Students who are most successful moving from two-year to four-year colleges — and earn degrees — attend community colleges that make transferring a priority, create clear programmatic pathways and provide tailored advising.
That’s according the Columbia University Community College Research Center, which recently partnered with the Aspen Institute and other research groups to create a guide for higher education institutions looking to improve transfer outcomes.
Transfer outcomes aren’t good.
Research indicates that although more than 80% of first-year students attending two-year schools intend to transfer to four-year colleges or universities, only about 32% do so within six years. And of those who transfer, just 14% earn a bachelor’s degree within six years.
Graduation rates are even worse for marginalized students. According to the Community College Research Center, one-in-10 lower-income students who start at a community college earn a degree at a four-year institution within six years. Only 9% of black and 11% of Latino students who start at a two-year college earn degrees at traditional institutions during the same time period.
Improving outcomes is increasingly important as two-year and four-year schools look to boost enrollment and make college more affordable.
Developers of the guide, or “playbook,” looked at college partnerships that work. Successful institutions may implement plans differently, but success tends to start with buy-in from faculty and staff members from at both two- and four schools, not to mention with state lawmakers.
“These colleges clearly made transfers a priority,” said John Fink, a researcher with the Community College Research Center. “They made transferring a default plan for every student, rather than optional.”
Successful transfer programs often share faculty to help design classes at two-year institutions that will not only count for credit at four-year schools but that will fulfill specific requirements at the college or university.
“One of the things that can cause a huge barrier is that students take these classes without any idea of what they need at the four-year level,” Fink said. “A culture of ‘start anywhere, go anywhere,’ is important. That takes a lot of coordination by community college and four-year college leadership. Successful partnerships will review agreements annually so students know which classes to take.”
Partnering for transfer success
It’s also important to carefully direct students to the right classes, Fink said. Successful partnerships tailor transfer advisement, with staff explaining the process as soon as possible to incoming students and learning the student’s goal. “They make sure students are finding the right pathways,” he said.
Some four-year schools offer advisement to students attending two-year colleges, and in Washington state, students who declare a major while in community college are given priority for moving onto Western Washington University, Fink said.
Several states, including Ohio, North Carolina and Washington, recognize that transfers shouldn’t depend on where a student lives, and have brought public two- and four-year schools together to create transfer guarantee programs across their higher ed systems.
Ohio has been working to create a successful transfer program for about 25 years, according to Paula Compton, associate vice chancellor of articulation and transfer for the Ohio Department of Higher Education. The system began with coordinating general education courses among community colleges and universities, then added business classes. It's now trying to expand two-plus-two programs to all majors.
“We have really expanded in the past eight years,” she said. “We know most of our students are very mobile. Many high school students now come to college with up two years of college credits, or they have adult career training or military training. We have to find a way to coordinate it all to benefit not only the students, but our outcomes and the state workforce as a whole.”
Ohio state legislators directed the state's higher ed institutions to make transfers more seamless in order to make college more affordable for all students, including minorities and those living in rural areas that may see community college as their only path to a four-year degree.
To that end, higher ed administrators created a website that allows students and educators to plug in classes they have taken at certain colleges and see how they match up to similar classes at other institutions. The idea is that students can see which four-year schools might be the best match for them, as well as plan which classes they should take at a community college that will transfer to four-year schools.
But it can be daunting, and Compton said administrators encourage guidance counselors to work closely with students as they create education goals. Transfers must be managed from all sides, she said.
“Our strategy is to have everyone working together,” she said. “You can have clear pathways, but if you don’t have advisors it won’t work. But you also have to have institutional buy-in to create the clear pathways.”
Ohio is in the early stages of researching the impact of its transfer-guarantee program, she said.
Addressing equity issues
As many systems work to engineer more seamless transfer programs, Fink said minority and lower-income students may bring their own set of challenges. He said that although community college students may start out seeking a bachelor’s degree, they may change their minds because of biases of educators or advisors. He cited a recent study by Xueli Wang, faculty member in the University of Wisconsin's Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis department, which found that men who sought advising were more likely to transfer into STEM programs than women seeking advisement.
Another way students may “cool down” to the idea of seeking a four-year degree can be the time they spend in remedial courses at the community college level.
“The majority of entering students at many community colleges are placed into developmental education, which disproportionally effects black and Latino students,” Fink said. “So, instead of exploring their interests, accumulating college credit and starting to concentrate their course-taking in their field of interest, these students have to retake high school level classes.”
This not only makes the process longer, but may be demoralizing for students.
Even if learners make it through the developmental course sequence, figuring out the right courses to take to transfer and apply to a bachelor's degree program is usually complicated, Fink said. Judy Scott-Clayton's 2011 paper described this lack of structure and systematic support like navigating a "shapeless river on a dark night".
Minority and lower-income students may not have the college-educated relatives to help them navigate the complicated transfer path. If they do no systemically receive guidance and answers to questions, they might not know they need to ask, Fink noted, they may drop out.
Recommended reforms in the Community College Research Center playbook include directing schools to work systematically to help all new students clarify end goals and to show them clear pathways, which should in turn improve equity issues, Fink said. Colleges working to improve transfer outcomes and reduce inequality need to address structural barriers to transfer success and scrutinize practices, such as implicit biases, which might lead to inequality.
“Schools have to make the extra effort to make sure every student has the help they need in order to achieve equitable outcomes,” Fink said.