In-state and interstate initiatives aim to improve transfer pathways

California is looking back on six years of a state initiative as the Interstate Passport launches

While the vast majority of community college students enroll with plans to transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree, only one in 10 actually do so within six years. Fixing the leaky transfer pipeline has become a major concern of state higher education systems, the federal government and a number of foundations in recent years.

California is one state that has enshrined expectations for transfer in state law, creating a framework to ease the transition from the state’s community colleges to its four-year schools in the California State University system. In 2010, legislators approved transfer reform legislation that created the Associate Degree for Transfer, which comes with guaranteed admission to a CSU school with junior standing. 

According to a progress report by the Campaign for College Opportunity, the number of students earning the new degree in 2014-15 was 20,646, double what it was the year before. But only 37% of students who earned the degree transferred to a CSU school, and four of the system’s 23 campuses enrolled two-thirds of all Associate Degree for Transfer students. 

“This report shows that good policy, if faithfully implemented, will improve educational outcomes for our students. The fact that the number of students earning an ADT has nearly doubled every year, and nearly all of those students who apply to CSU enroll, tells us this is working,” said Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, in a prepared statement. 

“But, if we are going to move the needle on producing more bachelor’s degrees to meet state economic demand, then we still have to go the distance and ensure this is the primary way by which a majority of community college students transfer to the CSU.”

It is unclear where the students who earn ADTs but don’t enroll in a California State University campus go. Some probably do not transfer, but others likely go out of state or to a private school. 

Fully one-third of all students transfer before graduating with a degree. According to the National Clearinghouse Research Center, 14.6% of all 2014 bachelor’s degree recipients started their studies in a state different from the one in which they graduated. 

Though just getting off the ground, the Interstate Passport Initiative aims to smooth the transfer pathway for these students, who are left out of in-state programs. 

Patricia Shea is director of academic leadership initiatives for the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which is coordinating development of the Interstate Passport. She says in 11 out of 15 WICHE states, the portion of bachelor’s degree graduates who had prior enrollments in other states was even higher than the national average — 20% or more.

Mobility is high and college is expensive. Shea points to low-income and first-generation students, especially, who often start at community colleges to save money and need to transfer to earn a bachelor’s degree.

“When those students, who can barely afford to take the course the first time, have to take the course over, we just lose students out of the pipeline altogether,” Shea said. “I think that’s a crisis for our country.” 

The Interstate Passport relies on consensus across member states about learning outcomes that students should demonstrate in lower-division general education. After four years of planning by faculty and academic leaders at two- and four-year institutions in multiple states, the learning outcomes, which cover nine knowledge and skill areas, are just weeks from being complete. 

Starting July 1, colleges will be able to apply for Passport Status, which requires them to create a Passport Block. This block is composed of courses and other learning opportunities that allow students an opportunity to achieve all of the identified learning outcomes. Schools will be able to swap out courses from its Passport Block in later years of the program as long as the block, as a whole, meets every learning outcome. 

Students who earn the Passport get early recognition on their way to a degree, and they get a guarantee that they will never have to re-take any lower-division courses upon transferring to another institution that accepts the Passport. 

Key to the Passport’s success may be its grassroots development by faculty members after chief academic officers came together to say there was a problem with transfer. 

“Too often, solutions come from [the] top down, and they may not be ones that faculty are as comfortable with as something they’ve created on their own,” Shea said. 

The National Student Clearinghouse will provide the infrastructure to scale the Interstate Passport. Beyond developing a block of courses that meet the identified learning outcomes, colleges must also commit to data-sharing. They must record student academic progress for two terms after transfer, and compare progress by transfer students with and without the Passport. The National Student Clearinghouse will collect and sort all of the data, reporting back to institutions so they can see how their former students do after transferring and use the data to improve their own programs. 

The first students to transfer with a Passport could do so as early as the spring of 2017. So far, 16 states have been involved in the development of the program, and nonprofit colleges from any state can apply for Passport Status this summer.

While it doesn’t address all of the complications with transfer because it is limited to lower-division courses, the Passport could make an important dent in a serious problem.

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Filed Under: Higher Ed Policy & Regulation
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