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Prioritizing Transfer for Tomorrow’s Higher Education Landscape

As four-year colleges and universities make their way through an unprecedented semester, they are now taking stock of a fall enrollment landscape informed by the public health impact of COVID-19 and the accompanying economic recession. Summer enrollment data and accounts from across the country make clear that students from lower-income backgrounds and communities of color are struggling to afford a four-year education and are far more likely than other students to pause their postsecondary journey, possibly forever.

Data also indicate that enrollment has declined precipitously among community colleges, a reversal from the 2008 recession, when more individuals entered higher education as a means to improve their prospects in a struggling economy. These initial figures raise essential questions about how to support Pell-eligible students and communities of color in accessing higher education and attaining a bachelor’s degree.

Rebuilding Transfer as an Equity Strategy

With the opportunity to transfer to four-year institutions, community college students can earn bachelor’s degrees that can open doors to professional success. An increased focus on community college transfer also can enable colleges and universities to diversify their campuses and bridge enrollment gaps that arise during the pandemic.

Yet of the 80 percent of students entering community college each year who intend to earn a bachelor’s degree, just 13 percent do so within six years. White and Asian community college students are twice as likely as their Black and Hispanic peers to earn a bachelor’s degree in that timeframe. Even as 16 states have invested in free community college, a policy initiative that has encouraged more talented students to pursue higher education, too many students miss the opportunity to enter, excel in, and graduate from a four-year institution

This last step is vital, as nearly all new jobs generated in the six years after the 2008 recession required a bachelor’s degree. Rebuilding the nation’s transfer system, therefore, is essential to ensuring that talented students feel empowered and supported to navigate the barriers that may stand in their way to, and through, a four-year institution.

How We Establish a Transfer System for Tomorrow

For four-year colleges and universities that hope to contribute to this redevelopment project, it is important that they publicly commit to prioritizing transfer and adopt policies and practices that lead to success. This blog post marks the first of a series that will surface those promising strategies, sourced from an extensive network of high-graduation rate four-year institutions that are members of the American Talent Initiative, a collective aimed at increasing enrollment of lower-income students across their campuses. Drawing from these institutions’ experience and practice, this post outlines three steps colleges and universities across the country can pursue to expand and diversify their transfer pipeline in advance of this unprecedented admissions cycle.

Empower leaders to make visible commitments to transfer

One way for presidents and chancellors to commit visibly and powerfully to increased recruitment and support of transfer students is to embed this focus into their strategic plans, public communications, and task forces. For example, President Mark Burstein of Lawrence University in Wisconsin appointed a “special faculty assistant” to coordinate staff across campus to identify and address the barriers that transfer students from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh-Fox Cities face at Lawrence. And in its latest strategic plan, Marist College in New York has codified commitments to add transfer students from area institutions such as Duchess Community College, evident through programs like Bridges to Excellence, which empower staff at each institution to regularly engage with one another. Commitments on paper and in person can provide senior staff at both two- and four-year institutions with the latitude to coordinate efforts in support of transfer students.

Expand relationships with neighboring community colleges

Four-year institutions that seek talented, diverse transfer students can start by exploring more formal relationships with area community colleges. These partnerships should be predicated on ongoing engagement with community college leaders, staff, and faculty to build clear program pathways that guarantee that credits transfer, reflect transfer students’ needs, and begin with proactive, early outreach to help students navigate financial aid and application processes. These elements underpin Lebanon Valley College’s dual admission program with Harrisburg Area Community College, which positions advisors at both institutions to prepare students to transfer early in their academic experience and ensure they earn the credits needed to earn their intended degree. They are also at the root of University of North Carolina’s Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program (C-STEP), which embeds dedicated community college advisors at 14 two-year institutions across the state to identify and guide prospective transfer students to apply to UNC.

Establish and elevate tailored supports for community college students

Community colleges have long been more likely than four-year colleges and universities to enroll students who are older than 25, hold a full-time job, and take care of dependents. Even though many community college students are prepared to thrive at a four-year institution, they still need financial, academic, and social-emotional supports in order to realize their promise. UCLA, a leader in supporting transfer students, has established dedicated transfer programming from admissions to graduation. The Center for Community College Partnerships positions prospective students across California to apply to transfer, while the Transfer Student Center offers enrolled students relevant programming and mentorship. Similarly, as a part of its Ada Comstock Scholars Program, Smith College aims to provide a seamless transition for transfer students through flexible course registration periods, specialized first-year seminars, and tailored financial aid packages to offset travel and childcare expenses.

These initiatives represent the kind of comprehensive steps colleges and universities must take if our country is to begin the work to repair the transfer system and ensure a seamless path to a bachelor’s degree. Doing so can help more students realize their postsecondary aspirations and fuel an equitable economic recovery.

To learn more about the American Talent Initiative and its transfer-focused research, click here for a link to our practical guide to increasing community college transfer.