How Colleges Can Improve the Transfer Process

By Ellen Ullman

A Q&A with the authors of a new report on helping community college students attain bachelor’s degrees

In January, the Community College Research Center (CCRC), The Aspen Institute and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released Tracking Transfer: New measures of Institutional and State Effectiveness in Helping Community College Students Attain Bachelor’s Degrees. The report offers insight on states with a robust transfer pipeline from community colleges to four-year schools.

We recently spoke with Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at CCRC; and Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, about some of the report’s findings.

What makes this report so groundbreaking?

Davis Jenkins: It is the first effort to present nationally comparable, state-by-state data that looks at outcomes, especially bachelor’s degrees, for community college transfer students. Community colleges look at transfer rates but rarely examine whether students who transfer earn bachelor’s degrees. Four-year colleges tend to study only the students who started at their institutions as freshmen.

We estimate that if we increased the transfer rate among all new students at community colleges by 10 percentage points, there could be about 70,000 more students earning bachelor’s degrees every year. This data gives us a starting point for a new way to track which institutions are effective in serving transfer students and which states have a robust transfer pipeline.

What were some of the most surprising outcomes of the study?

Josh Wyner: It is not a surprise that some community colleges do a much better job of sending students to a four-year school and helping prepare those students to earn bachelor’s degrees. What is surprising is, first, how wide the variation is, and second, that none of the institutional characteristics for community college that we’d expect to predict whether transfer students get bachelor’s degrees were actually correlated with that outcome. For example, we expected that colleges that serve high proportions of low-income students would have worse outcomes, but when we tested that hypothesis, it wasn’t true. In fact, in some cases we saw colleges serving low-income populations that had much better outcomes for their transfer students than community colleges with more affluent students. This suggests that transfer outcomes depend on what institutions themselves do to teach and support their students.

What are some of the factors that help students attain a bachelor’s degree?

Jenkins: We recently visited six pairs of two- and four-year institutions with strong outcomes for transfer students, and we found clear things that are working at both levels, such as a strong collaboration between the two institutions, a focus on academic rigor at the community college level, customized intake and advising for transfer students at four-years, and high expectations for all students — including low-income students — at both institutions. We will summarize these findings in a practitioners’ guide that will be published this spring.

Wyner: What our site visits showed is that strong outcomes are built on two functions above all others: clear pathways and much stronger advising. Our visit to Washington state revealed excellent practices in devising clear pathways between institutions, statewide agreements on programs of study (especially in science), and strong advising aimed at helping community college students choose a major and transfer destination early on. These are things other states and institutional partnerships need to focus on.

Jenkins: Co-location of advisers and administrative presence on each other’s campuses is another effective practice we saw. It signals that transfer students are a priority.

What other issues did you uncover?

Wyner: One of the big challenges is that both two- and four-year schools aren’t looking at a comprehensive set of transfer measures to help them figure out if they are doing well. If we’re going to see improved outcomes, both schools need to co-own the bachelor’s attainment rates of students who start at community colleges.

Co-owning the success of students and forming strong partnerships can lead to much higher outcomes if everyone agrees to track the same outcomes tied to the same ultimate goal. The aim is not transfer; it’s bachelor’s attainment. We need to change the mindset, adopt these measures and track them.

Ellen Ullman

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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