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Overcoming Common Barriers to Transfer for Community College Students

The EvoLLLution | Overcoming Common Barriers to Transfer for Community College Students
By improving the transferability of community college credits and focusing on improving success rate for courses—especially in remedial math—two-year college leaders can take significant steps towards improving pathways to four-year institutions.

America’s two-year and community colleges (hereinafter referred to as two-year colleges) have a mission to provide a broad range of options for their students. Chief among these educational options are transfer, workforce development, remedial education and lifelong learning.

Two-year college students are different than the typical first-time freshmen who enroll in a public college or university. They are typically older, more likely to be female, and more likely to be low-income. A higher percentage of two-year college students are Black and Hispanic, first-generation, and most are employed at least part-time. Community colleges currently represent 7.2 million students or 47.7 percent of postsecondary students.[1]

The transfer function of a two-year college harkens back to the origin of the Junior College movement when Joliette Junior College was created in Illinois in the early 1900s to relieve nearby universities such as the University of Chicago by providing the first two years of a baccalaureate degree, and enabling the universities to focus on upper-division and graduate work.[2a, 2b] During this time period, America was experiencing significant increases in the number of high school graduates who were interested in enrolling in college.

The transfer function continues to be an important part of the mission of a contemporary American two-year college. Two-year colleges provide a comfortable starting place for many students who wish to eventually earn a four-year degree. The reasons students choose a two-year college for this pathway may include: geographical isolation (the two-year campus is the only postsecondary institution in the region); open admission requirements; availability of remedial education; lower tuition; smaller class sizes; and for some students, the belief they are not ready for a university setting.[3]

However, there are some roadblocks that two-year college students face when they attempt to transfer to a university to complete their baccalaureate degree. Based on my research and observations as a former CEO of a two-year campus and now in my role as deputy commissioner for academic and student affairs for the Montana University System (MUS), I see the following as two of the most pervasive barriers:

1. Program articulation and pathways

2. Jumping the remedial math hurdle

Program Articulation, Pathways and Transferability

Students beginning at a two-year college often face complex choices about courses they should take during their first two years of a baccalaureate degree. It is very important that the two-year college establish an articulation agreement with the receiving four-year degree programs. As many as forty percent of two-year college transfer students are at risk of losing many of their credits to a university if the college does not develop a strong articulation agreement.[4]

Another issue with program articulation lies with the transferability of individual course credits. Over the past seven years, MUS has implemented a system-wide Common Course Numbering (CCN) process, which was done through Faculty Learning Outcomes Councils (FLOCS) comprised of both two-year and four-year faculty. The Montana CCN FLOC process involved the evaluation of some 10,000 courses resulting in agreement system-wide on course outcomes, titles and numbers. For example, M171 Calculus at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell, MT is accepted at any public two-year or four-year college in Montana. This CCN process was instrumental in improving transferability of courses and credits to four-year programs. It is important to note that while the CCN process has been of significant help in Montana, it has not diminished the importance of developing program articulation pathways to four-year programs.

Common course numbering does not ensure that the credits available at a two-year college will meet the requirements of a transfer degree program or another two-year program either at the same college or at another two-year college.

Curriculum outcomes alignment, or “tuning,” as it is often referred to, is important for colleges and state systems to consider. These realignment efforts should be faculty-led, and seek input from students and employers. Following this approach, the Montana University System was recently able to come to agreement on a massive curricula realignment effort among 15 of Montana’s two-year and tribal colleges to establish an Allied Health Core Curriculum Model as well as a common Associate of Science Registered Nurse and a Practical Nurse program. These accomplishments were made possible by a major statewide Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College Career Training grant (HealthCARE Montana) via the US Department of Labor.

HealthCARE Montana has focused on building strong and aligned healthcare education pathways that increase the opportunities for students to pursue a variety of health careers and enable them to efficiently transfer between healthcare fields. The Allied Health Core Curriculum Model is designed to align all Montana’s post-secondary allied healthcare programs with a common set of prerequisite foundation courses and allied healthcare core competency modules that will be standardized across the 150+ two-year allied healthcare programs in the state and will transfer freely amongst programs and institutions. The allied health pathway from secondary to post-secondary could be expanded by developing the Allied Health Core Curriculum Model coursework via distance delivery and offered as dual credit through Montana high schools. In addition, a common CNA curriculum is currently being developed that will be available as a fully online curriculum that could also be available to secondary educational institutions and offered as dual credit.

The HealthCARE Montana grant also enabled Montana’s consortium of 15 colleges to complete an articulation and alignment between the associate degree Registered Nurse curriculum and the Bachelor of Science in Nursing completion program at three of Montana’s universities. The faculty of the respective two-year nursing programs worked with the faculty of the four-year programs at Montana Tech, MSU Northern, and MSU Billings to agree on competencies at both the program and course levels prior to aligning the two programs. The result was the creation of a three-semester bridge program which enables AS-RN students to complete their BSN over a 12-month period.

Jumping the Remedial Math Hurdle

The Montana University System recognized in 2014 it had an obligation to address challenges with student completion of their first college math course. For example, over the past five years, 16,626 students enrolled in college algebra at one of the colleges in the MUS. We know that 45 percent failed—that’s 7,318 students who will either have to take another remedial math class or drop out. If all these students retake the class, that amounts to 183 additional sections (at 40 students per section), which would require about 23 additional non-tenure track FTEs, or 46 tenure track FTEs. Perhaps the most significant impact would be the cost to the students in both time and tuition to retake those classes.

College algebra has the common course number of M121 across the system. It is an algebra-intensive course designed to prepare students to take calculus. However, records from the MUS data warehouse show that 60 percent of the students in M121 are taking the course as a terminal course, which means the student has no intention or need to take calculus. Interestingly, the most common follow-on course taken by these 16,626 students was M121, College Algebra meaning students are opting to retake the course in order to achieve a passing grade and move on. For some it is an almost endless cycle that ends in drop out. Further research using the Montana University System’s data warehouse revealed that students who are placed into one or more remedial math courses have less than a ten-percent chance of ever completing a postsecondary certificate, two-year, or four-year degree. Currently, 60 percent of first-time freshmen enrolling in Montana’s two-year colleges are placed into remedial courses.

The Montana Commissioner of Higher Education created a faculty-led taskforce to address these challenges in the autumn of 2014. By late autumn, the taskforce came to the conclusion that mathematics itself was not the problem. Problems with college completion related to mathematics may originate in the following: alignment of mathematical content with programs; placement and advising; and availability of appropriate pathways (secondary and postsecondary)

Over the course of the past 16 months, the Math Pathways Taskforce has recommended systemic changes across the MUS. These changes include the creation of a non-STEM quantitative literacy course, which would replace College Algebra as the gateway math course in those programs. Both the data and our experience indicate that non-STEM students are better served by taking a less algebraically intensive course that aligns with their career objectives. These are the kinds of courses that focus on quantitative literacy, statistics, logical thought processes—i.e., developing quantitative habits of mind.

A second recommendation of the Math Pathways Taskforce was to pursue the development of co-requisite design. Using this strategy, students who would normally test into remedial math are placed in their appropriate gateway college-level math course with extensive support at the same time. This is called a “co-requisite” instead of a “pre-requisite” model, and we’re seeing much higher levels of completion for those courses, upwards of 2 or 3 times higher than when students went through traditional remediation.[5] Five different states have scaled up co-requisite remediation, and they’re getting great results: Typically about 60 percent of students in co-requisite courses are passing, compared to 22 percent of students passing in pre-requisite remedial course models nationwide.


Students enrolling in two-year colleges with the goal of four-year transfer face many challenges and barriers. This article outlines only two challenges and provides some strategies and solutions as addressed at the system level by the Montana University System. Student attrition through failure to advance through math remediation programs and complete their first gateway math course is perhaps first and foremost a challenge. Other issues include transferability of credits, program articulation with a four-year program, and overall alignment of program outcomes and competencies.

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[1] Berkner, L., Choy, S., 2008. Descriptive Summary of 2003-04 Beginning Postsecondary

Students: Three Years Later. NCES 2008-174. Natl. Cent. Educ. Stat.

[2a] Brint, S., Karabel, J., 1989. The Diverted Dream: Community Colleges and the Promise of

Educational Opportunity in America, 1900-1985. ERIC.

[2b] Cohen, A.M., Brawer, F.B., 2003. The American community college. John Wiley & Sons.

[3] Dougherty, K.J., Townsend, B.K., 2006. Community college missions: A theoretical and

historical perspective. New Dir. Community Coll. 2006, 5–13. doi:10.1002/cc.254

[4] Monaghan, D.B., Attewell, P., 2015. The community college route to the bachelor’s degree.

Educ. Eval. Policy Anal. 37, 70–91.

[5] Corequisite remediation spanning the completion divide. (2016, October 30). Retrieved from

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