Community college transfer is broken. How do we fix it?


Community college transfer has long been viewed as one of the best tools for improving postsecondary attainment in the United States. But despite its potential, the promise of transfer articulation remains largely unfulfilled — and increasingly threatened by the financial and economic fallout of the pandemic.

Recent data on the effects of the pandemic on college enrollment suggest a worrying nationwide decline in student transfers that threatens to reverse a decade of progress. Nationally, nearly 200,000 fewer students transferred in 2020-21 than in the previous year, with disproportionately high declines among Black and Latinx students that reinforce existing equity gaps.

The unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic have created significant new barriers to transfer enrollment and success, and it’s all the more reason that college and university leaders must begin to rethink the established systems we use to support transfer. Forward-thinking institutions are deploying technology and human capital to reform the transfer process and improve outcomes.

Three strategies

As a practitioner at a four-year private, non-profit institution, I offer three strategies that universities can employ to help prospective students navigate the transfer experience with confidence.

Focus on articulation. Adult learners and transfer students bring knowledge, skills and experience from diverse backgrounds. Yet our outdated policies around transfer and the articulation of credit stand in the way of student success.

Despite years of discussion, state policy changes and support from the largest national higher education associations, many bachelor’s degree-granting institutions still do not count nearly enough credits of incoming transfer students toward graduation. In fact, a 2017 U.S. Government Accountability Office report estimated that 43% of transferred credits were “lost” and ended up not counting toward a degree.

It’s not difficult to imagine the detrimental impact of this broken system as students navigate the pandemic and beyond: increased debt, longer time to graduation, more setbacks on the way to graduation, more stop-outs and ultimately drop-outs.

Four-year institutions must take steps to proactively articulate preparatory coursework from feeder institutions to ensure that students arrive at your four-year institution well prepared and on track to get their degrees.

As an example, at National University we have been creating cybersecurity transfer pathways that easily stack and build upon required general education coursework from their community college transfer partners. Our faculty is reviewing curriculum that fulfills the preparatory courses of the bachelor’s at the two-year institutions. This approach helps to eliminate “ redundant” credits while accelerating time to completion.

Institutions also must elevate credit for prior learning policies and provide examples so students can more easily understand how their existing credits and learning experiences can translate into academic credentials. At its 2021 annual conference, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) previewed its Credit Predictor Pro, a tool that will allow for greater consistency, transparency and efficiency for awarding credit for prior learning.

Be accessible to prospective students. When choosing a different online institution is just an “Alt-Tab” away, universities must make sure their degree offerings are clear and straightforward. We can’t assume that because our catalog contains detailed information on degree programs and transferring credits that students should understand all of it. Once you build those seamless pathways between institutions, universities must ensure that advisors are well-equipped to provide learners with accurate course requirements and time-to-degree estimates.

Ideally, this process should start as soon as possible after a student enrolls at a community college with the intent to transfer to a four-year institution. Universities also must work with their articulation partners to make sure academic advisors at the community colleges can keep these students focused on their path so they are prepared to transfer and to succeed at their new school.

Transfer partners are also using a combination of technology and dedicated human support in increasingly sophisticated ways to help guide students through the often complex and confusing process.

George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College, for example, have joined forces to develop the highly successful ADVANCE transfer pathway, with more than 3,000 successful transfers between the two institutions each year. The GMU Career Accelerator Toolkit helps transfer students select majors based on desired career outcomes. Prospective transfer students also benefit from one-on-one InsideTrack success coaching, which helps them successfully navigate the transfer process and overcome financial, personal, and academic barriers to transfer enrollment.

Coordinate and align goals between transfer institutions. It’s increasingly clear that transfer for its own sake isn’t compelling enough of a reason for prospective students. For a student to successfully progress on a transfer enrollment pathway, having the motivation of a clear professional goal is essential.

Too often, institutions end up building “credentials to nowhere,” a term recently coined by President Falecia D. Williams of Prince George’s Community College in Maryland. Students starved for time and money will vote with their feet if they do not see a clear connection between available transfer options and their ultimate career goals.

Institutions that hope to address this underlying problem must ensure that their transfer pathways speak to an addressable need in the labor market and clearly articulate how required courses translate into a high-value degree.

For example, as the state of California confronts a growing water shortage and drought, National University engaged the Center for Water Studies at Cuyamaca College and the San Diego County Water Authority to create a new waterworks management pathway. The result has been a first-of-its-kind bachelor of public administration with a concentration in waterworks management. That builds a bridge to an in-demand career pathway that is tightly aligned with the skills and experiences for graduates of this local community college and the needs of public sector employers.

Stepping up

Done right, community college transfer pathways can change the educational and career trajectories not only of students today but also generations to come. As transfer partners, four-year universities cannot simply stand by and expect that students will simply show up at our institutions because of growing interest in and demand for transfer pathways.

Instead, we must put ourselves “behind the keyboards” of our own students to better understand and begin to break down the barriers to transfer success. Too often, the burden is on students to navigate the complexities of transfer enrollment and success on their own.

Four-year universities have a profound responsibility to create a more seamless community college transfer experience. The country and our learners can’t afford those lost years and lost earning potential.

About the Author

Joseph Allen
Dr. Joseph Allen is director of Community College Pathways at the National University System.
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