New report urges reforms to ease transfers to four-year programs

College student demographics are shifting: in 2016, 40 percent of students enrolled in two- or four-year colleges were over 24 years old, and only 16 percent of undergraduate students lived on campus. Yet, higher education is still largely designed for the “traditional” 20th-century college student—and that misalignment is preventing talented community college students from transferring to complete four-year degrees, Ithaka S&R writes in a new report

In 2007, 80 percent of first-year community college students said they sought a bachelor’s degree, but a mere 14 percent of them went on to earn one within six years, according to a study by the Community College Research Center at Columbia’s Teachers College. With 35 percent of the country’s undergraduates attending two-year schools—and only a third of them transferring to four-year colleges within six years—inefficient transfer policies may be contributing to the country’s low degree completion rates. 

Related: In transfer students, 4-year schools see untapped talent pool >

Preventing lost credits

Research shows that community college students lose, on average, 43 percent of their credits when transferring to another institution, significantly decreasing their chance of graduating. To improve the transfer process, the report urges colleges to implement several reforms: 

  • Common course numberings. By offering common course numbers, titles, and descriptions, colleges and universities can help “ease the administrative burden of articulating credit between institutions and thereby reduce credit loss,” the report says.  
  • Articulation agreements. Articulation agreements are partnerships between institutions documenting how credits will transfer, and can increase visibility for prospective transfer students and their counselors. 
  • Transfer pathways. Transfer pathways provide course lists to community college students to ensure they will not only receive transfer credit but also fulfill bachelor’s degree requirements. 
  • Reverse transfer policies. For transfer students who choose not to complete their bachelor’s degrees, reverse transfer policies “allow students to earn an associate’s degree by combining credits earned at two-year institutions with credits earned at four-year institutions,” the report states.

Combined with free tuition, inefficient transfer policies could overwhelm community colleges

With most of the Democratic presidential candidates backing free tuition for two-year colleges, experts say the entire system could be overwhelmed if too many students show up, Politico writes. 

“If you make college free and then enroll all these new students, it would just make the problem even worse,” John Mullane, president of College Transfer Solutions, told Politico. “We just don’t want to throw money out there if students are not persistent, graduating, and transferring. Otherwise, we haven’t really helped the situation,” he added.

Ithaka S+R, Politico
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