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

Only a fraction of community college students ever fulfill their intentions of transferring to a bachelor’s degree program, according to The Hechinger Report. Four out of five entering community college students say they seek to transfer to at least a bachelor’s degree program, but only 16% of students who first enrolled in community college in fall 2015 actually completed bachelor’s degrees in six years. Recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show a worsening outlook—a 9.7% decline in transfer enrollment at bachelor’s degree-granting colleges from the 2020-21 to 2021-22 academic years.

Logistical challenges in the transfer process and a lack of early academic advising often result in students wasting time and money on classes that don’t count toward their intended major at another institution, The Hechinger Report says. These students “face an uphill battle as they contend with unclear information and insufficient guidance on this complex process,” explain the authors of a recent report by the higher education consulting firm HCM Strategists. “Such dismal outcomes and rife inefficiency should be a wake-up call to us all.”

Reforming the transfer process

Transfer processes have been slow to change, and the COVID-19 pandemic further delayed improvements for community college students. However, a coalition of U.S. community colleges and four-year institutions led by the Aspen Institute Excellence Program is working to advance policies and practices that make the transfer process more equitable, including programmatic support that tracks student progress and helps students navigate the transfer process.

Convened by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Scaling Partners Network, of which Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce is a member, is also pushing forward reforms, such as dual-admissions agreements and systemic changes that would allow 100% of students’ credits to apply to credentials when they transfer.

Advocates say these changes could lead to more equitable outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Community colleges enroll Black students at higher rates than other demographic groups, and helping those students interested in transferring to four-year colleges could “reverse historical inequities in who has bachelor’s degrees in this country,” says John Fink, senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. According to data from the Aspen Institute, systemic changes to the process of transferring from community colleges to four-year institutions would result in 9 million more Black and 7.7 million more Latinx bachelor’s degree holders.

Related: Coalition of elite institutions strengthening transfer pipeline from community colleges >

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