As Higher Education Navigates a New Normal, Don't Let Transfer Students Waste Time and Money
In the age of coronavirus, so much is uncertain in American higher education. But this much we know: More U.S. undergraduate students are likely to transfer to a new college in the fall than ever before. They’re uncertain whether campuses will open and may be reluctant to leave home, worry about the value proposition of attending costly colleges online, or seek new training opportunities in light of a changing economy.
Unfortunately, most students who transfer will face a harsh reality. A 2017 GAO report found that the 35 percent of undergraduates who transfer each year lose, on average, 43 percent of their hard-earned credits. And fewer than one in five students who begin community college aiming to earn a bachelor’s degree attains that goal.
The transfer process has been broken as long as it’s existed. While small reforms in recent years have made a small difference, what’s needed now, as our country faces one of the biggest crises of modern times, is a big fix.
And the fix will require leadership from the statehouse. While individual colleges take many actions that make transfer easier (or harder), seamless transfer depends on a cohesive ecosystem because students often transfer multiple times, across many types of institutions. An ecosystem that can support the anticipated increase in transfer is far more likely to be built with supportive policy, compelling incentives, and collaborative work at the state level.
Why is this urgent? We owe it to students to not waste their time and money, deferring or even dashing their dreams. But the effects of broken transfer go well beyond individuals. When students can’t transfer efficiently and stop short of reaching their intended degree, taxpayer dollars invested in higher education are wasted. Communities and employers don’t get the talent they need to thrive. And societal inequities are exacerbated when community college students — a population disproportionately made up of low-income students and students of color — face hurdles in attaining a bachelor’s degree.
These effects are only multiplied in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
First, there’s the opportunity gap for individuals, which we see widening before our eyes. Just look at who’s working from home right now and who’s not working at all. The pandemic is deepening long-standing inequities for low-income communities and people of color in the workplace. The last time we came out of a recession, 95 percent of the good jobs created — jobs that offered good wages and benefits — went to those with a bachelor’s degree. We must begin to prepare now or risk facing an economic recovery that widens inequity and leaves millions without jobs or education.
Second, businesses and state economies rely on the production of bachelor’s degrees. Just as credential attainment will be key to individuals’ post-COVID recovery, so it will be for industries and communities.
Third, improved transfer is imperative for colleges and universities themselves, which are facing reduced public funding and declining enrollments. Community college transfer students can be a reliable pipeline for four-year schools — especially those committed to enrolling a diverse student body.
State policymakers can take three actions that will accelerate improvements in transfer: clearly declare that transfer students are a priority, provide financial incentives for transfer students and institutions, and assess progress on transfer student success.
Say it. Governors, state legislators, and higher education leaders should publicly elevate transfer as a priority. Leaders should make clear to all state colleges and universities that they are expected to modify policies to ensure credits transfer and apply to program completion for students and dislocated workers whose lives are disrupted by COVID-19. This includes accepting grades granted on a pass-fail basis; often, four-year colleges insist that transfer students have earned letter grades above a certain threshold, but in response to the pandemic, many schools have moved to pass-fail grading. And they should communicate to students the commitment of all public colleges and universities in the state to make it easier to transfer credits, both for students who move right from one college to another and those returning after time away.
Fund it. Two-year and four-year colleges that demonstrate commitment to transfer students — by enrolling more of them, simplifying procedures to accept their credits, and improving policies to grant credit for prior learning — should be granted bonuses in their state funding allocation. To ensure the success of those students who stand to gain the most from baccalaureate attainment, the bonuses should be weighted to especially reward commitments to low-income students, students of color, and students with dependent children.
Dollars matter not just for the colleges, but for the students. Often, students have to reapply for state financial aid once they’ve transferred. States should remove that barrier by enabling funds to stay with students automatically, even if they transfer outside of the state. Further, states could create new incentive grants for students to stay enrolled as the COVID-19 recovery plays out —incentives that are equally available to students who are transferring institutions.
Measure it. Colleges and universities should be expected to track and report progress on transfer, with states reporting this data in an online dashboard that shows how many students are transferring and completing a bachelor’s degree year by year. That data should then be disaggregated to highlight inequities by income, race, and other characteristics. Each year, states should report on transfer student success by institution — both four-year and two-year colleges — to inform state policy and help students and families decide where transfer students’ tuition dollars will be best spent.
By making it easier to enroll (and reenroll) and keep the credits students paid and worked hard for, states don’t just honor students’ investments — they ensure a strong return on taxpayers’ investments too. As we look toward a challenging future together, one that depends on a well-educated populace, we all need to get what we paid for.
Lara Couturier is principal at HCM Strategists. Josh Wyner is executive director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program. Together with Sova Solutions, they are working with state education leaders to improve transfer systems in Minnesota, Texas, and Virginia.