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Will COVID-19 Be the Catalyst to Comprehensively Addressing the Transfer Problem?

The EvoLLLution | Will COVID-19 Be the Catalyst to Comprehensively Addressing the Transfer Problem?
 If higher education wants to serve its entire learner population optimally, it needs to remove the barriers to credit, offer transfer-specific services and communicate with other institutions. 

Stories abound of transfer students joining universities after completing 60 or more credit hours and expecting to graduate in another two years before finding out that a significant portion of their credits will not transfer, and of those that do, some will not count towards the degree.  A report from the GAO[1] based on data collected from 2004 to 2009 estimated that transfer students on average lose 43% of their credits. This not only influences the cost of education but also students’ progress to completion, and the promise of opportunity and social mobility for those that need it the most.

It should be emphasized that students attend, or start at, community colleges for a variety of reasons, ranging from lower cost of tuition and ease of geographical access, closeness to parents and families, greater comfort with the individual attention and guidance at some community colleges, and the ease of transitioning directly to the work force if they need to do so prior to completing a four-year degree through the technical/applied science streams. 

Issues of effectiveness of transfer pathways, such as the growing concern of excess credit hours and obstacles to transferring and counting completed courses  at universities, the perceived and real consequent increases in time and cost, as well as the disenchantment of students with the process leads them to drop out completely, or even not apply for transfer. These have been issues of significant importance to law-makers, academic leaders, and policy experts for well over two decades, but there generally has been insufficient progress to date.  The COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent pressures to stay close to home, have greater flexibility to address family responsibilities, and the pressure on finances will all probably result with a greater reliance on community colleges. 

Perhaps the confluence of events catalyzed by the pandemic will force us to finally address these issues,[2]focusing on the student and ensuring that transfer is truly a smooth option without undue deterrents. While there is a lot that needs to be done to assure high quality courses and student preparation so that all transfer students succeed at the university level there are other steps that need to also be taken simultaneously. Here are ten issues and steps that can be taken (and have, in some instances, already been implemented successfully) to address them.

1. Implementing “hold harmless” policies

Universities often update curricula, changing course content, pre-requisites, and even entire courses in a degree program. However well-intentioned, these changes often result in difficulties for incoming transfers ranging from new requirements not being communicated to them, to some of their completed courses now not counting towards their intended degree. A “hold harmless” period, for example, of two years, based on the university course catalog at the point when study at the community college was initiated would substantially alleviate this issue.  This policy is in place in some states and informally between some community colleges and universities but should become the norm across the board.

2. Removing myths regarding academic ability 

There is a misconception that all students who start at community colleges have a lower level of academic preparation than those at a four-year college or university. Further, many studies have shown that, on average, there is an imperceptible difference in performance between native students (those starting their freshman year at a university) and transfer students a year after transfer. In some cases, transfer students do better because they are more motivated, committed, and often older. The myth, though, results in their being treated differently, and that needs to change throughout the university organization.

3. Lack of courses for on-time progression

Disciplines, such as engineering and business, often require discipline-specific pre-requisite courses to be taken during freshman and sophomore years. Often, these courses are not offered at the community college level, or if they are, they’re not considered to be comparably rigorous, and credits do not transfer, resulting in students being out-of-sync with their degree plans. Making these available at community colleges at a level where credits are guaranteed to transfer and/or enabling concurrent/dual enrollment a university while still attending community college would go a long way in addressing this issue as well as reducing the excess credit hours students often wind up taking. 

4. Integrated/coordinated advising 

Differences in completion requirements for and poor communication of course sequences, pre-requisites and of local university policies can cause errors in advising, resulting in successful course completion that is not counted towards a degree upon transfer. Coordination through articulation agreements between community colleges and universities, co-advising using integrated/coordinated student information/advising systems that allow advisors at both institutions to see and approve courses, use of common degree plans and of the meta-major construct can all improve student success and result in smoother pathways.  This does require efforts at both institutions and is successful only if led from the top, ensuring that the importance of working together is clearly established.

5. Reducing course rejection due to minor differences 

Often, a transfer credit is not given because of differences in course description or content, even though the general focus and coverage are the same. We need to recognize that sections taught at the same university by different instructors often vary significantly and that our goal should be the achievement of competencies and learning outcomes rather than a complete overlap of class materials and content.  

Latitude to allow for differences in courses as long as they are generally aligned as well as making available supplementary modules, free of cost, to transferring students to ensure they master the key areas even if not covered in the course taken at the community college could resolve these issues resulting in substantial reduction in courses having to be “retaken” after transfer.

6. Rapid evaluation of transcripts for transfer credit 

A common complaint from transferring students is that the university does not complete its evaluation of transcripts for weeks, and sometimes even semesters, after they transfer. At the extreme, a student is informed of a course not “counting” towards the degree only at the graduation check. Policies that assure that transferring students have courses assessed and identified for transfer credit within the drop-add period of their first semester would address this issue. The use of integrated student advising and tracking systems would also make this problem moot, since the accepting university would have access to the transcript even prior to orientation.

7. Restructuring or allowing flexibility in course sequences 

Often, transfer sequences are built on the presumption of completion of an associate degree, or an equivalent number of credits, prior to transfer. Students, however, often transfer prior to completing two years or 60 credit hours. Allowing appropriate flexibility in courses and coverage within broad guidelines and even using different pathways for 1+3, 2+2 and other combinations would be advantageous. While it is not reasonable to expect universities to offer all courses every semester, they could all still be made available online to allow transferring students to sync with the university schedule without having to wait a semester and take extra courses that will not count towards the degree. Further, registration for upper division courses is often on a priority basis to native students, resulting in the transferring student not being able to get into required course in time, which causes them to fall behind. If we are serious about transfer students’ success, we need to not only enable advising per a degree plan prior to transfer but also ensure that these students get into courses that keep them on track.

8. Coordination of, and appropriate advising for, financial aid and scholarships 

Enabling coordination between financial aid offices for dual enrollment logistics for Pell grants, planning for financial aid after transfer, and making adequate scholarships available for transfer students as an equal priority will go a long way in alleviating students’ financial distress. Universities also need to recognize that, due to lower costs at community colleges, incoming transfer students may not be aware of the intricacies of financial aid since this might be the first time that they are applying for it. Transfer students are often placed in a financial aid catch-22 by the federal government’s strict definition of financial independence. Being older, and sometimes already working part-time, a significant percentage of transfer students receive no support from their parents although the rules may presume that they do, thereby disadvantaging them on two counts: federal aid and a university’s own determination of need.  This is an area that needs significant attention and work if time to degree and student success rates are to be achieved. 

9. Flexibility in the core and non-disciplinary courses

Despite policies in various states addressing the core, universities often have differences in courses resulting in similar courses not being accepted for transfer. We need to recognize that while we want all students to benefit from the unique and rigorous path defined by each unit on campus, transfer students have chosen an alternative path that we allow and encourage. Therefore, we need to be flexible in assessing the experiences they gained in comparison to native students. The ability to have two paths intersecting or overlapping at times, but still independent, would enable enough flexibility without any real loss in preparation for a career. Thus, the transfer of the “core” from one institution to another should be guaranteed if it fits the state-mandated profile. Retaking courses to fit a university’s exact requirements for a specific course while it already fits the general category should become a horror story of the past.

10. Attitude of Leadership

It is important that a receptive, and celebratory transfer culture be in place from the top down. Too often, senior officials on system and coordinating boards place undue emphasis on freshmen students and perceive transfer students as not “high achieving,” or that they will draw away from “excellence” of the institution because they are not included in federal and state metrics for graduation rates and rankings. We need to develop an authentic commitment to transfer students with a university wide appreciation of what they add through their experiences to the university, and how increasing our focus on them helps meet our mission as public universities. Transfer-appropriate orientations, focused advising, one-stop offices for guidance and assistance, and specially designed student activities are all needed, as is the recognition that often the same adjunct faculty teach the same courses at community colleges and universities.

Transfer students too often get forgotten or do not have access to appropriate support systems, become casualties of elitism, get caught between lines of governance and competition between the community college and university systems, are treated as “second best” or antithetical to the goals set for campuses, or are victims of well-intended but poorly designed policies.  If higher ed is to truly meet its mission of access and social mobility and of being the driver for economic prosperity, transfer issues need to be resolved. It will take effort, changes in perception and action, and both sets of institutions will have to give up “sacred ground.” Many have already shown us the way forward–the question is whether academia will take the steps to address the issue, definitively and comprehensively. We owe that to our students.



[2] K. Mangan, Why Covid-19 Could Force Colleges to Fix Their Transfer Problems, The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 22, 2020.

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