Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | Millions of students in America’s community colleges want to eventually earn a bachelor’s degree, but just a fraction successfully transfer to and graduate from four-year institutions.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, our economy has left too many hard-working Americans behind, particularly Black and Latino Americans without a college degree. These disparities have only grown in the wake of the pandemic.
As people seek to find financial stability, a growing number will turn to community colleges as affordable, accessible gateways to higher education and successful careers. Of the millions of students who enter community college this fall, 80% will indicate a goal of earning a bachelor’s degree. But just 13% will achieve that goal. This sharp decline is due to the broken college transfer pipeline, which lets too many students slip through the cracks in their pursuit of a bachelor’s degree.
Upon transferring, students often find that the credits they earned at their previous institution aren’t always accepted by their new institution or aren’t applicable to their program of study. Transfer students are then forced to repeat courses, extending the amount of time taken to earn their degree and adding to their debt load.
This problem is even worse for Black and Latino Americans, who are more likely to be the first in their family to have attended college and who often enroll in lower-resourced institutions. Additionally, the lack of on-campus support systems to navigate academic and financial processes has resulted in just 10% of Black transfer students attaining bachelor’s degrees. This trend is worth noting as, in the coming months, a large share of Black and Latino Americans indicate they will pursue additional education and training opportunities.
While all 50 states have some type of transfer policy in place, there’s still much to be done to truly support transfer students. As state leaders search for ways to make scarce dollars go further, propel people back to steady employment and ensure no individuals are left behind, investments in the community college transfer pipeline would go a long way in expanding equitable economic opportunity and career success.
Here are several actions states can take to start:
Capture students’ experience. Identifying and valuing students’ honest experiences with transferring is an essential first step to understand what is and isn’t working. For example, an eye-opening series of student focus groups in Indiana revealed that students experienced the transfer process as a maze rather than a straightforward path. Most shared stories about “false starts, costly wandering, poor advisement, time wasted and money lost.” This kind of candid feedback shows where institutions are falling short and also reveals ideas for what they can do. After conducting similar student focus groups, Massachusetts realized they needed to change how they marketed transferring, switching from technocratic language like “course to course articulation agreements” to “Associate to Bachelor’s degree pathways,” which helps students visualize their path.
Build intentional credit pathways. State policymakers can help students reach their end goal of a bachelor’s degree by making credit transfer and applicability seamless, beginning with high school dual credit courses. For example, Virginia passed a law that requires all institutions to accept the transfer of non-career tech high school courses offered for college credit. To build on that policy, the next step is to make clear to students how dual credit courses apply to their intended major. States can support this work by helping to expand concurrent degree programs, which provide admission to a bachelor’s degree program and access to major coursework while a student is still in community college. For example, Florida enacted legislation that enabled students to accelerate their nursing education, earning both associate and bachelor’s degrees within one streamlined program. Thirteen years of data from the University of Central Florida revealed that 80% of concurrently enrolled nursing students graduated on-time and completed their bachelor’s up to four semesters ahead of their peers in a non-concurrent program. The number of students who withdrew or were dismissed, meanwhile, dropped by more than 17%.
Fund results. States are still finding the right balance of funding strategies that enable all students to successfully transfer to a four-year institution and attain a degree that is aligned with their career interests. For example, the Virginia Community College System recently moved to an outcomes-based funding model that provides an additional point value for a college when a student from a disadvantaged population successfully transfers. There is some promising evidence from states that have been at this longer. Tennessee’s outcomes-based funding model, for example, similarly provides additional weight for low-income students and has led to increases in credit accumulation and associate degree completion for Pell-grant recipients enrolled full-time.
Support students to persist through barriers. As the number of transfer students is expected to increase due to the disruptions caused by the pandemic, it makes good sense to invest in their success. Oregon’s “Transfer Student Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” addresses many of the common barriers transfer students face through standards that illustrate how students can transfer and apply community college credits toward completion of bachelor’s degrees. State leaders can also create a Transfer Student Ombudsman—a guide responsible for responding to student concerns and identifying and addressing barriers to completing degrees.
We know that state colleges and universities have a common purpose to serve students, supplying them with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in that state’s workforce. That purpose is now more urgent as growing racial disparities in income and wealth threaten our economy and democracy. Collaboration between educational systems must be the rule, not the exception, if we are to rebuild an inclusive economy that works for all of us. States can help higher education institutions rise to the occasion by making the transfer system more equitable, which will help more students obtain degrees and set them on a path for successful, good-paying careers.
The authors are members of the national Tackling Transfer Policy Advisory Board, a group organized by the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, HCM Strategists and Sova, that is charged with shaping state transfer policies that lead to degrees and economic mobility.