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Education Department, Congress Has Sights Trained

Education Department, Congress Has Sights Trained
On Community College Transfer of Credit Problem
By Charles Dervarics

For low-income students, paying for college is hard enough without having to repeat courses. That’s why U.S. Department of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and many scholars are looking for answers that will help more students transfer credits when they move from one higher education institution to another.

The problem is particularly acute for low-income, first-generation students at community colleges, where transfer agreements may not lead to a student gaining credit for coursework already completed.

Of the 42 percent of community college students who plan to transfer to four-year colleges, only about a quarter of them succeed, Spellings said recently.

“Their inability to transfer credits is too high a hurdle. Every year, millions of students who attempt to transfer are forced to spend more money and time repeating coursework,” she said. “The most costly education is one not begun, or the one you have to pay for twice.”

Many colleges serving a large percentage of minority students are already aware of the problem. Sometimes with federal assistance, they have funded initiatives that may pave the way for more students to transfer from two- and four-year colleges and universities.

Educators at the two-year East Los Angeles College offer Learning Communities, an in-depth outreach effort to help students — most of them low-income — navigate the sometimes confusing higher education system.

“The biggest issue is that students don’t have the right information,” says Dr. Armida Ornelas, an associate professor at the college. “For many first-generation students, this is all new terrain. Most of the time, [community college students] are not taking the curriculum that makes them transfer-ready.”

For example, Ornelas says students may take a basic English course even though a higher-level course is required to transfer to a four-year institution.

And even those who can transfer basic courses still need help creating a career path so more of their courses at a two-year college apply toward their undergraduate major.

East Los Angeles College is funding its Learning Communities program through a Title V Higher Education Act grant for Hispanic-serving institutions. The centerpiece of the initiative is a support team that offers students a variety of academic, counseling and study skills assistance.

The program includes peer support, visits to four-year campuses and partnerships with faculty to create block scheduling for students who need it for academic reasons or to balance work and school. A primary goal for the program is that all participating students will develop an education plan that allows them to transfer to a four-year school and get credit toward their major.

“There is so much misinformation about the transfer process,” Ornelas says.

The college’s goal is to achieve a tangible increase in degree completion and transfer rates for students.

Such programs also are popular in Florida’s two-year college system, where a long-term analysis shows gains among students who participate in the programs.

Students who took a life skills course were more likely than other students to transfer to the state university system, earn an academic credential or remain in college after five years, says a new study from Columbia University’s Community College Research Center. The life skills course was particularly important for students required to take at least one remedial course, said the study from CCRC researchers Matthew Zeidenberg, Davis Jenkins and Juan Carlos Calcagno.

Congress also is getting involved in the transfer topic as it prepares to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. A bill approved by a House committee would require colleges to list detailed information about their institution, including graduation rates and, when applicable, the percentage of two-year students who transfer to four-year institutions.

Along with tuition and fee information, such information would be available on a federal College Opportunity On-Line Web site. The site would have links where individual institutions would publish their transfer policies and articulation agreements. This type of information is essential to low-income students, the House bill states.

A Senate HEA bill now under consideration has similar language, with colleges required to describe their credit transfer policies in a “readable manner” for consumers. Colleges’ student outcome data also would include information on the transfer rates of two-year students to four-year institutions.

But while such information may smooth the transition process for some students, Spellings says more action is needed to address the issue.

“For those who challenge whether or not we should be acting at all, the facts speak for themselves,” she said, noting that millions of students must spend more money and time repeating courses they took previously. “Billions and billions of dollars are wasted by students and institutions because of this issue.”

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