The 'transfer' deficit: Push is on to propel students past community college

Eighty percent of community college students say they want to go on to four-year schools. But only 15 percent earn bachelor's degrees within six years. Model programs are tackling this transfer gap. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/STAFF
Glenda Sorto counsels students at Northern Virginia Community College in a trailblazing program that helps students learn how to transfer to four-year schools.

Glenda Sorto knew she wanted to go to college, but as she started her senior year of high school, that’s about all she knew. “I’m the first one in the family to go to college, so pretty much it was all me to figure it out,” says the Salvadoran immigrant, who arrived in Virginia as a fifth-grader.

Four years after finishing high school, she had her bachelor’s degree in hand – largely because counselors from Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) helped her stay on track to transfer all her credits to a nearby state university after earning her associate degree.

In 2006-07, Ms. Sorto was among the first participants of the Pathway to the Baccalaureate, a trailblazing partnership of local K-12 school districts, NOVA’s six campuses, and George Mason University, a selective campus in Fairfax, Va. As she studied and worked nearly full time to pay bills, she often worried about whether she’d make it. Without Pathway, she says, “I don’t know what I would have done. It was nice to know that someone believed in me.”

Sorto’s story is increasingly common at NOVA, and efforts are under way across the United States to support more such successful transfers. But right now, for many community college students, the desire to transfer for a bachelor’s becomes a meandering journey, with a large portion giving up along the way.

Indeed, the transfer conundrum is one area ripe for reform amid a national effort to boost college-completion rates and economic competitiveness.

NOVA’s Pathway program is being watched as a model, especially because it’s serving groups that are growing fast and are underrepresented in higher education, such as Latinos. The program’s early results show better retention, credit transfer, and degree completion than are typical nationwide.

With the cost of college rising so fast, community colleges are gaining attention as an affordable route. And with the majority of collegegoing African-American, Hispanic, and first-generation students attending community colleges, low rates of transfer and bachelor’s degree attainment don’t bode well for closing achievement gaps, college experts say.

“It’s a hugely important issue,” says Joshua Wyner, executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute, a policy group in Washington. “We can’t reach either the equity imperatives or the degree-production imperatives if we don’t solve the transfer issue.”

About 40 percent of undergrads attend community colleges. As many as 80 percent of these students say their goal is to transfer to earn a bachelor’s degree. Yet only about 15 percent actually earn that degree within six years.

Those who do transfer end up earning their bachelor’s degree at about the same rate as peers who start at four-year schools and persist past their sophomore year, research shows. That’s good news for families who see community college as a more affordable entry point.

The problem is, only 4 out of 10 who aspire to earn a bachelor’s degree actually transfer, a recent study by the City University of New York shows. And they often can’t take all their credits with them or apply them to their majors.

“The transfer process has a lot of leaks in it,” because decisions about credits are typically made at the department level of each university, says Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. This often-inefficient system “is just nuts,” she says.

One reason departments deny credit transfer is a belief among some four-year professors that the quality of courses at community colleges isn’t high enough. But that’s generally not supported by research on transfer students’ success, community college advocates say.

Losing credits is “extremely frustrating,” says Russell Vannoy, who transferred from Spokane Falls Community College in Washington State to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. “You’ve spent this money, you’ve spent this time, and then when you transfer, they sort of negate what you’ve done.”

He’s happy to be in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. He wouldn’t have dreamed it possible without the American Honors program – a service of Quad Learning Inc. in Washington that partners with community colleges to set up honors courses and advise students who want to transfer to highly selective colleges. But even with that help, Mr. Vannoy found that some credits didn’t transfer and he had to repeat macro- and microeconomics.

A new nationally representative study shows why credit transfer is so important. First-time, full-time community college students who were able to transfer all or most of their credits were 2-1/2 times as likely to complete their bachelor’s degree than those who were able to transfer less than half their credits, report Paul Attewell and David Monaghan of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

The peer-reviewed study also compared community college transfers with students who started at minimally selective four-year schools and earned at least two years’ worth of credits. About 45 percent of both groups earned their bachelor’s within six years of starting college. But the figure could have been as high as 54 percent for transfer students if they had not lost so many credits along the way, the research suggested.

That’s why some states and colleges are working to smooth out the transfer experience. About two-thirds of states have “articulation” policies – spelling out what is transferrable to public four-year institutions. More than 20 states – including Florida, California, and Virginia – also offer incentives, such as guaranteed admission into the four-year system for those who earn an associate degree.

Articulation agreements haven’t been enough, however, because they tend to be too vague or not fully honored, says Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University in New York. Less common, but more promising, are agreements statewide or between specific two-year and four-year colleges that spell out exactly which credits will transfer for each program of study. “That’s the wave of the future,” he says.

In 2010, California passed a law to set up such guidelines for 25 majors. If community college graduates meet criteria for these pathways, they can transfer as juniors into one of the California State University schools and won’t have to repeat courses. The law includes such incentives to complete an associate degree before transferring because that improves the likelihood of earning a bachelor’s degree.

About a quarter of the nation’s degree-seeking community college students are in California. Thus the law is “significant nationally, because we can’t meet [degree-completion] goals if we can’t get California right,” says Colleen Moore, a research specialist at the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at California State University, Sacramento.

In Tennessee, meanwhile, the Transfer Pathways project offers guidance so students can have their associate degree transcript certify that their credits count toward their majors.

Moreover, several more-comprehensive partnerships have sprung up between individual institutions – combining transfer pathways, admissions guarantees, and personalized student services.

One prime example is DirectConnect to UCF. It launched in 2006; in the past five years, 28,000 students have transferred from four local two-year colleges to the selective University of Central Florida in Orlando. Nearly 17,000 of them have come from Valencia College, a nearby public two-year college.

DirectConnect guarantees admission for those who complete their associate degree. Two buildings that UCF established on Valencia’s West and Osceola campuses offer a place for students to meet with advisers, fill out transfer paperwork, and in some cases even earn a bachelor’s degree on-site.

The transfer students are boosting diversity at UCF and have a six-year success rate similar to those who started there.

Another example gaining recognition is the Pathway to the Baccalaureate program here in northern Virginia. While it started off small, more than 10,000 students are now involved. Students in eight K-12 districts can apply early in their senior year, with no minimum GPA required. The main criteria are that they aspire to a four-year degree and face a significant potential barrier to college success.

Starting with students in high school – to advise them on financial aid, majors, and careers – “is the secret sauce that makes our program successful,” says Kerin Hilker-Balkissoon, NOVA’s director of College Pathway Initiatives.

Counselors take a case-management approach, creating individual transition checklists for students. Pathway students also have priority during registration, so it’s easier to get the classes they need.

They can transfer anywhere, but about 60 percent choose the clear-cut path to George Mason, just an eight-mile ride on a free shuttle bus from NOVA’s largest campus, in Annandale, Va.

Naila Rafique says she used to worry about attending NOVA because kids would call it “the loser school,” but because of Pathway, she now lauds it as an “undiscovered treasure.”

The daughter of Kashmiri immigrants who did not attend college, Ms. Rafique says she knows students who have spent four years at NOVA, but she’s expecting to have a bachelor’s degree in the same amount of time. The key difference? She didn’t waste time on unnecessary courses.

Through scholarships and jobs, Rafique expects to graduate debt free from Mason next spring. “A lot of people I meet here [at Mason] say, ‘I wish I had done what you did: I would have paid less and felt like I was here the whole time,’ ” she says.

By completing two years at NOVA, Pathway students can save more than $15,000 compared with students who start at Mason.

Slightly more than half of Pathway students are graduating from NOVA and/or transferring within three years, preliminary data show, and that’s much higher than the overall NOVA rate. Most of the others remain enrolled. Delays often stem from needing to take remedial courses or “stopping out” for a semester to earn money.

Pathway is demonstrating that immigrants and disadvantaged students “can and do perform at high levels if they’re given structure and appropriate guidance,” says NOVA President Robert Templin. “But this can only happen when education institutions combine for collective impact.”

Of the students who already transferred to Mason, 83 percent completed their bachelor’s degree within three years of transferring. Among Mason students overall, about 45 percent earn their bachelor’s degree within four years of starting there (the closest data available).

Transfers of minority students from NOVA to Mason are up 140 percent in the past four years. And of all the Latinos in public higher education in Virginia, 44 percent are at NOVA or Mason, Mr. Templin says.

To build on Pathway’s success, NOVA recently incorporated some of its features into a support system for all its first-time college students ages 17 to 24. Also, in Montgomery County, Md., schools and colleges have teamed up to replicate the Pathway idea.

Despite efforts to ease the transition from the smaller NOVA campuses to Mason, it can be tough. Samah Malik, now a junior sociology major at Mason, took a semester off after NOVA because she couldn’t quite get her head around the sprawling campus and the higher cost of credits.

“I knew I still wanted to go to school, but I needed a push,” she says. She got it from her boss at a wedding catering company, and she now checks in regularly with the Pathway counselor based at Mason.

That counselor, Ricshawn Roane, can do a lot for students simply by reviewing their course selections and e-mailing tips about how to avoid delaying their degrees. But sometimes students just need a comforter. “So much comes out on the couch,” Ms. Roane says, glancing at the striped sofa that she can face by a swivel of her desk chair.

A few hours later, a student drops by and slumps onto the couch. He’s struggling with anxiety, including concerns that his major won’t lead to a good job. But switching majors will cost too much. He had just been to the mental health office, but was asked to make an appointment since he wasn’t in crisis.

"I needed someone to talk to really badly, and it seemed like nobody wanted to take me in,” he says to Roane after they’ve been talking for a while. “I feel a lot better now.”

That kind of support can be essential. But as students get more rooted at Mason, the goal is also to have them “begin to self-advocate” and even help fellow students, Roane says.

Sorto is one of those who’s now giving back. She’s working at NOVA advising Pathway students while she studies for a master’s degree in counseling at Mason. When students are stressed by juggling jobs and course work, “I can empathize,” she says.

Recalling her Mason commencement in 2011, Sorto says, “I felt relieved.... I didn’t just go to school, I graduated.” Her father and younger siblings, including her 14-year-old brother, were there to applaud her.

“It was very rewarding to see my brother there and [hear him say] that he wants to graduate, too. Just seeing that, for me, was an accomplishment,” she says, flashing a wide smile.

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