In The News: As Higher Education Faces a “Corona Swirl” of Transfer Students, Higher Education Must Create Clear Pathways to DegreesBy John Fink, Maria Hesse, Cheryl Hyman, Shirleatha Lee, Sharon Morrissey, and Elena Quiroz-Livanis -
It’s a tragically apt metaphor for the rising number of students who often think they are on track to earning a bachelor’s degree, only to find out too late that a large share of their credits won’t transfer or apply toward the degree needed for their chosen career.
The U.S. General Accounting Office estimates that students who transferred from community colleges to four-year universities in 2017 lost, on average, 43 percent of their credits, exacerbating racial disparities by keeping many students from graduating with a degree that can open doors to better paying jobs. Nationally, white community college students are about twice as likely as Black and Latinx students to complete a bachelor’s degree after six years.
To add to the frustration, many credits that are accepted do not even apply toward a student’s major. The result is a costly increase in time and excess credits that, together, erase the cost savings students were expecting when they enrolled in community college.
Having spent our careers building equitable pathways for students to and through two- and four-year institutions and into careers, we believe higher education leaders must address systemic barriers that keep students from completing degrees that lead to successful careers.
Here are four ways to end the transfer swirl and ensure community colleges serve as an affordable and accessible gateway to higher education, providing economic mobility to low-income students and students of color:
Map pathways with career goals in mind. States are finding considerable value in bringing employers and accreditors to the table to understand the skills and knowledge most in demand in the workforce. Colleges can use these benchmarks to actively find ways to apply relevant credit by assessing prior learning across a full range of student experiences, including completion of dual credit courses, workplace learning, military credit, and more. Virginia and Massachusetts are among states that that are supporting the collaborative efforts of community college and university faculty to map clear pathways to degrees and careers.
Deploy responsive, personalized advising. Continuing to rely on old ways of doing business and traditional one-to-one advising will be inefficient given the expected increase in the number of transfer students. States should fund and support culturally responsive advising that helps students identify their career goals early on, informing mapped pathways that allow for personalized plans at the institutional level and ensure students enroll in the right courses in pursuit of their aspirations. Statewide digital networks and online tools like Arizona State University’s Transfer Guide can enable seamless electronic transcript transfer and automate course evaluation. The widely accessible tool makes transfer exponentially more efficient, reduces human error and makes the fastest path to a degree clearer.
Fund innovation. States can provide financial incentives and challenge grants to motivate community colleges and four-year universities to build strong transfer pathways. In California, funding increases have been tied to higher enrollment of transfers and rates of on-time degree completion. To understand how well credit transfer and applicability are working, state agencies can publish data on student completion disaggregated by race and income and report the length of time and number of credits needed to attain a degree.
Students headed to college in a post-pandemic world already face considerable financial and logistical challenges – from covering tuition costs and other expenses to acclimating to online learning and juggling learning experiences alongside family responsibilities. These strategies can turn the current transfer swirl into clear, straight pathways to degree completion.
As the nation confronts the many ways that COVID-19, the resulting recession, and centuries of racial injustice have deepened inequities, it is time for higher education leaders to similarly confront our own long-standing policies and practices around credit transfer that continue to disproportionately harm and hold back low-income students and students of color. We have an opportunity to redefine college transfer to help students attain degrees that lead to career success and move our nation toward an inclusive and equitable economic recovery.
The authors John Fink, Dr. Maria Hesse, Cheryl Hyman, Dr. Shirleatha Lee, Dr. Sharon Morrissey, and Dr. Elena Quiroz-Livanis are members of the national Tackling Transfer Policy Advisory Board, charged with shaping state transfer policies that lead to degrees and economic mobility.