Chet Jordan, Ph.D., Dean of Social Sciences and Professional Studies, Greenfield
We often neglect silence. In our quest to preserve and uplift success, we shy away from what isn’t there, from who and what was left behind, and from the stories that got lost along the way. It is beautiful to celebrate the grit, determination, and ability of those who cross the finish line but there is kaleidoscopic complexity in each individual who never comes into the camera’s view.
One of the largest subgroups in the American higher education system is comprised of transfer students. Although students transfer in various directions throughout the system, a vast majority attempt to transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions. Recent data show that 31% of students who first enroll at a community college transfer to a four-year college within six years (Shapiro et al., 2019). Astonishingly, close to 80% of community college students hope to earn a bachelor’s degree, yet 60% who enroll in a community college with the hope of transferring to a four-year institution fail to do so.
With these numbers in the foreground, it becomes imperative to interrogate the silence. The reasons why community college students struggle to achieve baccalaureate attainment represent a crisis in our collegiate system. This fact is underscored when institutional policies—which we as administrators and faculty members impose and create—are revealed to be the primary barriers to student success.
As one of the nation’s largest urban university systems, the City University of New York (CUNY) is a leader in community college reform. Transfer remains one of the most significant policy challenges for CUNY and is a critical area of research. Under the direction of former CUNY Executive Vice-Chancellor and University Provost Alexandra W. Logue, a team of scholars was assembled in 2018 to identify the “leaky pipeline” of transfer. Dr. Logue and her team were awarded several high-profile grants to determine where current polices negatively and disproportionately impact transfer students. The discussion that follows identifies key areas of policy reform and, in closing, offers practical steps institutions can take to make strides toward more equitable transfer pathways.
Community colleges have, historically, served as access points into the postsecondary system for individuals who are disproportionately marginalized by the meritocratic four-year system. Standardized testing, strict admissions standards, and lofty price tags are prohibitive factors for many of the nation’s low-income, BIPOC students. In turn, this represents a large percentage of students who have been characteristically underserved by the nation’s public school system, often arriving at college from under-resourced secondary schools with high teacher turnover and little in the way of college preparatory support. Before they cross the threshold of their chosen community college, upwards of 60% of students nationally are assessed as needing basic skills remediation. Traditionally, these courses have been offered for no college credit, requiring a student to invest valuable financial aid awards and substantial time into classes that do not count toward a degree. Most drop out along the way, or, in some cases, before they ever enroll. Developmental education is one of the most significant barriers to community college transfer and represents a critical opportunity for wholesale reform.
Recent research finds that there are successful alternatives to the zero-credit remedial model that ensures students are receiving the appropriate support in English and Math but that they are also earning college-level credits from the outset. One pivotal study, led by Dr. Logue’s team, examined the differences in outcomes of remedial math students randomly assigned to a statistics course with an additional support section and a traditional elementary Algebra section. The findings indicated that students in the co-requisite statistics course outperformed students assigned to the elementary Algebra section. A three-year follow up identified even more markers of success. The co-requisite statistics students performed on par or better than the students who enrolled in the elementary Algebra section, debunking the pervasive narrative that all developmental students need basic Algebra in order to be successful in college (Logue et al, p. 307). Additionally, over 100% more co-requisite students than elementary Algebra students graduated within two years of the intervention, indicating that their immediate enrollment into credit-bearing coursework improved their long-term academic momentum.
Although developmental coursework typically comes early in a student’s college journey, it remains one of the most impermeable barriers to successful transfer. Since the traditional remedial model has relied primarily on zero-credit course sequences, the potential for students to accrue credits in a timely fashion and enroll in a transfer institution with enough financial aid to see them through to graduation is quite low. Moving to the co-requisite model, which research shows is far more equitable, represents a significant cultural change for math departments across the country, many of which rely on a significant number of zero-credit courses to support faculty workloads. However, evidence suggests that not only is zero-credit remediation a substandard practice relative to the co-requisite model, it remains as one of the most prominent sorting mechanisms in higher education: one that marginalizes students of color, first-generation and low-income students.
College websites are central sources of information for students and their families as they begin the transfer process. Recent research, however, indicates that users find it difficult to access essential resources that, if presented effectively, could help reduce confusion in an extraordinarily complex process (Schudde et al, 2020). There is little uniformity in the organization of college websites: even within large university systems, like the City University of New York, each college retains its own web-based identity, making it challenging to navigate from one college to the next in search of similar information. One recent study sought to understand how effective CUNY college websites were at presenting information on transfer. Researchers developed a rubric that assessed nineteen undergraduate college websites on credit evaluation, advising, and articulation agreements. Broadly, the findings indicated that the websites were widely varied in how information in these three areas was presented.
The process by which transfer credits are evaluated can often determine whether a student will be successful in attaining a bachelor’s degree. Many receiving colleges rely on faculty to evaluate transfer student transcripts to determine which of the community college credits will be applied to the bachelor’s degree. At CUNY, which has for the past seven years had standardized general education requirements for all colleges in the system, faculty are still responsible for evaluating non-general education credits for transfer students. How this process is communicated to entering students, however, remains incredibly opaque. A 2017 report by the United States Government Accountability Office showed that students lose approximately 43% of their credits when they transfer. Often, courses taken at the community college that would objectively be similar in content to a course at the receiving institution are assigned elective credit rather than degree credit. As a result, students are obliged to take the course again, delaying progress toward graduation and wasting financial aid. The lack of transparency in how transfer credits are evaluated is apparent on college websites. When the above-mentioned study at CUNY was conducted in 2018, most colleges did include information on how general education courses transferred under the University-wide Pathways Initiative. Yet, there was noticeable variation among the colleges in how degree credits were evaluated. Some colleges included rudimentary, web-based software that allowed students to run hypothetical scenarios to see how their credits might be evaluated, using past examples as baseline data. It is important to note, however, that even these systems came with a caveat which stated that it was ultimately faculty discretion that determined how transfer credit was awarded. In stark contrast, other colleges in the CUNY system did not include any information at all on how degree credit was awarded or about the process by which credits were evaluated.
Like policies on developmental education, the ways in which transfer credits are evaluated present significant barriers to baccalaureate attainment. Since this study was conducted, Dr. Logue and her research team, with funding from the Heckscher Foundation and support from Ithaka S + R, have created a web-based Transfer Explorer (TREX), to allow students, families, and advisors to determine exactly how their transfer credits will be applied to a bachelor’s degree using real-time data from the advising software DegreeWorks. This is a watershed development for the City University of New York and serves as a national exemplar of the type of transparency transfer students deserve. TREX uses credit evaluation rules built into DegreeWorks to allow students to see how the course they are planning to enroll in at their community college will transfer to one of the four-year CUNY colleges. This visibility will let students know if they should be taking a different course, one that will apply directly to their bachelor’s degree once they transfer. At the institutional level, it will compel faculty and administrators to evaluate their internal transfer credit equivalency policies to ensure transfer credits are applied equitably and fairly across programs.
Community colleges have been leaders in reforming traditional advising models and better integrating student advising into the curriculum. However, these incredible advances in supportive advising models have not extended to the transfer process. As one of the principal points of investigation in the website evaluation, advising represented another area with divergent and incomplete information. Much like in the other domains, the website evaluation found that colleges presented varied degrees of information on their advising practices. Some colleges included detailed information on transfer-specific advising practices, including how transfer student advisors were assigned, advising partnerships with feeder colleges, and contact information for advising staff. Some colleges included no information on transfer advising at all.
It is important to note that the website study only identified practices and policies that were readily available online and does not necessarily represent what is happening on campus or, presently, in a virtual space. However, access to vital information such how to contact an advisor is essential to a transfer student’s ability to ask questions related to registration, financial aid, and enrollment deadlines. The supportive advising models that many community colleges have adopted in the last decade have not necessarily translated to four-year colleges. It is necessary for bachelor’s-degree institutions to invest in supportive advising models so that advisors hold fewer in their caseload and can develop the kinds of close, interpersonal relationships with students necessary to help them successfully complete their degrees on time.
Cross-institutional advising partnerships, or transfer bridge programs, are examples of successful policy reforms in the area of advising. In order to reduce transfer shock, or the phenomenon where a transfer student’s overall GPA is reduced during the first two semesters after transfer, community colleges and their four-year partners can actively collaborate and share advising services so that students are supported through the transfer process and into their first two critical semesters after enrollment in the baccalaureate program. Transfer bridge programs signal to students that both their sending and receiving colleges value their long-term educational success and that the transfer process is a compact between the student and university, rather than something the student must navigate independently.
Articulation agreements are a widely used tool to foster transfer relationships between similar academic programs at two colleges. These agreements, often developed between faculty or departments, have been the standard mechanism for providing transfer routes between community and four-year colleges. Articulation agreements require a great deal of collaborative labor among faculty members. Although articulation agreements still comprise the lion’s share of transfer pathways from community to four-year colleges, their efficacy can easily be called into question. The first issue is around utility. In order for students to effectively use what is written into the agreement, they must be knowledgeable about its existence and understand how it applies to their credits. In the website study at CUNY, community college websites contained more complete records of articulation agreements than did the four-year colleges. High performing colleges included direct links to the articulation agreements as well as links to the four-year college website. Low performing colleges did not list any articulation agreements or posted links that were broken or led to unrelated pages. Since the purpose of an articulation agreement is to more effectively facilitate transfer, it is critical that students are able to access and understand the terms of the agreement. What this also means is that it is incumbent upon the partnering institutions to actively inform their constituent groups about the agreement and to properly maintain it, revising it when changes are made to courses and/or programs.
The second problem with articulation agreements is that of volume. The website study identified 515 articulation agreements between the CUNY community and four-year colleges. It is important to emphasize that this number only represents the agreements available on college websites (Jordan, C & Townsend, M., 2020). It can be reasonably assumed, given the wide disparity among the colleges in how agreements are presented, that many more agreements exist that are not visible online. The sheer volume of and overreliance on articulation agreements makes it difficult for advisors and faculty to adequately inform students of these relationships during the transfer process. The relationship between volume and underutilization is an area that requires further research, but it is safe to assume that the good intentions written into articulation agreements by committed faculty are not often realized.
The piecemeal approach to developing transfer partnerships speaks to a structural deficit in the process. Rather than relying on teaching faculty to design and facilitate articulation agreements, it should be the job of partnering institutions to establish blocks of credits that transfer regardless of discipline. In this approach, students would earn credits toward a degree at the community college and the receiving college would agree to apply a specific number of the associate’s degree credits toward the bachelor’s degree, regardless of what specific courses were taken. This eliminates the need for course-to-course maintenance and is far easier for the partnering colleges to explain to students and advertise. For colleges within large university systems like CUNY, where transfer is a regular occurrence, central leadership could help ease the transfer pathway for students by encouraging strong collaborations. These collaborations can include dual-enrollment programs, which offer a direct route from the associate’s degree to the bachelor’s degree by accepting students into the community college and the four-year college at the same time. Overall, institutional–rather than departmental-level–reform is needed to better facilitate transfer.
Practical steps your institution can take to advance a more equitable transfer agenda
Inside the silence, we discover the stories of thousands of students who have failed to earn a bachelor’s degree as a result of inequitable transfer policies. It should be alarming that so few students who enroll at a community college and hope to earn a bachelor’s degree do not realize their goal. There are a number of common policies and practices that continue to act as barriers to community college students. The few that are described in this piece are critical sites of reform and there are deepening bodies of research that show substantial evidence toward such transformations. Broadly, it is institutional culture that slows the process. Long-held course schedules, modes of teaching, and organizational operations are difficult to change. But continuing to reproduce inequities—which fall along racial and class lines— in access and outcomes because of a refusal to alter problematic policy is not an acceptable course. Institutions committed to equity and justice can take the following steps to promote better transfer pathways:
- Developmental Education: Offer evidenced-based co-requisite opportunities for students to begin earning credits toward their degree from the time of entry while also having the additional support necessary to be successful. One way to do this is to create pilot sections of co-requisite math and English and compare outcomes over time to more traditional approaches. This will give the faculty and institutional staff relevant information on how best to proceed with scaling up the model.
- Websites: Promote transfer using clear, consistent messaging that details the steps and deadlines for transfer. LaGuardia Community College has an excellent website that details the transfer process.
- Credit Evaluation: Generate transparent and equitable transfer credit evaluation policies that ensures incoming students are not faced with financial or academic barriers as a result of inequitable credit equivalency standards. Like TREX mentioned above, colleges can support transfer students by creating online credit evaluation systems that offers a transparent glimpse into a student’s academic future.
- Advising: Create cross-campus transfer advising pipelines so that students are supported on sending and receiving sites. Brooklyn College has created an excellent virtual platform for transfer students to access vital advising information during the pandemic.
- Articulation Agreements: Reduce the complexity of program-to-program articulation agreements by developing block transfer agreements that rely on credits earned rather than on individual courses taken. To do this effectively, colleges can work within a geographical consortium to develop block transfer agreements that do not require regular revision or maintenance.
Jordan, C. & Townsend, M. “The language of transfer: results from website and articulation agreement analyses at the City University of New York” [Conference presentation]. National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students 2020, Atlanta, GA, United States.
Logue, A.W., Douglas, D., & Watanabe-Rose, M. “Corequisite mathematics remediation: results over time and in different contexts.” Educational evaluation and policy analysis vol. 41, no. 3, 2019 pp. 294-315
Schudde, L., Bradley, D. & Absher, C. “Navigating vertical transfer online: access to and usefulness of transfer information on community college websites.” Community College Review, vol. 48, no. 1, 2020, pp. 3-30
Shapiro, D., Dundar, A., Huie, F., Wakhungu, P., Yuan, X., Nathan, A. & Hwang, Y. “Tracking transfer: measures of effectiveness in helping community college students to complete bachelor’s degrees.” 2019, September 26. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. https://nscresearchcenter.org/signaturereport13/
United States General Accountability Office. “Students need more information to help reduce challenges in transferring college credits.” 2017. https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-17-574
Chet Jordan, Ph.D., Dean of Social Sciences and Professional Studies, Greenfield Community College. Chet Jordan is a higher education researcher, professor, and administrator. His scholarship focuses on community college reform including developmental education, guided pathways, and transfer. Dr. Jordan is author and co-author of several books related to higher education policy and practice.