Repairing a ‘broken’ transfer system

The U.S. must work to fix “our broken approach” to the college transfer system, given the many obstacles that prevent students in two-year programs from completing bachelor’s degrees, the U.S. Department of Education said during a summit last week at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), according to a press release. The summit, attended by 200 higher education leaders, was part of the Biden Administration’s Raise the Bar: College Excellence and Equity initiative, which aims to promote equity and upward mobility by making postsecondary education more accessible, equitable, and affordable.

Community colleges provide an affordable gateway to a postsecondary education, and nearly 80% of community college students saying they plan to transfer to acquire a bachelor’s degree, according to the Department of Education. However, only 16% of students who begin at community college eventually earn a bachelor’s degree within six years; the rate is even lower among low-income students and students of color.

Students face a number of challenges in the transfer process, including bureaucratic issues and a patchwork of differing transfer policies across the country. Institutional holds and transcript holds are also barriers, preventing students with outstanding balances from registering for classes and accessing their credits and transcripts. Across both two- and four-year colleges, almost 40% of students transfer to other colleges during their postsecondary education, and on average, they lose more than 40% of their credits as they move from one college to another, according to the Department of Education.

To reduce these barriers, the department is prioritizing “credit mobility,” or the ability for transfer students to apply credits they’ve earned from one institution to their degree program at another, The Chronicle of Higher Education says. In a September report, the education department offered guidance after the Supreme Court ended race-conscious admissions and provided examples of institutions that had successfully created more diverse campuses by “improving acceptance of students’ transfer credits, and strengthening supports to boost degree completion.”

Creating clearer pathways to a bachelor’s degree

Along with the summit, the department also released new data highlighting partnerships between two- and four-year colleges in each state that have produced more successful transfer pathways. For eight years, researchers followed a sample of approximately 620,000 students across the country who received Title IV federal financial aid and who enrolled in community colleges in 2014 as their first postsecondary institution. The researchers evaluated how well students transferred from one institution to another and if they earned a bachelor’s degree. 

Thirteen percent of the study sample completed a bachelor’s degree within eight years, although the rate varied by state. States that had above-average bachelor’s degree attainment during the study period had strong partnerships between two- and four-year colleges.

“While community colleges provide the onramp to the pathway, public- and private- four-year institutions provide the destination and support for students to complete their bachelor’s degrees,” the analysis says. It highlights partnerships between NOVA and George Mason University (ADVANCE) and Valencia Community College and University of Central Florida (DirectConnect) as some of the most effective programs in the way they develop curricula and offer college advising to ensure that students’ community college course credits can transfer to a four-year degree.

At least 31 states have policies that also guarantee a set of general education courses are transferable across all public higher education institutions and that students who receive an associate degree before transferring to a four-year institution can transfer all of their credit to their new college and enter as a junior.

“Our students often attend multiple colleges,” James Kvaal, under secretary of education, tells The Chronicle. “We’re all in this to help them go on to a better life, and if we’re going to achieve that goal, then we need to collaborate.”

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