The Transfer Problem: The Case for Private Colleges

In November, the Edvance Foundation released a report titled, “Strengthening the Transfer Pathway,” that identified opportunities for private colleges and universities to accept a much more robust stream of transfer students.

College Transfer Pathway is Full of Potholes

Among the findings, the report noted that the transfer pathway is full of potholes. The directional signage is inconsistent and contradictory along this path. Part of this problem stems from the decentralized nature of private colleges. They lack the scale of large state universities and state systems in the public sector.

Most two-year colleges are public and fall under common state political jurisdictions with their public four-year and graduate and professional counterparts. It is often easier to imagine a public solution to improve dismal transfer rates.

It is hardly surprising that politicians and policy makers should look to the public sector for a solution to the transfer crisis facing American higher education. And in fairness to public four-year universities, it makes sense to concentrate state or national policy efforts where scale can be achieved, state subsidies provided and legislative intent enforced, and where so many public sector faculty and administrators are working in good faith to find a solution.

It’s a little like why Willie Sutton robbed banks. It’s where the money is.

Yet there is a potential for a dramatic higher education misstep that will have serious repercussions for America.

If the solution to repairing the transfer pathway is to improve access, guarantee choice, and improve retention and graduation rates, then any evidence-based answer must look to where the country enjoys the most success. Part of the solution is with the private colleges whose graduation rates are strongest.

The Edvance Foundation study found that the level of preparation, willingness to provide not only financial assistance but also address social, cultural and familial roadblocks and the development of an effective academic and student service safety net often determined whether or not the transfer pathway led to a degree.  The two essential elements that filled the potholes were good transfer counseling and adequate student transfer preparation.

Strong Counseling, Student Preparation are Essential Elements of Successful Transfer

This approach is not intended as a criticism of community college counselors. They are, in fact, the heroes of today’s story, often overwhelmed by student/counselor ratios of 1000/1. These counselors work tirelessly, efficiently and effectively. But their job is to counsel community college students not just likely transfers. To the extent that new money should be made available, these resources must be put into additional transfer counseling.

A second issue is that community colleges and four-year colleges use different pedagogies, seek different outcomes, and speak different educational languages. It’s a little like getting your Dell to talk to your colleague’s Apple twenty years ago. It’s possible but the communication protocol needs to be worked out.

If the language has common meaning and better symmetry – beginning with both faculties working together more regularly – it is likely that the process of transferring will become less mystical and produce a better outcome.

The prospect of dumping students on to the pathway without counseling and directional signage is unnerving at best, despite the proposals coming from national political candidates. There is a difference between “getting in” and “getting through.”

A third issue is that private colleges and universities must take a hard look at how they attract and admit students. Not every student can come from wealthy communities like Pasadena, Chevy Chase, Lake Forest, or Wellesley. Most estimate that almost half of the private colleges and universities in America – many excellent places with storied histories – did not meet their internal freshman admission targets.

Further, some of them have additional unfilled seats across the campus. It may be time for private colleges to recognize that athletes, legacies, and “over the transom” enrollees do not build a solid foundation upon which to support a tuition-driven college in the shifting demographics of 21st Century America.

Is it possible to imagine that private college campuses can look beyond their own cultural inertia to re-shape the demographics of their campus to accommodate transfer students?

At the Edvance Foundation, our research and understanding of groups like the Jack Kent Cooke Scholars Program and the Posse Foundation suggest that the right programs can change a culture. Could private colleges meet strategic initiatives in areas like diversity to support a transfer population on campus by re-allocating a modest portion of the $29.8 billion they provide annually in institutional aid when the transfer population will graduate at the same rate and level as their student population as a whole?

My point is that we need private colleges in the mix of solutions to our national transfer problem. Of the eighty percent of community college students who begin their studies with plans to transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree, just twenty-five percent will have transferred five years later. And only 17 percent will earn a bachelor’s degree within six years of transferring.

It’s a national disgrace. And worse, the answer may be right under our noses.

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