A system-wide approach to growing transfer rates

Photo: Matthew Dembicki/AACC

Falling transfer rates have been a concern among higher education experts for several years. But collaborations between community college and university systems and statewide reforms show promise in reversing declines.

Nationally, the number of community college students transferring to four-year institutions fell 7.5% in fall 2022 compared to the prior year, according to a March 2023 National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report.

In California, only 10% of transfer-intending students transfer within two years, and 19% transfer within four years of initial enrollment. Breaking it down further, 13% of Black and 16% of Latino transfer-intending students transfer within four years, compared to nearly a quarter of Asian and white students, according to a report from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). There are regional disparities, too.

Substantial gains were made between 2000 and 2020 with the number of new transfer enrollees from California community colleges more than doubling at University of California (UC) campuses and increasing by more than 50% at California State University (CSU) campuses. But the pandemic stifled those increases. Transfer enrollment dropped -7.6% between the two systems from 2021 to 2022.

Addressing enrollment

To boost transfer rates – particularly among underrepresented populations – coordination between the California Community College, UC and CSU systems is vital.

But there can’t be a discussion about transfer declines without addressing overall enrollment declines at community colleges. State community college enrollment dropped a whopping -18% systemwide between fall 2019 and fall 2021. And while enrollment numbers appear to be stabilizing, there’s still a way to go to get to pre-pandemic levels.

To reach more Californians, the state’s community college system is focused on “identifying populations of Californians we need to bring to college, as opposed to waiting for them to come to us,” said Aisha Lowe, executive vice chancellor of the Office of Equitable Student Learning, Experience and Impact in the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office (CCCO).

Lowe was part of a September 12 panel discussion about transfer hosted by PPIC.

Enrollment declines at community colleges are having a “domino effect” at CSU, according to Laura Massa, interim associate vice chancellor for academic and faculty programs at the CSU Office of the Chancellor.

Massa emphasized that nearly half of CSU students started at community college, so California community colleges are a “vital partner in providing that primary access point.”

Dual-admission programs

UC also relies on transfer students and has seen enrollment declines affect transfer rates, according to Yvette Gullatt, who serves as vice president for graduate and undergraduate affairs and chief diversity officer for the UC system.

The system is piloting a dual-admission program that could funnel more students into community colleges. The program helps high school students who want to attend UC but don’t meet eligibility requirements. UC helps those students create a transfer path – which starts at the community college – and even provides a provisional financial aid offer. As long as those students complete transfer-eligible courses at a California community college, they are guaranteed transfer admission at participating UC campuses. They also receive transfer support from UC while at the community college.

CSU also has a dual-admission program – Transfer Success Pathway – to help students who couldn’t start their college education at the university. Students in the program get personalized guidance to create an education plan to help them transfer in three years or less. They can map out courses in the CSU Transfer Planner portal, which makes it easier to navigate the pathway.

“Academic courses should be rigorous; figuring out what courses to take shouldn’t be,” Massa said.

Public Policy Institute of California, “Strengthening California’s Transfer Pathway,” August 2023.

These programs work best when there’s a “unified process,” Lowe says, and when faculty are directly engaged and helping to lead the work so “pathways naturally flow” from community colleges to the university system.

The Student Transfer Achievement Act, signed into law in 2021 in California, aims to do that. The legislation created the Intersegmental Implementation Committee to bring together system leaders, faculty, students and educational equity and social justice experts to bring forth solutions to improve the transfer pathway.

ADT progress, with a caveat

The legislation also will strengthen the Associate Degree for Transfer (ADT) – degrees that are fully transferable and guarantee admission to several universities, including some out of state.

The ADT offering already has helped many transfer-intending students on their pathway. In 2021-2022, 45% of transfer students earned the ADT before transferring. That’s up from 21% in 2015-16. The increase was particularly significant among Latino students, with the percentage of successful transfers with an ADT rising from 25% to 53%. For Black students, the percentage of successful transfers with an ADT increased from 14% to 36%.

Public Policy Institute of California, “Strengthening California’s Transfer Pathway,” August 2023.

And, according to the PPIC report, students who earn an ADT before transferring are about 10 percentage points more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than students who transfer with no degree or transfer with a traditional associate degree.

Despite the success, about 27% of students who earn an ADT don’t end up transferring. Why? One reason is financial. They won’t pursue a four-year degree if they can’t afford to transfer, Gullatt said.

“Financial understanding and preparation is key,” she said. That means replacing the “rumor of what institutions cost with the reality.”

Removing other barriers

Improvements to transfer-level math and English courses have removed some barriers for students. Students were often placed in long sequences of remedial courses before they could get to the transfer-level courses. This prevented a large number of students, particularly for Black and Latino students, from achieving their academic goals in a timely manner.

In fall 2019, legislation in the state helped the community college system change its policies and practices. The number of students bypassing remediation and starting directly in transfer-level courses increased significantly along with the number of students successfully completing these courses.

Dual enrollment also affects transfer rates. The number of transfer students taking community college courses while in high school rose 4 percentage points from 2015-16 to 2021-22 to 18%.

Still, dual enrollment isn’t reaching those who could benefit most. While 21% of white students who successfully transferred in 2021–22 started as dual-enrollment students, only 12% of Black students took college courses while still in high school, according to the report.

It can become an “equity-gap closing tool,” Lowe said, if regulatory and policy barriers are removed. “There’s a lot of gatekeeping.”

Removing regional barriers also is critical.

“Community colleges that are located far from four-year colleges should work to establish partnerships that allow students to earn a bachelor’s degree by taking university courses at the community college,” the report’s authors suggest.

Students at Shasta College, for example, can earn a bachelor’s degree in business management from Chico State University by taking courses at the community college.

Overall, increasing transfer in California “can preserve higher education’s critical role as a ladder of economic mobility and ensure that college graduates fully reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the state’s youth,” the report’s authors say.

Action plans in other states

Four states – Colorado, North Carolina, South Carolina and Washington – also are working to improve transfer outcomes with a focus on equity.

The states worked with the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) and the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education on a three-year project on state transfer policy standards. They underwent an intensive self-study process to assess “how well transfer systems within those states were working for students of color and low-income students,” according to a recent SHEEO report.

The findings from the self-study helped to develop action plans to create transfer systems that are more efficient and equitable.

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
Tabitha Whissemore is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.
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