4 research-based practices that can transform transfer

May 17, 2016
  • AACRAO Connect
  • Technology and Transfer
  • Transfer and Articulation
Chalkboard background with a student leaping from one surface drawn in chalk to another.

Many community colleges and universities aren’t tracking the outcomes of students who transfer from two- to four-year institutions—and that is a missed opportunity, according to an analysis of recent research from Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University; and the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. CCRC and Aspen partnered with the National Student Clearinghouse to conduct research on community college-to-university transfer.  The research shows that transfer students are a huge, unacknowledged population at many institutions—and they’re students who can and do succeed.

A missed opportunity

According to the Davis Jenkins, Senior Research Associate at CCRC, of the 1.7 million degree-seeking students who enter higher education through a community college each year:

  • 80 percent of community college students indicate that they eventually want to earn a bachelor’s degree.
  • Only about 33 percent eventually make the jump to a four-year institution.
  • Of those who transfer, only about 42 percent ultimately matriculate with a B.A.—which is about 14 percent of that original population of degree seeking students who started at a community college.

“There are huge inefficiencies,” Jenkins said. “Only about 60 percent of students who transfer are able to transfer 90 percent or more of their credits. Fifteen percent can hardly transfer any. They basically have to start over.”

Students who can transfer the majority of their credits are about two and a half times more likely to complete a B.A. than students whose credits don’t transfer.

“It’s a missed opportunity. Many universities focus their support and data on incoming freshman, and they’re not tracking a key student market that’s coming to them,” Jenkins said. “At less selective four-year institutions, for example, 40 percent or more of incoming students are transfers from two- and other four-year institutions. And community colleges are looking at the rate at which students transfer, but not whether those students ultimately go on to receive their B.A.”

Transfer is the new normal

“It is important for institutions, especially urban research institutions, to understand that the transfer student is not the non-traditional student,” said Luisa Havens, Vice President for Enrollment Management and Services, Florida International University. “As a matter of fact, they are the student of the 21 century.  If we want to make a difference in post-secondary completion rates in the Unites States, we most optimize our services to ensure transfer pathways are viable and efficient.  They need to be seen as a strategic recruitment segment in our quest to serve our local communities and the American public in general.”

The research shows that both two- and four-year institutions can do better. Using Clearinghouse data, Jenkins and his team identified six transfer partnerships across the country that are more effective at enabling transfer students to complete a bachelor’s degree and pinpointed the practices that make the difference.

Jenkins, Havens, and Tim Amyx, Director of Admissions and College Registrar, Volunteer State Community College, will discuss the findings in an in-depth plenary presentation at the 2016 AACRAO Technology and Transfer Conference. The research is summarized briefly below.

What community colleges can do

“Community colleges are beginning to understand that they need to help students who want to transfer decide what field they want to pursue,” Jenkins said. “They don’t have to choose a major, but they need to have an idea of where they’re headed so they take credits that count toward a degree in their field of interest.”

Too often, students who use transfer services go to the office just before graduation—although it’s been clear from the beginning that they desired to complete a B.A.

“Transfer advising needs to start day one, including orientation,” Jenkins said, “It can’t be a one-time thing. Advisors and faculty should be repeatedly asking students not only where they want to transfer, but what field they want to major in.” He adds: “And students should be given the opportunity to explore fields of interest so they can find out: Am I good at these courses? Does this field seem like a good fit for me?

Enabling students to explore and educating them about the transfer process will help them understand the importance of finding a focus early and take the right courses to efficiently transfer to pursue their bachelor’s.

Essential practices at four-year institutions

Briefly, here are three key commonalities in these high-performing partnerships, investigated in depth in the CCRC publication The Transfer Playbook: Essential Practices for Two- and Four-Year Institutions. As Jenkins notes, registrars play a crucial role.

1. Transfer is prioritized and funded. “The leadership at both institutions communicate that transfer is important to the institutional mission,” Jenkins said.

Deans, faculty and other decision-makers need to understand how important transfer students are important to the institution. They often underestimate the percentage of the student body is transfer and misunderstand how successful transfer students are.

“Transfer students at more selective institutions do as well as entering freshmen, Jenkins said. “At less selective institutions they often do better than the students who enroll as freshmen.”

Once the population is given due recognition, resources must follow. Effective four-year institutions invest in specialized supports for transfer students. Among these are transcript review systems in the registrar’s office.

2. Programmatic pathways are clear. “Registrars at four-year institutions: try to imagine yourself as a community college student,” Jenkins said. “Look at your website, and try to figure out what you’d need to be taking at the community college and in what sequence. What do you need to take to transfer to this university with, for example, a business degree? When do you have to apply?” 

Often, basic information is difficult or impossible to find—even by registrars, faculty members or others who should be familiar with the process. Students need to know how to ensure that their credits transfer with a junior standing in their major, but that they meet program admission requirements.

3. Transfer students receive tailored advising. “Unless a student knows at least the broad field they’re going into and takes not just any old gen eds but the right gen eds, he or she is almost guaranteed to have to take additional credits,” Jenkins said. Students, families and policymakers are frustrated by these inefficiencies where students are taking credits that won’t transfer.

“It hurts low income students the most because they just don’t have much margin for error,” Jenkins said. “They tend to blame themselves for what is a systemic problem. That’s why consistent advising and program maps are really important. The faculty and advisors can come up with clearer program maps–that’s a start, but they must be operationalized through the registrar.”

Do transfer better

"Partnerships between community colleges and universities are critical in the transfer process.  A community college can only maintain so many articulation agreements and still effectively advise their students to completion," Amyx said. "When universities come to agreement on what academic background is needed for a transfer student to be successful at all their institutions, the community colleges can do an even better job of preparing the eventual transfer student.  When the universities and the community colleges are out of sync, then it’s ultimately the students who pay the price."

Higher education is operating in a new business environment. Both two- and four-year institutions are increasingly subject to performance funding and other pressures from policy makers to improve outcomes. At the same time, as states cut funding for public higher education and tuition increases, students and their families will want a greater return on investment. Students who in the past might have gone directly to a university are often entering community colleges first to save money. So even to reach their traditional student markets, four-year institution are finding they need to work more closely with community colleges. Those that are effective in doing so find that it can be a win-win for both institutions.  


To join the in-depth discussion, including results from two recent products from this research, and learn how to improve transfer outcomes on your campus, register for AACRAO’s 2016 Technology and Transfer Conference, July 10-12 in Anaheim, California.



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