A push for more effective, equitable transfer pathways

Community college can be an affordable pathway to a bachelor’s degree, but complications and unexpected setbacks in the transfer process often prevent low-income and underrepresented students from matriculating at four-year institutions, experts told The Chronicle of Higher Education in a virtual panel hosted by the publication. Fixing those process gaps would benefit both community college students and four-year institutions, boosting enrollment, diversifying colleges’ student populations, and increasing degree attainment.

Related: Transfer process a persistent barrier for community college students seeking bachelor’s degrees >

Obstacles in the transfer process

Four out of five students who start at a two-year college say they hope to transfer to complete at least a four-year degree. However, less than one in five students (16%) who first enrolled in community college actually complete bachelor’s degrees in six years, according to National Clearinghouse Student Research Center data. Students from lower-income households were nearly half as likely than higher-income students to have transferred to a four-year institution (25% vs. 41%). Two-year colleges enroll a disproportionate number of Latine and Black students, and they are half as likely as white community college students to transfer to a four-year college, according to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, the Chronicle reports.

A number of potential barriers make it challenging for many students to navigate the transfer process on their own, experts say. Institutional holds, for instance, can prevent students from accessing their transcripts. Without good academic advising, students also may not know about financial assistance available to them, such as application fee waivers and scholarships. If transfer students do make it to a four-year college, they may feel unprepared and unwelcomed among faculty or peers who doubt the rigor of their community college courses and are unable to see the value of what they bring to four-year college campuses.

“Only about half of transfer-intending students have spoken to a transfer adviser,” John Fink, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center, told the panel’s audience. “So students are largely on their own, and when they do make it to a university, although many universities are making significant strides, there can be unreceptive cultures.”

More advising, collaboration needed

Fixing the transfer pipeline from two- to four-year institutions would lead to more equitable outcomes for students—and positively affect society as a whole, higher education leaders explain. A college degree is still the most reliable road to economic mobility, and reducing disparities in degree attainment can narrow the racial wealth gap. However, just 28.1% of Black adults and 20.6% of Latine adults hold bachelor’s degrees or higher, compared to 41.9% of white adults and 61% of Asian adults, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Chronicle reports. 

Related: Report: White, high-income students overrepresented among transfer applicants >

Good advising is key to repairing the transfer process so students are aware of what courses fulfill requirements at four-year institutions and feel prepared to complete their degree. Better communication and collaboration between faculty at two- and four-year institutions can also ensure that on a departmental level, schools are on the same page about what courses students need to take and what skills will put them on the road to a bachelor’s degree. 

One program guiding community college students through the transfer process is the Advance partnership between Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and George Mason University, which offers eligible NOVA students automatic admission at George Mason while they complete their associate degree. The first-year retention rate for students in the program is 87%, compared to 61% among community-college students nationwide, according to Rita Snyder Furr, associate director of community-college partnerships at George Mason, tells the Chronicle. The University of Washington’s STEM Transfer Partnerships project, meanwhile, focuses on expanding transfer access for minority and low-income students interested in STEM majors by ensuring two- and four-year colleges collaborate to create courses community college students can apply to their major at four-year institutions.

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