The Secret to Creating a Smooth Transfer Pipeline

By Ellen Ullman

Valencia College’s guaranteed transfer initiative is wildly successful. Here’s what the college has learned.

A new report being released this month by the Community College Research Center, The Aspen Institute and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center tracks the performance of the nation’s colleges and states in helping students transfer to four-year universities and earn bachelor’s degrees. The report provides, for the first time, information about which colleges are supporting students in this journey and offers guidance on what enables students to be successful. The report is the first phase in a major initiative to tackle low transfer rates and to provide colleges with the tools they need to improve.

One community college that already has a successful transfer pipeline is Valencia College, in Orlando, Florida. Its 10-year-old guaranteed transfer program, DirectConnect, exists between the college and the University of Central Florida (UCF). In the past five years, more than 21,000 Valencia students have transferred to UCF through DirectConnect. Twenty-five percent of all UCF graduates started at Valencia — and they graduated with roughly the same GPAs as students who started at UCF as freshman. In DirectConnect’s first six years, there was a 110 percent increase in the number of associate degrees awarded.

According to Valencia administrators, two keys to DirectConnect’s accomplishments are alignment and continual improvement.

Parallel systems help students transfer

In the 1960s, Florida’s higher-education system implemented common course numbering, so, for example, ENC1101 means entry-level freshman composition at every postsecondary institution in the state. This kind of alignment eases the transfer system immensely, says Joyce C. Romano, vice president for student affairs at Valencia College.

Romano accepts that aligning a large bureaucratic organization is challenging, but one of the ways she makes it work is through ongoing communication. In fact, she and the vice president who is her counterpart at UCF chat every week.

The two colleges share transcripts early on, and UCF advisers have offices at Valencia College, where they meet with students to make sure they’re taking the right courses for their majors.

“If a student doesn’t decide his major early on, he may take math courses to satisfy graduation requirements for the community college but not for the major at the university. We try to eliminate those issues,” Romano says.

By integrating advising, counseling and admissions departments at the two colleges, the transfer process becomes more seamless. Both colleges know which students are planning to transfer, allowing staff and faculty members to help those students meet deadlines.

Curricula are also aligned. Valencia faculty members meet regularly to look at course sequences and determine outcomes. Math instructors study how students who took calculus 1 and 2 at Valencia did in calculus 3 at UCF. Valencia instructors also meet with local high schools to determine how K–12 can play a stronger role in preparing students.

“Colleges naturally exist in silos, so you have to break them down and look for opportunities of integration,” Romano says. Through DirectConnect, Valencia’s communication system works with UCF’s system to communicate with students, track progress and send reminders. The two schools evaluate which school should deliver which messages, and when. Is email or texting the best choice? The goal is to complement each another.

Continual improvement is essential

“We don’t create something and do it differently the next year,” Romano says. “We stick with what is working while always looking for ways to improve.”

Currently, Valencia is helping educators use data to improve learning outcomes. They are studying predictive analytics and determining how to use the data more effectively.

The college is also creating new philanthropic incentives for transfer students, such as the Johnson Scholarship Foundation program, a scholarship-matching program in which UCF and Valencia raise the same amount of money the foundation donates. “None of these opportunities existed when DirectConnect started in 2006, but we’re always going deeper, making sure what we’ve created is sustainable and asking, ‘What else can we do?’ ”

Photo courtesy of Valencia College

Ellen Ullman

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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