Transforming Transfer

Four ADVANCE students at Mason's IV Night event.

A case for why we need to redesign higher education with the transfer student in mind.

by Michelle Marks

Community colleges serve as an affordable entry point into higher education for more than 40 percent of the nation’s undergraduates. And for many students, community college is not just a viable option, it is the only option to earn a degree.

This fall, more than six million U.S. students are attending two-year institutions. Despite financial constraints and work and family demands, they will create space in their lives for learning. Whether they are military, minority, adults heading back to college, or the first in their family to attend college, they all recognize the value of a college degree – to launch a career, to land a higher paying job, to lift up their families. The vast majority of these students – over 80 percent – intend to use community college as a pathway to a bachelor’s degree, one more step closer to the American Dream.

Yet the stunning reality is that only 15 percent of those starting at community colleges achieve a bachelor’s degree within six years, and beyond six years, the numbers stay pretty flat. And for those inclined to attribute this national failure to the students’ abilities, recent studies have shown that even high-achieving community college students have difficulty transitioning into four-year institutions. Increasingly the research shows that students are not the problem –we are.

We – those who represent two and four-year institutions – have constructed barriers too challenging for students to overcome. As an administrator and a faculty member at George Mason University (Mason), I am well acquainted with the impediments that often hinder transfer students. Their momentum is often stopped by issues such as misaligned curricula and support services, unclear credit transfer policies, the inability to access financial aid, and a lack of proper advising. These barriers often impede the transfer process, costing students valuable time and resources. The lack of coherent pathways, programs, and policies has created a messy, flawed alignment between students’ dreams and institutional processes. For those students managing their complicated lives and resource constraints (which is most of them most of the time), we’ve made it all too easy to stop out or drop out and in doing so, give up on these dreams. Understanding the reality that we’ve created, it comes as no surprise that the majority of students who start community college never even make it to a four-year institution. For those that do, they bring over an average of an entire semester or more of credits that won’t count towards graduation. And far too many never graduate.

This is a national challenge, but the reality hits close to home. Here at Mason, we take great pride in the relationship we’ve built with the Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA). Our connection represents one of the largest and most successful transfer pipelines in the country. We receive over 3000 students from NOVA each year, and our transfer students graduate at the same completion rates as those that begin at Mason as freshman. But as it is nationally, 80% of NOVA’s 70,000+ students begin with an intention to earn a bachelor’s degree, but only 20% are completing in six years. While this exceeds the national average, the question remains – Are we really okay knowing that less than 3 of 10 students who begin their higher education at community college actually get there?

NOVA and Mason considered this question and determined that pretty good is not good enough. There are too many students being left behind. We must do more.

And we have. We designed ADVANCE – a seamless, joint admission program offering students a 120 credits-to-degree promise that starts at NOVA and ends with a bachelor’s degree from Mason. We give ADVANCE students a success coach to help them navigate their entire journey. On day one, students get ID cards to both Mason and NOVA, and access to Mason’s libraries, sports, clubs and advisors, as well as career counseling from the start.

Thankfully, we are not alone. Across the country, there are a growing number of institutions that are responding to this challenge. States such as California, Texas and Florida are creating pathways and systems that strengthen the two-to-four year transitions with the goal of increasing student success.

This fall NOVA and Mason welcomed our first ADVANCE cohort –129 students – and we’re expecting hundreds more in the spring. These students have to hold up their end of the bargain – to stay on their educational plan, do well in their classes, and check in with their coaches. Time will tell – but we hope to make it easier for tens of thousands of students over the next decade who want a more affordable path to a bachelor’s degree.

PDF – Transforming Transfer (printable)

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