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Every administrator, legislator and trustee knows the story: a student transfers from one college to another and loses hard-earned credit hours in the process. The student grows frustrated with the loss of time and dollars, accumulates more debt or, in some cases, drops out. Institutions and other stakeholders share the frustration on a larger scale.
Part truth, part justified for degree integrity, part urban legend … the mobility of students today generates new and frequent variations on that familiar theme. Transfer activity within the Tennessee public institutions is multi-directional; however, the vast majority of transfers is vertical (73 percent) rather than horizontal (27 percent), and about half of all transfer activity involves students transferring from community colleges to public universities. Students in Tennessee transfer with varying numbers of credits. However, more than 35 percent transfer with more than 60 credits. Most of those students transfer prior to earning an associate degree.
In Tennessee, coordinated efforts have been underway for several years to facilitate transfer among state institutions and to foster a rewarding pathway from community colleges to four-year institutions. There are three main approaches we will run through in this piece:
In 2010, the Complete College Tennessee Act put everyone involved in higher education on notice and on the same page, with requirements to clarify institutional missions, base funding parameters on student outcomes and prepare seamless transfer pathways between community colleges and universities. Faculty from multiple institutions came together in disciplinary groups to hash out the pre-major course paths for almost 50 different majors available at most universities. These paths guarantee that credit earned in a requirement area (cluster) or the entire pathway will be accepted by the receiving institution and no additional course requirements will be required for the student to reach junior-level status at a four-year institution. Community colleges in the state are also working hard on effective course sequences to facilitate timely completion of the first two years of these pathways.
2. Reverse Transfer
Realizing that many students transfer from a community college with some credits, but prior to finishing a two-year degree, the state has invested in plans to award the associate degree based on credits earned both prior to and following transfer (“reverse” transfer). Encouraged by state support and a grant from Lumina Foundation, the state systems are working to finalize a semi-automated system that will identify and screen transfer students’ course histories across the state for degree awards from the sending community college. This initiative is designed to equip more Tennesseans with a postsecondary credential, to improve their immediate earning potential in the workforce and to serve as a motivating factor for completing the baccalaureate degree.
Earlier this year, Governor Bill Haslam introduced a community college initiative that will likely accelerate existing efforts and promote even more innovation in the community college-university interface. A potential game changer, the Tennessee Promise ensures no Tennessee high school graduate will have to pay tuition for the first two years of community college attendance. Funds from the state lottery system will be tapped to pay tuition costs not covered by other sources of aid for students who meet the program requirements. Although four-year institutions may see a small decrease in first- and second-year students, they expect to benefit from additional transfer students and increased numbers in upper-level enrollments.
These initiatives and others have united Tennessee higher education systems and enhanced working relationships among Tennessee institutions like never before. Realizing that an all-out effort will be required to pull Tennessee’s educational attainment to desired levels, institutions have a common focus on student access and outcomes. The Tennessee Higher Education Commission, the oversight body for the state, has taken the lead in positioning the state for innovative strategies, partnerships with other states and in connecting with the Tennessee business community. The two public higher education systems (The University of Tennessee and the Tennessee Board of Regents) are working hand-in-hand along with the private institutions; leaders from all three systems are involved in transfer pathways and the reverse transfer initiative. Isolation is simply not a sustainable strategy in this climate.
How are we doing? It’s still too early to tell how well the pathways are impacting student success; tracking students’ use of the pathways has proven challenging. Growing pains are evident as four-year institutions have been accustomed to being more nimble and autonomous regarding transfer requirements. Additionally, the impact of the Tennessee Promise is largely speculative at this point. We do know that more than 26,000 students transferred among institutions within Tennessee last year. Undergraduate degree awards have grown by 13 percent in the past three years, with associate degree awards leading the charge. We also know Tennessee four-year institutions are invested in attracting transfer students more than ever. Just as important, we know the collaborative spirit makes these efforts more rewarding as we monitor not only our progress toward the gains in degree attainment, but also the synergy being created among the public and private higher education systems.
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 “Annual Report on Articulation and Transfer: 2012,”, Tennessee Higher Education Commission, October 1, 2012. Accessed at http://www.tn.gov/thec/Legislative/Reports/2012/Articulation_&_Transfer_Report_2012.pdf
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Author Perspective: Administrator
I recently read a piece on The EvoLLLution where the writer suggested that the “free tuition” model is unsustainable. It’s interesting, then, that the state of Tennessee is preparing to offer two free years of college to residents who qualify. Perhaps this is a compromise between offering a full degree for free and incentivizing people to pursue a higher ed credential.
I hope that the funding will be made available to all students who need it, not just those planning to pursue four-year degrees. For example, some students may know they can’t afford to pay for college at all, but if the two-year funding were made available, they could use it for a certificate or associate degree.
Ideally, all institutions would share a goal of improving postsecondary outcomes for residents of the state in which they operate. The reality is, institutions are equally interested in having students achieve those outcomes at their institutions.
The way I read this piece, the two-year funding is available for college education for those who plan to transfer the credits earned to a four-year institution. It looks like Tennessee universities agreed to take the hit on first- and second-year enrollments with the expectation they’ll make up for it with upper-level enrollment. My guess is that this is how the two-year grant was positioned by the state government to achieve buy-in from universities. If students used the funding for college and stopped out without transferring to a university, my guess is that this initiative would quickly face backlash from universities.
I see what you’re saying, but the piece also states that Tennessee universities are amenable to “reverse transfer,” which awards credentials for work already completed. If they’re concerned about students not moving on to finish a bachelor’s degree, they likely wouldn’t agree to this.
Like you, I don’t believe institutions are altruistic. So I wonder how the Tennessee government was able to bring all of these competing bodies to the table to create a cohesive and collaborative university-college partnership. It feels like some of the background is missing from this piece.