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As Higher Education Faces a “Corona Swirl” of Transfer Students, Higher Education Must Create Clear Pathways to Degrees

Recent surveys show that a growing number of high school graduates and college students are opting to attend community colleges this fall because they are affordable and closer to home. Those who lost jobs in the post-COVID economy are also turning to community colleges to gain and sharpen skills that lead back to jobs. The combination is creating an unprecedented level of student movement between two- and four-year colleges. There’s even a name for it in higher education circles – the “corona swirl.”

It’s a tragically apt metaphor for the rising number of students who often think they are on track to earning a bachelor’s degree, only to find out too late that a large share of their credits won’t transfer or apply toward the degree needed for their chosen career.

Cheryl HymanCheryl Hyman

This time and money-sapping swirl hurts low-income, students of color the most. As the recession caused by COVID-19 deepens workplace inequities across race, income and educational attainment, we must act now to protect students and guard against even more pain caused by the pandemic. Consider that following the last recession, 95 percent of the new jobs created, which offered benefits and family-sustaining wages, went to individuals with a bachelor’s degree.

The U.S. General Accounting Office estimates that students who transferred from community colleges to four-year universities in 2017 lost, on average, 43 percent of their credits, exacerbating racial disparities by keeping many students from graduating with a degree that can open doors to better paying jobs. Nationally, white community college students are about twice as likely as Black and Latinx students to complete a bachelor’s degree after six years.

To add to the frustration, many credits that are accepted do not even apply toward a student’s major. The result is a costly increase in time and excess credits that, together, erase the cost savings students were expecting when they enrolled in community college.

Having spent our careers building equitable pathways for students to and through two- and four-year institutions and into careers, we believe higher education leaders must address systemic barriers that keep students from completing degrees that lead to successful careers.

Here are four ways to end the transfer swirl and ensure community colleges serve as an affordable and accessible gateway to higher education, providing economic mobility to low-income students and students of color:

Map pathways with career goals in mind. States are finding considerable value in bringing employers and accreditors to the table to understand the skills and knowledge most in demand in the workforce. Colleges can use these benchmarks to actively find ways to apply relevant credit by assessing prior learning across a full range of student experiences, including completion of dual credit courses, workplace learning, military credit, and more. Virginia and Massachusetts are among states that that are supporting the collaborative efforts of community college and university faculty to map clear pathways to degrees and careers.

Dr. Elena Quiroz LivanisDr. Elena Quiroz Livanis

Review and redefine transfer policies. Research shows that students who transfer more of their credits are two and a half times more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree. Helping students move smoothly across institutions is important, but in the absence of credits applied to their degree, it is insufficient in helping students who are consistently left behind by current policies and practices. State leaders should systematically review existing transfer policies to determine how they can better serve students. For example, the shorthand use of “transfer,” instead of the intentional use of “transfer and applicability,” fails to clearly communicate the expectation that students’ credits will not just move with them, but also apply to the degree of their chosen career to the maximum extent possible.

Deploy responsive, personalized advising. Continuing to rely on old ways of doing business and traditional one-to-one advising will be inefficient given the expected increase in the number of transfer students. States should fund and support culturally responsive advising that helps students identify their career goals early on, informing mapped pathways that allow for personalized plans at the institutional level and ensure students enroll in the right courses in pursuit of their aspirations. Statewide digital networks and online tools like Arizona State University’s Transfer Guide can enable seamless electronic transcript transfer and automate course evaluation. The widely accessible tool makes transfer exponentially more efficient, reduces human error and makes the fastest path to a degree clearer.

Fund innovation. States can provide financial incentives and challenge grants to motivate community colleges and four-year universities to build strong transfer pathways. In California, funding increases have been tied to higher enrollment of transfers and rates of on-time degree completion. To understand how well credit transfer and applicability are working, state agencies can publish data on student completion disaggregated by race and income and report the length of time and number of credits needed to attain a degree.

Students headed to college in a post-pandemic world already face considerable financial and logistical challenges – from covering tuition costs and other expenses to acclimating to online learning and juggling learning experiences alongside family responsibilities. These strategies can turn the current transfer swirl into clear, straight pathways to degree completion.

As the nation confronts the many ways that COVID-19, the resulting recession, and centuries of racial injustice have deepened inequities, it is time for higher education leaders to similarly confront our own long-standing policies and practices around credit transfer that continue to disproportionately harm and hold back low-income students and students of color. We have an opportunity to redefine college transfer to help students attain degrees that lead to career success and move our nation toward an inclusive and equitable economic recovery.

The authors John Fink, Dr. Maria Hesse, Cheryl Hyman, Dr. Shirleatha Lee, Dr. Sharon Morrissey, and Dr. Elena Quiroz-Livanis are members of the national Tackling Transfer Policy Advisory Board, charged with shaping state transfer policies that lead to degrees and economic mobility.

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