How Can We Improve the Transfer Process for College Students?

In recent years there has been growing concentration on how best to improve the transfer process for two-year students seeking a four-year degree. We know that while more than eighty percent of first-year community college students surveyed indicate that they are working toward a four-year degree; fewer than fifteen percent will achieve this goal.

With all of the energy, good intentions, and money working toward a solution, why is it that the numbers have not improved dramatically?

There are likely several reasons, and additional questions, for us to consider.

First, it is unlikely that the solution to the transfer problem will come from increased funding to support the transfer pathway alone. The decision made by a student to attend a community college is by itself an enormous commitment and gamble, especially for adult learners. Even with money in place, there are familial, social, cultural and psychological barriers that can derail a student’s college aspirations.

Second, students don’t always know what policymakers do. A student must be aware of an opportunity to work toward it. And perhaps most important, a student must understand that opportunity is often “writ large,” in ways unimagined that take them beyond the neighborhood that surrounds them. You can’t leave the nest if you don’t have a roadmap and a plan.

Third, we cannot expect community college counselors to carry the full burden of counseling students into four-year colleges. Community colleges have a dual function to prepare students for the workforce as well as for a continuing educational pathway. They have hundreds more students typically per counselor than can be counseled well. It’s time to imagine how added counseling support might help guide students along the transfer pathway.

Fourth, there is an appalling lack of data about the transfer process. We must develop a transfer data clearinghouse to produce annual and longitudinal analyses to track transfers thereby establishing transfer metrics to measure success.

Fifth, it is unlikely that state to large state system transfer policies will fully remove obstacles; indeed, the very bureaucracy that creates the presumed solution may become a large part of the continuing problem.

Sixth, there can be lessons embedded in pilot programs across the country, whether home grown or supported by corporations and foundations. They need to be watched and tracked with a better understanding of what lessons can be learned from novel initiatives organized in neighborhoods, cities, and regions.

Seventh, private colleges typically have far higher graduation rates than their public sector counterparts. What is it about the scale, organization, and services provided by these colleges that foster higher and timelier completion rates?

Eighth, how can technology improve the transfer pathway? If we seek an evidence-based solution to the transfer problem, we must do so as efficiently and economically as possible. Can we imagine ways in which technology can match human resources to help students identify four-year transfer opportunities and programs, provide remedial assistance to craft a climate for success, and track student outcomes?

Ninth, can public policy makers broaden the “free community college tuition” agenda to do better without damaging the other four-year, graduate and professional sectors? If education is a continuous pathway, how can government help through resources and regulatory relief to alleviate the obstacles in the transfer path?

Tenth, what role can America’s corporations and foundations play in creating a better-defined transfer pathway? Philanthropy is often as decentralized as America’s colleges and universities. Is there a better way to coordinate support, locally, regionally and nationally to work in new strategic transfer partnerships? Sometimes the “thousand points of light” need to be connected into a national grid.

In many ways, solving the transfer problem is something like building a road. If the transfer roadway connects community college students by providing them with a roadmap to a four-year degree, there must be an informed beginning, a supportive network, and a receptive end-of-line destination.

Four-year colleges and universities must look at the demographics that they face. If they are to evolve, how these colleges and universities handle their admissions profile will be critical to this evolution. They must earn and encourage the support of their faculty and staff to provide guidelines, timely review, and a welcoming and inclusive home for transfer students.

What may be even more important is that four-year colleges and universities see the transfer pathway as an admissions pipeline. For most institutions, the days of relying on athletes, legacies, and international students – supported at many through extra cash raised by continuing education and graduate programs – are “maxed out.” With a disciplined approach to financial aid, transfer students can reenergize the mission and strengthen the relevancy of an institution.

We know from pilot programs like the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s Community College Scholars initiative at highly selective colleges that students in even the most rigorous academic programs can match the high achievement of the student body overall. What we need now is to put the pieces of the puzzle together to determine what the picture looks like.


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