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Improved Seamlessness and Wider Definition of Success Critical in the Transfer Conversation

The EvoLLLution | Improved Seamlessness and Wider Definition of Success Critical in the Transfer Conversation
Creating a more seamless transfer experience, both for traditional and reverse transfer, would make a big difference to the student experience and support greater levels of persistence and attainment.

It’s becoming increasingly common for students to transfer on their way to a bachelor’s degree. Whether for sake of convenience, affordability or anything else, community colleges are playing a larger role than ever in helping students pursue a four-year credential. But as performance-based funding grows in popularity, and as outcomes are more in focus than ever before, there are questions around whether transfer should continue to be a priority for two-year institutions. In this interview, Jeff Fanter shares his thoughts on the importance of transfer and reflects on what leaders on both sides of the bridge can do to improve transfer processes for students.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it so important for community colleges today to focus on facilitating transfer?

Jeff Fanter (JF): It’s important for two-year colleges to focus on transfer for a number of reasons that relate back to the different populations of students we serve.

When you look at traditional-age students considering enrolling in higher education, they often—by default—look at four-year institutions. My background is in college athletics and we found that a lot of students’ application and enrollment decisions are driven by the associations those students have with college basketball and football teams, so a college is typically thought of as a four-year experience. But then reality can set in for many high school students, which is that they just can’t afford the full four-year university experience. A better way for students to achieve their bachelor’s degree goal may be starting their postsecondary career at a community college at a much more affordable price point, earning their credits and then moving on to that four-year institution. This focus on transfer also allows us to contribute to the talent and degree-completer pipeline, ensuring there’s an adequate number of bachelor’s degree holders for our state and regional economy.

As for non-traditional students, four-year residential campuses typically aren’t overly accommodating to their needs. They also see their education as more of a lifelong learning endeavor, not a one-time event. So by facilitating transfer, and by ensuring the credits we issue are transferable, we craft for our students a lifelong learning experience that is not terminal, and can be transferred and applied to whatever pathways students take. For, example, if five years down the road a student wants to go back to school to continue to advance their career and needs a bachelor’s degree, they can use the credits they earned in community college to advance towards that credential more quickly.

Creating these opportunities for students—both traditional and non-traditional—to continue their education and advance their careers after leaving Ivy Tech is why it’s important to facilitate transfers. It’s a question of affordability and the encouragement of constant, lifelong learning.

Evo: How does offering clear transfer pathways to four-year institutions impact the experience for community college students?

JF: A lot of our students indicate that their ultimate goal is to transfer on to a four-year institution, but unfortunately the realities of life sometimes get in the way. For example, they may have a child or a full-time job that stops them from transferring and enrolling in a bachelor’s degree program. However, by earning a two-year credential they can still do well in the workplace even if they don’t actually transfer.

There are a number of other reasons why it is important to forge clear transfer pathways.

For starters, there’s an understanding that the classes they take here will have value when they go on to the four-year institution. By actually looking at what their four-year path looks like—where they do two years here and the last two years at a four-year institution—they can get a sense of what their desired outcome is, what the commitment to reach that outcome is, and what timeframe is realistic to achieve their goal. By seeing that clear pathway, they can be assured that they are taking the courses they need to transfer and courses that will add value to their bachelor’s degree pursuit. For many students who don’t have a clear pathway identified, they will up just gathering community college credits and then trying to figure out what can actually transfer to the four-year environment, where they may accept some but not all of those credits.

We’ve done a great job here in Indiana with defining transfer pathway. For example, we have a 30-credit general education offering that guarantees students the transfer of all 30 of their credits at any public university in the state. We also have 2+2 programs that ensure students junior status at certain universities upon completion of their associate’s degree.

Defining those pathways so students can make the right decision on course enrollments is critical. It expedites their time to degree here at the community college and supports their transfer to a four-year institution. It makes good use of their time and good use of their resources

Evo: How advantageous is it for the institution to ensure that students have those pathways established—or at least in mind—as they enter the community college when they’re looking to transfer?

JF: Unfortunately, not every student knows exactly where they want to be after two years. What’s more, not every student fully understands the commitments of a college experience and though they may think it will take two years for them to complete, it may actually take three.

As such, it’s important to ensure students understand these pathways right out of the gate because time can be an enemy for a student and the longer they take to complete, the less likely it is that they will persist. Students that may take four or five years to earn their associate’s degree are still successful because, even with other demands on their time like work or family, they still committed time to earning a postsecondary credential. Taking a long time to earn a degree is not a mark of failure—it’s a recognition of the demands of college education and adherence to their own pathway and timeline. If students understand their realistic pathway, it’s more likely they will stay engaged, stay enrolled and complete faster. That degree then leads to increased earnings and gets them to a better place, and then maybe positions them to go on to earn a bachelor’s degree.

We have a lot of students that come here with the intent to transfer and there are a few pathways we see very often. Some leave the community college too soon; they take their credits and go on to the four-year institution when they may have been better served by staying here a little bit longer, completing a postsecondary credential and transferring with that credential in their back pocket, be it a certificate or an associate’s degree—that allows them to be marketable in the workplace if they leave the four-year institution before they earn their bachelor’s degree. There are other students that finish their associate’s degree or certificate and, though they initially planned on transferring and earning a bachelor’s degree, they begin getting job offers that pay more than they expect to earn and decide to delay transferring and instead take a job in the short term. This pathway puts students on the path to lifelong learning, where they still have the ability to transfer their credits toward a bachelor’s degree program some years down the road.

Evo: Given the strong outcomes focus of today, where metrics like graduation rate come under close scrutiny, is it still valuable for community colleges to focus on transfer over associate’s degree completion?

JF: Here in Indiana one of the things that we’ve talked about is developing measurements around transfers. What we see a lot of in Indiana is—instead of 2+2 transfer—is a lot 1+3, where students take their first year at the community college here and then go do three years at a four-year institution to earn a credential. There are also a few cases where students do a 3+1, where they do three years at a community college and then they finish their bachelor’s degree after a year in a university.

We have a dual mission: There’s the transfer mission and then the workforce mission aimed at preparing students for the labor market. I don’t think we’re ever going away from that workforce mission, but we do need to have a discussion to help people embrace and understand our role in transfer. What’s more, performance-based funding needs to incorporate the work community colleges do to help students transfer and be successful at a four-year institution. There’s much debate today on how to measure success; whether success is only measured by whether students graduate from the four-year institution, whether success is measured by students’ success in their first year—because that’s what the community college prepared them for—or something else. That discussion is still evolving, but IPEDS reports both graduation rates and graduation-plus-transfer. We look the six-year statistics tracking students enrolled, graduated and transferred and can roll that up into one success metric.

However, we’re trying to better educate our students on the value of earning a credential at the community college before transferring to a four-year institution because they are better off to have some postsecondary credential than a number of disparate postsecondary credits but no credential.

Evo: How has the increasing popularity of reverse credit transfer impacted the way Ivy Tech regards transfer from the two-year to four-year institution?

JF: There’s some great work happening around reverse transfer. We have these relationships with a number of universities but I’ll single out Purdue University, because Purdue knows which of their students are transfers from Ivy Tech, and they reach out to those students when they have received enough credits to be awarded an associate’s degree to ask whether they would be interested in receiving their two-year credential. Then they help those students reverse transfer their credits back to us at Ivy Tech, where we review their accomplishments and award a degree accordingly. If the student is not eligible for a degree just yet, we reach out to the student and suggest specific courses they can take to earn their associate’s degree. We found it to be quite successful beyond Purdue—there are a lot of other schools doing this outreach

Reverse transfer administration requires some manual, labor-intensive processes at both the two-year and four-year institution. But it’s helpful for students and if there’s a way for us to work to get these students credentials and degrees, then it’s our responsibility to work together and do it. It’s something that we’re looking to make more seamless to the student, so they can complete some classes here, transfer to a four-year university, then transfer those credits back to us to be awarded a credential they rightly deserve to receive.

Evo: Looking long-term, how do you expect transfer to be prioritized as an outcome for institutions in 10 to 15 years’ time?

JF: Transfer is beginning to be looked at and tracked for two main reasons. First, it’s part of our mission as a community college to facilitate transfer. We’re making higher education more affordable for people who can start at the community college and can save themselves and the state money by earning the credits for the first two years of their bachelor’s degree at the two-year college and hopefully earning a credential before transferring on to a four-year institution to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Second, our consumer looks at us for a more affordable and more intimate pathway to a bachelor’s degree. There are students who come here saying they want to get their general education credits at the community college because they would rather take that class from a professor in a classroom of 22 people than from, possibly, a graduate assistant in a classroom of 300 people. The consumer wants that experience more and, in Indiana, we’ve got a lot of rural communities where students are more used to small class sizes, which makes the lecture hall culture of universities a shock. We also can’t ignore the fact that folks are saying they need to start their bachelor’s degree process at the community college because they can’t afford to do it any other way. It’s part of our role; we need to help get the state to its goal of 60 percent attainment by 2025. We need to measure success by these students and their ability to transfer. After all, we’re saving approximately $30 million in tuition costs for people that start here and then transfer their credits to four-year institutions. That’s a good thing for the state, it’s a good thing for the students and it’s going to be paid more and more attention in coming years. The debate will move from whether to measure a transferred student as a success to how we measure the success of a specific transfer. What’s more important—the fact they successfully transferred? Their success in their first year at the four-year institution? Their graduation from the four-year institution within a certain period of time?

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the relevance and the importance of transfer to community colleges today?

JF: We have to make higher education seamless for students. The norm is already that students go to a number of different institutions to earn their postsecondary credentials, not just one. So the more seamless we make the postsecondary system, the more students will persist to earn credentials that make them stand out in the labor market and strengthen our workforce. This needs to be a mission of higher education.

In Indiana , some people ask me, “Who is your competition?” I don’t believe we have competition—we’re all partners and we all work together because there are plenty of Hoosiers who need to earn a postsecondary credential for us to reach the 60 percent goal we’ve set. The more seamless we can make transfer between higher education institutions, the better off we’re going to be as a state.

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