Report: Transfer Barriers Loom Large for Two-Year Students
By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo
Misperceptions and a lack of coordination between community colleges and four-year institutions combine to create significant obstacles to baccalaureate degrees for two-year students, according to a report that culminates an 18-month study and marks a rare collaboration between the different higher education sectors.
“Central to a formidable list of barriers [to obtaining a baccalaureate degree] are lack of understanding and open communication between sectors,” according to “Improving Access to the Baccalaureate,” released this month by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU).
The project represents a “symbolic” partnership between the two organizations, at a time when “unrestricted access to learning — not once but over a lifetime — is fundamental to today’s academic enterprise and to the continued health of our democracy,” AACC President George R. Boggs and AASCU President Constantine W. Curris write in the foreword to the report.
For too long, the report concludes, the two sectors have failed to work in tandem. A number of factors have contributed to the disconnect, including differences in their missions and the characteristics of the students they serve, faculty attitudes about the quality of community college students and academic programs, state policies that inhibit collaboration, and inequitable funding structures.
“Endemic in these so-called turf battles is a lack of ongoing dialogue and clear communication of curricular changes and prerequisites that negatively affect the articulation process and, ultimately, students,” the report says.
The two Washington, D.C.,-based organizations represent most of the nation’s public colleges and universities, which serve more than 10 million students. The report is part of an initiative funded by the Lumina Foundation for Education, an Indianapolis-based organization that promotes educational opportunities beyond the high-school level.
Some experts say the findings won’t surprise those in the two-year sector, but could educate administrators and faculty in transfer institutions, as well as policy-makers, students and parents.
In fact, the project includes the dissemination of the report’s conclusions to groups outside the community college population, via the report itself, an interactive Web site and a planned expansion of the discussion among individual colleges and state systems of institutions.
“I don’t think there’s anything really new in the report that those of us who work with community colleges and community college students don’t already know,” says Dr. Linda Serra Hagedorn, who chairs the community college leadership program at the University of Southern California. “The value of the report will be in how well and how much it will be disseminated to others who don’t understand these issues.”
The report is based on a research study of attitudes and perceptions among professionals in the field about barriers to transferring between associate’s degree programs and baccalaureate programs, as well as discussions among experts at a conference on the topic held last year. Ongoing meetings, professional development sessions and more conferences also are planned to take place around the country.
The report outlines the complex factors that make transfers too infrequent. Among first-time community college students, about 40 percent expect to complete a baccalaureate degree, yet only one-fourth actually transfer to a four-year program, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. Of those students, fewer than 40 percent attain the higher degree.
One of the most prevalent issues complicating the issue, some experts contend, is the historic tension between the various sectors.
The postsecondary hierarchy, Hagedorn says, often works against students who enter community colleges with hopes for advancing beyond the associate’s degree, but who receive little guidance on just how to navigate the often confusing maze of transfer requirements.
“The community college opens up opportunities for students, but they have to be savvy,” she says.
Too often, she added, colleges and universities do not do enough to help students work their way through the system.
“Postsecondary institutions have a pecking order … there’s a prestige meter,” she says. “Some [four-year] institutions are very attuned to the needs of transfer students because they make up a majority of their enrollment, but the higher up you go [with research institutions at the top], the less inclined they are to reach out to them.”
Reaching out to the nontraditional students who make up a large proportion of community college students requires considerable commitment, the report suggests.
According to the administrators and faculty members who responded to the survey portion of the study, obstacles for transfer students include four-year institutions’ reluctance to accept coursework completed as part of an associate’s degree program, a lack of necessary support services such as child care, courses offered at times that are inconvenient for working students, a lack of financial-aid packages for adult students, and admissions requirements for transfer students that are often more rigorous than their general education would dictate.
Twenty-six states, according to the report, have taken significant steps toward improving the alignment of programs, and some of them have mandated such collaboration and coordination.
Among efforts to facilitate transfers between two- and four-year institutions, some college systems have developed standard course numbering systems, offered dual-enrollment to promising students, or guaranteed admissions to baccalaureate programs to those who meet certain academic criteria.
In Wisconsin, public schools, two-year institutions, and the state university system have worked to analyze the academic standards at each level and identify gaps and inconsistencies among them. The Arkansas Legislature has directed the state’s colleges and universities to provide informational sessions for middle-school students and their parents about their postsecondary options. And Nebraska sends its eighth-graders letters each year outlining requirements for college admissions.
The report recommends that college and university leaders create more opportunities for joint admissions for students expecting to transfer after the associate’s degree, offer more scholarships for transfer students, push accrediting organizations to encourage and reward collaboration between sectors, and evaluate their transfer policies and initiatives.
State policy-makers, the report recommends, should develop K-16 strategies to better align the different educational levels, create statewide student data management systems, match curriculum guidelines between sectors, and invite outside reviews of state academic standards and structures.
“Improving Access to the Baccalaureate” is available at www.pathtocollege.org/pdf/ Lumina_ Rpt.pdf
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