The challenges surrounding two-year college students transferring to four-year institutions — accepting course credits, student advising and more — have spanned the history of community colleges. But higher education advocates think the convergence of issues such as student debt, an enrollment cliff and economic mobility may spark a movement to overcome those issues at scale.
The U.S. Education Department (ED) on Thursday hosted a national summit at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) with more than 200 higher education leaders who discussed the hurdles, successes and potential of transfer systems. ED brass presented the challenges and opportunities before attendees broke into discussion groups to delve into the details of the required work.
Education Under Secretary James Kvaal called it a “watershed moment” for transfer students, noting myriad issues are driving discussions about transfers. Among those issues: student debt, four-year institutions looking for new student pipelines as the number of traditional college-age students declines; providing low-income students and students of color with opportunities for economic advancement through education; and finding alternatives to affirmative action to ensure diversity in college.
Assistant Secretary of Postsecondary Education Nasser Paydar detailed the challenges, using statistics to make his point: 44% of first-time college students start at a community college, with one-third of these students eventually transferring to a four-year institution. But a closer look at the transfer-out average shows disparities: of the first-time community college students who transfer, 26% are low-income students, and 41% are high-income students.
And of the 33% who do transfer, only 16% attain a four-year degree within six years, Paydar said.
High performers, by state
To highlight strong transfer efforts across the country (and motivate others), ED on Thursday released state-by-state transfer data on top two- and four-year institutions. It looked at community colleges with the highest transfer-out rates; four-year institutions with the highest bachelor’s completion rate among transfers; and so-called “dyads” (a pair of institutions comprising a community college and a public or private four-year institution) with the highest bachelor’s completion rate.
Overall, 13% of students who start at community colleges ultimately earn bachelor’s degrees within eight years, though it varies among states, according to ED. New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Maryland and Virginia report much higher community college baccalaureate attainment than the average.
Among the top-performing dyads is NOVA and George Mason University (GMU). Thirteen percent of new federally aided students who enroll at NOVA earn bachelor’s degrees from GMU within eight years, reflecting a high transfer rate between the two institutions and a strong graduation rate after transfer, according to ED. The data also identified other strong partnerships such as Heartland Community College with Illinois State University (13%) and South Carolina’s Tri-County Technical College with Clemson University (20%).
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona followed in a video recording, noting challenges that prompt community college students and tranfers to drop out, such as when colleges don’t accept course credits. According to ED, transfer students lose more than 40% of their credits on average when they move between schools. Even popular dual-enrollment programs can pose problems. Cardona cited a community college that doesn’t accept dual-enrollment course credits, yet a local four-year flagship does.
“That makes no sense to me,” he said.
Before going into roundtable discussions, attendees heard more about the successful transfer efforts at NOVA, especially its partnership with GMU. Last year, more than 9,300 NOVA students transferred to Virginia public and private universities, said NOVA President Anne Kress, who was part of a panel on the NOVA/GMU partnership. Adding students who transfer to institutions out of state pushes that number to 13,000 students — a figure that has increased each year, she said.
Kress cited those figures to illustrate that community college students can do baccalaureate-level work, but often opt to start their postsecondary education at a community college mainly because of cost.
“It’s not ability; it’s affordability,” Kress said. “Affordability is central to opportunity.”
The panel also discussed the key components of NOVA/GMU’s ADVANCE program, which provides focused academic pathways coupled with coaching and more for students who want to transfer to the university that’s just six miles away. The work to align curricula between the institutions is tough — it requires commitment from faculty and top leaders — but the results speak for themselves: 92% of ADVANCE students attain a bachelor’s degree in less than two years upon transfer.
The success rate may give the impression that the program caters to academically successful students. But it’s actually open to almost everyone, requiring a 2.0 GPA among other eligibility requirements. And a key part of encouraging students to sign up is the application process: a single-page online form that takes about 10 minutes to complete, with no fees, no interviews and no essays, Kress said.
“It’s a very basic concept,” she said.