One of the largest barriers to completing a bachelor's degree is losing credits when transferring from a community college. Even with articulation agreements between two-year and four-year institutions, a significant number of credits may end up lost in the shuffle.
These missing credits are driving colleges from one side of the country to the other to try to fix a problem educators have been trying to fix for years and in the process boost completion rates across the board. Now, with more political and education leaders convinced that smooth transfer is essential to more people earning more degrees, the issue is attracting more attention.
Last month Gateway Community College in New Haven, Conn., released a study that followed 479 two-year students who transferred last year from Connecticut community colleges to the University of Connecticut. The transfer students had an average of 54.17 credits earned at community colleges, but only 42.57 credits per student were applied by the university toward major or general education requirements.
Or take, for instance, students transferring from Alamo Colleges -- the community college district serving San Antonio -- to the city's branch of Texas A&M University. There the issue is staying too long at the community college to earn a four-year bachelor's degree.
On average those students transferred into the university with 80 to 90 credits. Approximately 92 percent transferred from Alamo with 70 or more credits, although the minimum required was 45, said Cynthia Teniente-Matson, president of Texas A&M University-San Antonio. So these students are almost certain to have their credit rejected because they aren't taking the upper-division courses that would go toward a four-year degree plan.
University officials have found students are making the transfer decision too late or they're not informed, she said.
At most universities it takes 100 to 130 units to earn a degree. Students with 80 to 90 units should be 60 percent of the way toward a degree, but they're not, Teniente-Matson said. “They'll run out of institutional aid before they earn a degree.”
And that could be one reason why the majority of community college students who want to earn a bachelor's degree don't do so, said Bruce H. Leslie, chancellor of Alamo Colleges.
Texas very much mimics national numbers, which show 80 percent of students at two-year institutions plan at the time they enroll at the community college to earn a bachelor's degree. Yet 25 percent actually transfer to a four-year institution within five years. (Thirty-six percent of those students do earn an associate degree or certificate first.) Of that 25 percent, 17 percent actually walk away with a bachelor's within six years of transferring, according to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University.
The transfer system can be difficult to navigate, especially for students who are either in remediation or come from first-generation, low-income families, or have some language barriers, Teniente-Matson said. “So you have a student who is trying to navigate two systems, the community college campus while also the four-year campus, and balancing financial aid. That sort of system can be complex for students," she said.
The systems can be even harder to navigate with an adviser who is working with hundreds or thousands of other students and doesn't have time to focus on each student.
In Connecticut the 12 community colleges and 4 state universities are working on agreements that would establish pathways to ease the transition between the two entities. The process should be completed by fall 2016, however, UConn isn't a part of those agreements, said John Mullane, the counselor at Gateway who analyzed the data and published the report on credits loss in the state based on UConn's state-reported information.
“Those [agreements] will guarantee if a student goes through a particular pathway, 100 percent of credits will transfer and they'll be a junior with two years to go,” he said. “We don't have those agreements with UConn…. The only real solution is to have statewide transfer and articulation agreements.”
UConn officials declined to comment for this story, but referred to a statement they released last month stating that the university's transfer policies are clearly described on its website and they welcome transfer students to the university.
“We clearly specify on our website which courses transfer and which do not, and we have specific reasons for our decisions based on careful analysis of students' needs and the courses required for certain majors. We also ask all of our community colleges' academic counselors to help students interested in transferring to UConn by advising them early in their course selection to maximize the allowable transfer credit,” said Stephanie Reitz, UConn's spokeswoman, in the statement.