-college movement more than 100 years ago, relations between two-year and four-year institutions remain to this day furtive, sometimes suspicious, and hardly ever efficient, at least as far as transfer is concerned.

As any community-college leader will readily testify, the prevalent perception among legislators and policy makers is that two-year institutions are chiefly to blame for low transfer rates. Although community colleges have a central role in preparing students for the baccalaureate, it is the four-year institution that admits transfers, awards them credit, and provides financial aid. Transfer works—or not—to the degree that four-year institutions recruit, admit, and serve community-college students.

Not all four-year institutions are oblivious to the richness and diversity that community-college students bring to a campus. E. Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University, and William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, are among several prominent university leaders who have encouraged other four-year institutions to embrace transfer. Several states, like California, Florida, and New York require their public four-year institutions to admit transfer students in large numbers. Texas and North Carolina, among others, have developed common requirements for lower-division courses (usually taken in the first two years of college study and often general-education requirements) that their community-college students may use regardless of the public four-year institution they wish to attend.

Still, the transfer process remains an afterthought at many four-year institutions, as they direct the vast majority of resources toward recruiting, admitting, and enrolling freshmen. Many selective institutions rarely admit more than a handful of transfer students (and even when they do, most are—maddeningly—transfers from other four-year institutions). A study by researchers at the University of Southern California and the University of Arizona estimated that, in the fall of 2002, the median enrollment of transfers at highly selective private institutions was two students. At other elite private institutions, the median enrollment was estimated to be 14 students. Transfer students fared better at selective public institutions, where the median enrollment was estimated at 371 students (hardly a cause for celebration, given both the size and public support of those institutions). It appears that the only time admissions directors get serious about recruiting transfer students is when they fail to meet their freshman-enrollment target. Caught short, they scramble to recruit students from local community colleges. The process is late, haphazard, and disingenuous.

Four-year institutions are not hostile to transfer students—those students are simply not on their radar. Historically, colleges and universities have built their legacies around a four-year curriculum. Admitting students midway into that curriculum is awkward even under the best of circumstances. (Counselors rarely recommend that Ivy League students switch schools midstream.) Moreover, colleges have few incentives to admit students from community colleges. They are harder to recruit because they don't all graduate at the same time, as high-school students do. They are more difficult to advise and prepare academically because lower-division requirements may differ significantly from one four-year institution to another, even for the same major. Finally, transfer students' applications are harder to evaluate because four-year institutions must base their admissions decisions solely on grades earned by those students in specific community-college courses. Yet four-year faculty members are often loath to accept such courses in lieu of their own.

Transfer students may soon have their day, however. President Obama's extraordinary request to commit $12-billion for community colleges cast a spotlight on them rarely seen in their 100-year history. While the effort died in Congress, the administration continues to view community colleges as the drivers of a re-energized American economy and a response to global competition. Various organizations, including the College Board, have issued enthusiastic endorsements of the community-college mission and the need for a strong transfer process for students from underserved groups.

Such attention has sparked lively interest among a growing number of four-year institutions. But it is hard to say whether that enthusiasm has legs. I've seen that kind of zeal for transfers come and go. It usually represents a short-term response to an enrollment blip rather than a long-term commitment. In regions like the Midwest and Northeast, some four-year institutions are scrambling to fill seats because of a declining high-school graduation rate. In the South and West, however, where the high-school graduation rate is exploding, four-year institutions see community colleges as places to park otherwise-admissible freshmen for whom they have no space. Those are reasonable tactical responses, but they have almost nothing to do with serving the needs of community-college students.

Helping four-year institutions develop a long-term, strategic commitment to transfer will require researchers, policy makers, and educators to study transfer from the four-year perspective—something that has almost never been done. What we don't know is startling: How many four-year institutions enroll community-college students? What is the capacity of those institutions to take transfers? What is an optimal mix of freshmen and transfer students on a four-year campus? What kinds of lower-division courses prepare students best for transfer to a four-year institution? What types of student services effectively help transfer students at four-year institutions? How much and what kind of financial aid best meets the needs of students following transfer?

The transfer process will not improve until many more four-year institutions are active partners with community colleges in assuring an efficient route for all students who choose this path. Being good stewards of the baccalaureate degree means providing advice to prospective transfer students about how best to prepare for the upper division; engaging community-college faculty members in good-faith discussions regarding curricula and the transfer of credit; and creating campus communities that embrace transfer students as part of the intellectual life of academe. Some four-year institutions already do that well. Most do not. And they're keeping quiet about it.

Stephen J. Handel is director of the College Board's National Office of Community College Initiatives and author of Community College Counselor Sourcebook: Strategies for Advising Transfer Students From Experienced Community College Counselors (The College Board, 2006; second edition 2009).


1. dthornton9 - September 20, 2010 at 09:20 am

Given that few students actually graduate in 4 years from "four-year institutions" (whether they start there or at community colleges) wouldn't it be better to call them what they actually are, "six-year institutions"? Or is that too much honesty and transparency?

2. lothlorien - September 20, 2010 at 11:28 pm

As an advisor who works with transfer students, the challenge from both community college transfer students and transfer students from other four year (yes, many of our students finish in four years, sometimes 3.5) institutions is the same. First, we (as many other four year institutions) are not cookie-cutter trade schools. We work on developing a general education curriculum (a committee I serve on) that will reflect our unique identity. Most of these courses can be satisfied at a CC, but such students face three challenges. First, many have not planned to transfer to one particular college, and sometimes not one specific major. Second, all courses at a community college are lower division courses, and though the courses may appear to be the same, a lower division course in a major cannot be substituted for an upper division course - try having that discussion with an accrediting body. Finally, sometimes students come in wanting to major in, for example, psychology, with a number of credits in PE and business classes. Trust me, there are a lot of advisors (particularly at smaller colleges) that want their studetns to succeed and finish their degree in as short a time as possible. But to force a one-size fits all solution onto all four year colleges is just not going to work.

3. rxnfish - September 21, 2010 at 07:37 am

A major issue not addressed here is social integration. By the start of the junior year social groups on campus have largely formed and it is very difficult for a new student to gain access to them. This isolates them not only from personal relationships but also from the knowledge of institutional functions that gets passed on in these groups. Similarly, faculty assume that any student in an upper division course is fully integrated into the norms and procedures of the institution. A new student who doesn't conform out of ignorance is often held up to ridicule, further isolating the transfer student.

4. nyceducator - September 21, 2010 at 09:30 am

Preach the Transfer Gospel...Amen!
This article is so timely.
Down with academic snobbery and let's move on to academic equity!!

5. rogmar - September 21, 2010 at 10:23 am

Four-year/six-year institutions of "higher education" are rapidly becoming dinosaurs. New models will continue to be developed and will succeed in preparing citizens to actually contribute to the workforce.

6. jsherman - September 21, 2010 at 11:51 am

The author's paragraph about lack of incentives to enlarge the proportion of CC transfer students (currently near 30% of new admits at my large public institution) leaves out an extremely important one -- upper-division students are more expensive to educate than lower-division. Is anyone offering to provide richer funding to expand the upper-division?

7. babbalouie - September 21, 2010 at 12:28 pm

I believe most four-year institutions really don't understand who their students are. They appear to be mired in thinking that those enrolled are traditional, residential students who will pursue a degree to completion in 4 - 6 years directly out of high school. That rationale is faulty.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (2004) fewer than one-sixth of students enrolled in four-year colleges fit this traditional description. The majority are students are those who have re-enrolled in the same -- or more and more likely, several different institutions (including community colleges). These students are also older, have full-time jobs, experience various life transitions, move, or may have responsibilities for dependent care that cause them to stop-out temporarily.

The fact that four-year colleges have significant numbers of students who don't fit the traditional student mold because of community college or other college transfers ("swirlers") makes it crucial for academic administrators to reformulate transfer policies and procedures. They must also make a committment to the active recruitment and inclusion of non-traditional adults, no matter where the students are coming from.

8. sanjoaquin - September 21, 2010 at 12:42 pm

While lothlorien is making some good points about how an advisor tries to fit the endless diversity of transfer transcripts into the structure of a 4-year school's degree and general education requirements, there are some systematic things that colleges can do, and many are doing already, to smooth that process. Standardizing general education requirements across a state is one route. Forida did that ages ago for their state system and California is finally almost there. That will help a lot. The private 4-year schools will resist the uniformity pressures, though, because they believe that some of their appeal and branding success lies in distinguishing themselves from their competition with unique approaches to higher education. It will be a challenge for those schools to balance their "special something" with declining demographic numbers in their traditional core markets, as babbalouie notes above. It has not gone unnoticed, but we suspect that the solutions, like the issues, are neither simple nor short term. Long term and complex solutions stand the tests of success and persistence; however, they may seem longer in coming to fruition.

9. 11274135 - September 21, 2010 at 12:50 pm

I worked in university/community college articulation for a couple of decades, and we did make some progress both in terms of streamlining curricular requirements and in changing the attitudes that folks in the two kinds of institutions have toward one another (this is the biggest problem). We built a rather remarkable statewide articulation system so that students can know well ahead of time what they need to be taking at the community college to transfer efficiently into any number of college majors at the universities in the state. The universities have been difficult at times, but I don't think we can exhonorate the community colleges. A lot of the problem lies in the advising available at the community colleges. We did two separate studies that tried to identify potential transfer students at a very large and strong community college district. Both studies showed that, regrardless of what students said their aims were, only 5-10% of the community college students were exhibiting exhibiting "transfer course taking behavior" that is,taking required general studies math, science, first year composition, or other common general ed courses that characterize the schedules taken by students starting at the university. Most students seemed to be taking courses randomly, even though information was readily available about what they need to take in order to transfer efficiently. Often they would accumulate lots of credits that might transfer but would not "apply" to the university requirements except "electives." This is a community college advising problem. Large numbers of community college students are first generation students, not especially conversant with college and college requirements. Many need developmental courses in order to move ahead. These students have not been getting the intensive advising and structure that they need in order stay on track to achieve their educational goals. Some community colleges have addressed this issue, but many have not. This is another one of those invisible barriers.

10. ychumanities - September 21, 2010 at 01:48 pm

Community college professors in Arizona attend yearly "articulation task force" meetings in their respective disciplines where transfer issues are worked out and courses are evaluated to ensure that similar courses at different institutions are indeed equivalent and transferable. The three state universities are required to send representatives as well, but complaints about the lack of university participation are rampant. Some send graduate students. Others simply ignore the meetings altogether. Their attitude toward the transfer process and community college students in general could not be clearer.

11. mrtransfer - September 21, 2010 at 09:42 pm

Yes, administratively, course and program articulation should be seamless between two and four year institutions. Additionally, an effective Transfer Option be would be a valuable tool in increasing the baccaluareate degree attainment rate in this country.

One way that community colleges could effectively prepare students for the transfer process is to require that freshmen enroll in a College Success 101 course that includes a focus on the transfer process.

12. jesor - September 22, 2010 at 04:22 pm

In Washington State we have a fairly strong articulation and transfer system predicated on earning one of several different degrees that meet all of the general education and in many cases the pre-major requirements for most of the public AND private instituitons in the state. Unfortunately we do still run into situtations at some of our institutions where departmental decisions get in the way and can add a year or more or duplicated or nearly duplicated coursework to a student's degree pathway. While I'm not going to disagree that the pedagogical reasons may be pure, sometimes these arguments about course applicability border close to those around how many angels can dance on a head of a pin. From a functional perspective, I often (not all of the times) doubt that the student's knowledge base would vary considerably at graduation time if they were just allowed to transfer a couple of more courses.

13. cougs93 - September 22, 2010 at 07:28 pm

To comment # 9, students maybe throughly advised but student being students often times do not follow advice. Since they are free to sign up for whatever classes they want they often do just that and take nothing they have been advised to take in order to transfer.

14. paul_freedman - September 23, 2010 at 12:35 pm

We noticed similar trends, which is why we entered into a joint venture with Ohio's Tiffin University to create Ivy Bridge College, a 2-year online associates degree program that provides streamlined admission and direct transfer to some of the best four-year colleges in the U.S.

Student services are at the core of our cutlture. From day one, our students are assigned a success coach; a single point of contact who serves as an invaluable resource from application, to graduation, to transfer. Remarkably, the student to counselor ratio is 80 to 1. And, Ivy Bridge's 2+2 programs allow joint application to Ivy Bridge and over 50 accredited four-year schools across the country. Students apply once, enroll at Ivy Bridge, and upon graduation, automatically seamlessly transfer to a four-year partner institution.

While Ivy Bridge is still relatively new (it launched in 2008), we think it's working. First to second term persistence is over 85% - three times the industry average - and overall term-to-term enrollment persistence is 92%.

Paul Freedman, Altius Education CEO

15. davechristy - September 24, 2010 at 04:44 pm

One challenge we face with community college transfer stduents is poor advising or selective attention by students regarding the courses that fit 'general education' in the first two years of most college programs. We do not need stduents who have taken multiple courses in psychology when we offer only one freshman/sophomore level course. Students should have completed required mathematics, English, history and science courses. This is far more importnat than the elective course in radio broadcasting that students enjoy and schools like to teach, but that contibutes nothing to the four-year degree.

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

  • 1255 Twenty-Third St., N.W.
  • Washington, D.C. 20037
subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.