7 ways four-year colleges can support transfer student success

Daily Briefing

7 ways four-year colleges can support transfer student success

As colleges and universities struggle with declining enrollment, many institutions are turning towards transfer students.


of community college students who transfer to a four-year institution earn a bachelor's degree within six years
of community college students who transfer to a four-year institution earn a bachelor’s degree within six years

But colleges need to do a better job at supporting transfer students. Only 14% of community college students who transfer to a four-year institution earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, according to research from Columbia University‘s Community College Research Center (CCRC). And while 80% of students attend community college with the intention of transferring to a four-year university, only a third transfer within six years, reports Patti Zarling for Education Dive.

For low-income students and students of color, the obstacles to completion are even greater. Just 10% of low-income community college students go on to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, according to the CCRC.

One reason completion is so difficult is that transfer students lose nearly half of the credits they attempt to bring to their new institution, finds a 2017 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

GAO researchers found that between 2004 and 2009, students who transferred institutions lost on average 43% of the credits they’d earned at their previous institution. That rate was even higher for students coming from for-profit colleges, who lost on average 94% of their credits when they transferred to a public institution. Those who transferred between public schools—which accounted for the majority of transfers—lost on average 37% of their credits.

So to make it easier for transfer students to succeed, the Daily Briefing team rounded up a few ways four-year institutions can help prevent transfer students from losing credits and support them through graduation:

Tactic 1: Establish community college partnerships

Too often, community college students take classes without any idea of how these classes will apply to their four-year institution, says John Fink, a researcher at the CCRC. Without a clear pathway, students can take too many credits that won’t apply at their four-year university, he adds.

But regular faculty collaboration between two-year and four-year universities can create major-specific academic pathways for transfer students, writes Scott Booth for EAB‘s Enrollment Blog. In successful transfer programs, faculty help design community college classes that will fulfill degree requirements at the four-year university, according to the higher ed playbook by CCRC and the Aspen Institute.

Tactic 2: Connect with prospective transfer students early

Dickinson College reaches out to prospective transfers early in their academic careers. By the time community college students transfer to Dickinson, they’ve been in conversation with the college for nearly two years.

Tara Vasold Fischer, the dean of academic advising at Dickinson, partners with advisors at four community colleges to identify potential prospects, then reaches out to the students herself. Vasold Fischer not only helps students plan their courses, but also helps “connect students with information and contacts they need for the social transition to be smooth.”

Tactic 3: Make transferring the end goal for all students

Successful transfer programs make transferring the “default plan for every student,” says Fink. But many enrollment officers face the challenge of convincing community college students that earning a bachelor’s degree is an important next step in their educational journey, writes Booth.

Community college advisors can encourage students to set their sights on a bachelor’s degree by explaining the transfer process to incoming students early on, says Fink. Four-year universities can also incentivize community college students to transfer into their institution. Washington University, for example, prioritizes transfer applicants who declared a major while in community college.

Tactic 4: Ensure transfer information is easy to find

If you make transfer students hunt for information on your website, you risk frustrating potential applicants, writes Booth. Institutions competing for transfer students need accurate, easy-to-access, online information highlighting the admissions process and links to transfer-specific resources, he adds.

In Ohio, state legislators and higher ed administrators created a website to help transfer students find the shortest path to a bachelor’s degree. Students can plug in the classes they’ve taken and see whether their credits transfer at different institutions. And students from a military or professional background can plug in their life experiences to find the right fit for them.

Tactic 5: Tackle developmental education obstacles

One of the greatest barriers facing low-income and minoritized students is the need to complete developmental coursework. Many students with developmental needs take longer to graduate—if they graduate at all. If learners do make it through remedial courses, they still have to wrestle with complicated degree requirements that can place a bachelor’s degree further out of reach, says Fink.

At Trident Technical College (TTC), a mini-semester model allows students to take two compressed sections of developmental math within the first 14 weeks of their time at the college. Students who successfully complete two levels of developmental math in the first two mini semesters can enroll in college level courses that require math by January instead of waiting a full year. After transforming their academic calendar, TTC saw increases in student success across courses as well as increases in retention rates.

Tactic 6: Get students involved in social life

The University of Dayton‘s UD Sinclair Academy partners with Sinclair Community College to offer transfer students the chance to participate in the Dayton campus community well before their transition. Community college students who are members of the UD Sinclair Academy can participate in clubs at UD, meet with UD academic advisors, and participate in peer mentoring through UD’s Office of Multicultural Affairs.

“Students don’t miss out on being part of the university community while they are taking classes at the community college,” says Julia Thompson, associate director of the office of admission and financial aid at UD.

Tactic 7: Remove geographic barriers

“Students love the idea that they don’t have to change their schedule to enroll in this program.”

-Lisa Slavin, Assistant Vice President of Enrollment Management, Massachusetts Bay Community College

Framingham State University (FSU) established a partnership with Massachusetts Bay Community College (Mass Bay) that allows students to complete their bachelor’s degree while physically still attending the community college. FSU professors visit Mass Bay during the evenings to teach the students in the program for their remaining two years.

The partnership is particularly helpful for nontraditional students who might not have the luxury to change their routines. “Students love the idea that they don’t have to change their schedule to enroll in this program,” says Lisa Slavin, assistant vice president of enrollment management at Mass Bay. “They can keep their evening course schedule and do what they need to during the day with, for example, work or childcare arrangements.”

Sources: Douglas-Gabriel, Washington Post, 9/13/17; Fischer, The EvoLLLution, 10/18/17; GAO report, accessed 9/15/17; Loveland, University Business, 2/17/17; Templin/Deane, Inside Higher Ed, 10/8/17; Transfer Credit Ohio site, accessed 3/6/18; Zarling, Education Dive, 3/6/18.

More on transfer students

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