College Transfer is Broken. Here’s How We Start Fixing It.
College transfer is a hot topic in today’s higher education landscape - in both policy and practice. According to the Tackling Transfer initiative, up to 80% of community college students want to earn a bachelor’s degree. However, only 31% will actually transfer to a four-year institution, and only 14% will actually graduate with the degree they aspired to achieve. These numbers are dismal, and we see similarly low transfer outcomes in most states (that is, states where these types of outcomes can actually be tracked across institutions. But that is a blog for another day).
Why are only 14% of the students who aspire to earn a bachelor’s degree actually achieving them? We have to look to the three C’s to answer this question: curriculum, commitments, and communication.
Curriculum. The most common question a transfer student at a community college has is, “What courses do I take before I transfer?” And in many states, the answer is, “It depends.” Clearly, the courses a student must take depend on what discipline they are pursuing, but selections also depend on which four-year institution the student wants to attend (or is accepted into), and possibly even which professional at that institution is evaluating the student’s transcript. If a community college’s articulation agreements are even a little bit different for each 4-year institution, then the answer to the curriculum question will never be clear.
Commitment. Creating clarity for transfer students requires a commitment to doing so - even if it means an institution needs to make changes to its own degree map or requirements in order to achieve statewide consistency. The pinnacle of commitment is guaranteed admissions policies: transfer students who complete the prescribed first two years get precedence in admissions and are guaranteed a spot at the four-year institution of their choice. This takes out the guesswork and gives students a clear path. However, these types of policies are still rare in American higher education, and those that do exist often have multiple, hidden caveats.
Communication. Because of these complexities, it is difficult for college professionals to communicate about transfer. Often, there is not a central website or database that students or college professionals can search to help them, and the websites that do exist are full of higher education jargon.
It is clear, given all these factors, why the transfer process is extremely difficult to navigate. This complexity results in lost credits, lost time to degree, and loss of motivation to transfer at all. The United States Government Accountability Office estimated that from 2004 to 2009, students who transferred lost an average of 43 percent of their credits earned. This is equivalent to around 13 credits, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, or one entire semester of full-time coursework lost.
Increasingly, state legislatures are taking an interest in these outcomes, passing statewide transfer pathways bills aimed at increasing transfer and bachelor’s degree attainment rates.
According to the Education Commission for the States, 35 states now have some sort of policy or legislation creating guaranteed transfer pathways for students who complete their first two years at a community college. However, these policies are inconsistent. For example, not all of those policies call for postsecondary institutions to be specific about the courses in the pathways. Some of the policies simply require institutions to create articulation agreements, while others specify that associate degree earners transfer with junior standing but do not require institutions to build a uniform, explicit pathway.
This type of legislation should ensure community colleges and four-year institutions communicate and commit to aligned curriculum for defined transfer pathways. When institutions co-develop aligned curriculum, are consistent in their advising, and make commitments to honor the transfer pathways, community colleges can confidently enroll students in the correct courses and be able to guarantee students that if they take those courses, their credits will transfer to a four-year institution in the state.
SRS recently partnered with the Louisiana Board of Regents to do just that. Legislation passed in 2022 called for the Louisiana Board of Regents to “develop, coordinate, and maintain transfer pathways for baccalaureate programs that are highly demanded across the state.” The Board of Regents wanted to cultivate an environment for collaboration and healthy divergence for faculty committee volunteers and also ensure the work moved forward quickly.
To meet this goal, SRS conducted an in-depth analysis of the curricular requirements for target disciplines in Louisiana’s public institutions, then gave recommendations to the faculty committees about the first 60 credits that could be on each high-demand, major transfer pathway. Meanwhile, the Board of Regents staff provided facilitation and creative solutions for committees facing challenges reaching consensus. Once the faculty committees finalized and committed to the pathways, SRS worked with the Board of Regents to develop and produce student-facing transfer documents, making clear the benefits of the pathway, and most crucially, which courses the student should take.
Call to Action
“What courses should I take before I transfer?” If you work on educational policy at the state level, we encourage you to try to find the answer to this crucial question through a basic internet search. Gauge how long it takes you. If you can’t find the answer, keep digging. Do you have a streamlined transfer policy in place but need to understand how institutions are implementing the policy? Or does your policy need to be strengthened so that there is a clear answer to this question that does not currently exist? Or, does student-facing information simply need to be clearer about the process? How can you use the three C’s of curriculum, commitment, and communication to move your transfer policy forward?
Ultimately, state leaders must take responsibility for supporting transfer students, and making sure that when they ask what courses they should take before transferring, the answer is, “Here is a full list of courses and the baccalaureate degree-granting institutions that you will be able to attend to complete your degree.”