This article was originally published in The Hill. Read the full article here.
It’s time to fix the broken higher education transfer pipeline

By William Crowe, Shanna Smith-Jaggars and Chris Soto

Of Note: This op-ed was released as part of the Tackling Transfer Initiative. HCMSova and The Aspen Institute College Excellence Program are working together and partnering with institutional leaders, policymakers and practitioners in Minnesota, Texas and Virginia to dramatically improve transfer outcomes for baccalaureate-seeking students who begin at community colleges.

The United States has been rocked by demands to address the many racial disparities in our society, driven most recently by data that makes it clear that Native, Black and Latinx Americans are disproportionately contracting the coronavirus — and are the hardest hit in the current job market. For example, less than half of adult Black Americans currently have a job — and those who do make far less than their white colleagues

Those of us working in higher education feel an immense sense of urgency to preserve our institutions’ promise as drivers of social mobility and racial equity. We know that low-income students and students of color are more likely to pursue a degree through a local community college, perceiving this option as more affordable and accessible. But they are also far less likely to successfully transfer to a four-year university and reach their goal of earning a bachelor’s degree. 

Just 13 percent of students who enter community college earn a degree within six years, even though 80 percent indicate that that’s their goal. Nationally, white community college students are about twice as likely as Black and Latinx students to complete a bachelor’s degree after six years. The cost of repeating classes and earning excess credits ends up negating any of the cost savings expected by starting a degree path in community college.

This leaky transfer pipeline has many holes that can and must be addressed. Too often, students who begin in community college find it difficult to get early and consistent advising to identify their career interests or the right program of study and access the pathways needed to attain and pay for the degree that achieves their career goals. 

Having spent our careers committed to equity and helping students move through two- and four-year institutions and into careers, we believe there has never been a more urgent time to boost college affordability and students’ earning power.

We recommend state and higher education leaders take the following steps to address systemic barriers that keep too many community college transfer students from completing degrees that lead to successful careers: 

1)  Start with the endgame in mind — career goals. States can be proactive in bringing employers and accreditors together to understand what competencies are needed in the workforce. With these benchmarks in hand, institutions can assess and apply credit for the full range of student experiences — including dual credit courses completed in high school, prior college coursework, workplace learning, military credit and more. With this end goal in mind, campuses will find it easier to identify and award credit for the competencies that help students succeed in career and life.

State and system leaders can also help coordinate between K-12 schools, community colleges and universities in order to create clear and affordable academic pathways that enable students to complete their degree on time and stay engaged no matter where they start or complete their degree. For example, the Texas Transfer Alliance provides technical assistance to regional partnerships across the state that are strengthening academic pathways and improving advising and support services across institutions. 

2)  Catalyze innovation and collaboration. Colleges and universities have a common purpose to offer students the skills and knowledge to succeed in their states’ workforce. Therefore, collaboration should be the rule, not the exception. States can provide financial incentives, such as challenge grants, to spur four-year universities and community colleges to work together in new ways to ensure students who transfer attain degrees. This would then encourage four-year institutions to intentionally design “transfer-receptive” campuses that work closely with community college partners to jointly advise prospective transfer students on academic, career and financial aid planning. States can go further by tying increases in base enrollment funding to improved transfer student outcomes. 

3)  Make financial aid predictable and portable. Low-income community college students may pay less in tuition and fees, but they often struggle to cover non-tuition expenses like books and housing. By restructuring state financial aid to be portable and responsive to total costs of attendance – not just tuition and fees – states can make transfer a truly more affordable option. Additionally, community colleges have fewer resources to offer to increase student aid, making state assistance all the more critical for their students. In California, community college students receive just 7 percent of state-funded, need-based Cal Grants, despite representing two-thirds of all undergraduate enrollment. Nationally, community colleges were allocated just 27 percent of federal CARES Act funds, even though community colleges educate about 40 percent of all students.

4)  Promote transparency. Monitoring and publishing institutional student outcomes data disaggregated by race and income will help students, institutional leaders and state policymakers better understand where the leaks persist in the transfer pipeline. Useful information can include the total number of bachelor’s degree-seeking students who enter community college, the transfer-out rate for community colleges and the transfer-in bachelor’s degree completion rate for four-year institutions. Because completing degrees on-time has real implications for affordability, states can also include average time to degree completion for transfer students and average number of excess credits at graduation.

These four strategies will go a long way to building more seamless and affordable pathways to a bachelor’s degree, no matter where students start. But even more encouraging is the potential for these changes to deliver greater racial equity and earning power among the students who need it most. 

With colleges and universities facing an expected rise in transfer students due to COVID-19, and state policymakers seeking ways to jumpstart an equitable economic recovery, we may finally have the right leverage to fix the broken transfer pipeline and deliver on the promise of college affordability once and for all.

William Crowe is the director of higher education strategy, policy, and services at the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Shanna Smith-Jaggars is the assistant vice provost of research and program assessment for the Ohio State University’s Office of Student Academic Success. Chris Soto is director of innovation and partnerships at the Connecticut State Department of Education. They all serve on the national Tackling Transfer Advisory Board.