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There are 37 million Americans with some college credits but no degree, a staggering statistic given the labor market demand for workers with post-secondary credentials. One of the biggest roadblocks many students run into when transferring from community colleges to four-year universities is the loss of credits, pushing back their time to completion and raising the price of the degree to often untenable rates. In this interview, Bruce Leslie shares his thoughts on what can be done to improve transfers from community colleges to universities.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the biggest roadblocks hindering community college students from transferring to four-year colleges and earning bachelor’s degrees?
Bruce Leslie (BL): There are three significant roadblocks hindering community college student transfers to four-year institutions.
1. Lack of Alignment and Advising
There are several. First, we have failed to integrate and align our disparate two- and four-year post-secondary systems into a seamless and navigable system, creating confusion and frustration for students as they attempt to successfully transition between education levels. Furthermore, despite ongoing P-16 efforts, we have failed to coordinate systematic connections between secondary and post-secondary education, resulting in an overwhelming number of First Time in College Students (over 80 percent at the Alamo Colleges) requiring developmental education when they reach us because they fail to graduate from high school college-ready. Among secondary and two- and four-year post-secondary institutions, therein lie extremely different sets of expectations, behaviors, cultures, and processes with which students must contend and learn to acclimate in order to be successful. The result is that, overwhelmingly, our community college students really don’t know what to expect when (and if) they transfer, and universities tend to focus less energy on working with community college students until they are actually on campus. In summary, the system does not align or integrate itself, and, consequently, does not work on behalf of students. The system is failing our students.
2. Loss of Credits/Accrual of Excess Credits
The second part of this issue is that we talk a great deal about community college credits transferring to university. In fact, one of the most frequently touted benefits of community college is that it can save students and their families a lot of money; assuming that all credits will transfer, and students will accelerate their education journey, and ultimately be able to seek advanced education/professional studies or workplace entry. Despite these assumptions, this is typically not the case. We never have paid too much attention to what happens to our students after they transfer. We don’t track whether or not our students’ credits transferred, and the extent to which they are successful in a four-year environment. However, key pressures and forces of change on the public higher education system, such as the public’s lack of trust in education, demand for performance, competition from for-profit and online education providers, increasing state demands for greater accountability and cost-efficiency in public higher education, state funding shortfalls, and disruptive innovation, require us to pay closer attention to this. What we are finding is disheartening. Students actually lose a significant amount of credits during the transfer process primarily due to the reasons I stated, our post-secondary systems and processes are not aligned or integrated to allow for clear and seamless transition from one education level to the next as a student seeks educational advancement. Often, transfer credits are accepted as electives, but not necessarily in the major area in which the student desires to focus. Even some credits earned in the core subjects, like English, fail to transfer to certain universities due to different department requirements. Students really aren’t aware of what they should take because we have not done a particularly good job of advising them of their options. Moreover, universities have not been clear about what students should take at community colleges, as program requirements differ from one university department to the next, and are subject to faculty discretion. Without structure, clear pathways to guide students through each transition along the education continuum, and deliberate and intrusive advising at key milestones, the current system will continue to fail our students.
The average Alamo Colleges two-year degree graduate earns 90 college-level credits, while the associate’s degree requires only 60 credits. This means students stay in college longer than necessary; one year longer for full-time students, and two years longer for part-time students, whom comprise the largest cohort of our students. Additionally, the Alamo Colleges have majors that don’t match any university freshman and sophomore major requirements, so students generally lose 30 percent of their credits when they transfer from the Alamo Colleges to four-year Institutions of Higher Education. Public Texas Universities don’t consider the students’ community college “major,” only the courses they take. Thus, to minimize any transfer credit loss, universities recommend students follow the particular university’s “Course Guides” which show the courses that count toward a specific degree. Every university/college has different requirements for their version of the major. Thus, instead of pursuing a major, our A.A. and A.S. students should take the series of courses their intended college or university requires. By having majors, our accrediting agency, SACSCOC, requires these courses to comprise a coherent body of coursework within the degree program, and the learning outcomes to be measured. This locks in those courses, eliminating flexibility. The result is that students lose credits when they transfer. This is why 53 percent of Alamo Colleges students do not declare a major until they actually transfer. They want to minimize loss of credits.
3. Negative Financial Impacts
Third, the accumulation of excess credits that fail to transfer hinders our students’ eligibility for financial aid and veterans benefits, and places them in violation of Texas limits for total hours earned. Students are often encouraged to take a wide variety of courses, regardless of whether or not they transfer or count toward a student’s particular interest. The result is that students take too many courses at community college. Without deliberate advising focused on an end goal, many students don’t know what they want to do, so they get confused or overwhelmed by too many choices, and often drop out. By the time students make it to university, they have accumulated so many hours that are unusable, they start losing purchasing power and the momentum to persist. The result is that students are wasting limited financial aid resources, such as PELL grants, scholarships and student loans, on college credits that fail to transfer or contribute to their end goal. For those who are economically disadvantaged, this issue is particularly harmful in that it further limits their ability to complete a post-secondary degree due to lack of financial resources.
When they enter the Alamo Colleges, 80 percent of our students indicate that their intention is to transfer. Yet, only about 20 percent of our students actually do transfer, representing an expectation misalignment. About 60 percent of these transfers are successful, while 40 percent are not. For our students who don’t transfer, they have credits in general education, they may even have achieved an Associate’s degree, but they lack marketable skills, significantly hindering their employability in high-demand career fields. The result is that students exit our post-secondary institutions without the skills necessary to be successful or competitive in the 21st century workplace, and are not fulfilling the immediate needs of the local workforce due to extended time in college.
Alamo Colleges’ A.A. and A.S. students who do not transfer (60 percent of the 80 percent who indicate they intend to do so) essentially drop out after their sophomore year. They are also half as employed (40 percent of cohort) compared to A.A.S. (workforce) students, 80 percent of whom are employed within 6 months of graduating.
Excess credit accrual results in economic costs to students and taxpayers alike. The cost to full-time students is $16,000 for an extra year of college; to part-time students it is $24,388 for the two extra years. The cost to Bexar county taxpayers who underwrite unnecessary courses is $46 million annually, while the cost to state taxpayers is $300 million annually. The total cost to Texas students and taxpayers of excess credit hour accrual is $490 million, almost $1/2 billion dollars annually.
Evo: How do programs like the 2+2 Partnership with Texas A&M University-San Antonio help students overcome those challenges?
BL: The Alamo Colleges has aggressively developed a strategic agenda that promotes student success while responding to these myriad pressures on our system. Our Presidents and Vice Chancellors last spring aggregated the many strategic tasks into Key Strategies that have the greatest potential to improve student success. These Strategic Priorities are based on internal discussions and agreements, local and national data and research, college policies, legislative and Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) direction, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) principles, and evidence-based best practices. These Strategic Priorities have emerged over the past several years as having the greatest potential to help us build a system and environmental culture that emphasizes student success above all.
Several years ago we began to rethink our counseling model. We wanted to move to a 1two-month model of professional advisors whose primary role is advising, not counseling. On the advising side, we have created AlamoADVISE, a much more intensive, proactive, intrusive, case-based model designed to simplify and clarify our students’ journey through community college to university and/or employment. The Working Theory of AlamoADVISE is that universal support systems that customize each student’s career and academic plan and provide a clear pathway to success greatly benefit all of our students. This initiative focuses on a proactive and intrusive “case management” educational process throughout each student’s journey with us, not just in the beginning or during times of personal crisis. It is designed to assign every student an advisor who ensures that each student achieves critical milestones throughout her/his educational plan. Bolstered by continuous engagement with students, these milestones reinforce and refine the journey for each student, and include the following:
Research indicates that achieving intermediate steps helps individuals reach a long-term goal. For educators, each milestone is an opportunity to celebrate, guide, reinforce, and refine as the student progresses, matures, reevaluates and deals with all of life’s challenges. Essentially, through AlamoADVISE, we seek to give students choices by providing them with consumer-based information about the various career and educational pathways available to them. For example, we want students to understand that if they do not intend to pursue a baccalaureate, an A.A.S. career pathway may lead to higher employability than an A.A. or A.S. option. We want to help students make informed decisions about their pathway options by providing earnings data and other real-time job information. We want students to be awarded the certificates and degrees they earn. We are striving to accomplish this through two approaches: (1.) Awarding degrees or certificates to our students, both enrolled and not currently enrolled, who have achieved the requisite hours and credentials for a degree/certificate, and (2.) Maximizing reverse transfer, currently state law, but necessitating close engagement with our university/college partners to maximize results.
The second strategy we are undertaking is building the AlamoINSTITUTES, six distinct pathways that will contain all of our academic and Career and Technical Education (CTE) degree programs and align them with local school districts as well as the majors and programs of study of our four-year transfer institutions. The Working Theory of the AlamoINSTITUTES is that a clear, guided pathway for students, beginning in 8th grade, through community college, to employment or university, and then a career, with support for the several changes in direction students invariably will make, increases student degree completion. The AlamoINSTITUTES initiative focuses on research from many national completion Thought Leaders, including Davis Jenkins of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. The strategy of developing clear, guided pathways for students in order to expedite graduation has been adopted increasingly by universities and community colleges nationwide, such as Santa Fe College (Aspen Prize), Arizona State University, and Miami Dade College, with very positive student completion results. The legislature’s adoption of HB5 establishing five “Endorsements” that now require each 8th grader to select a pathway to a career, aligns perfectly with our model and our efforts to align our degrees with our university/college partners, providing a collaborative grades 8 – 16 approach for us to build across our traditionally “siloed” educational systems. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s (THECB) new strategic plan, calling for “Marketable Skills for Every Program,” further reinforces this approach. Thus, our model, while still under development, will provide the foundation for the AlamoADVISE model, to help students determine the path to graduation and their desired career. Conceptually, the 6 Institutes are “Mega Majors” (broad fields) that align to the 16 National Career Clusters. We brought faculty across the colleges together to work on the alignment of our transfer and workforce programs of study to the five HB5 endorsements at the front end, and to local public university programs of study at the back end. The beauty of this conceptual model is that it creates the synergy of different programs to be housed under each cluster, essentially integrating career and technical (workforce) and the traditional academic disciplines, and allowing opportunities for vertical, stackable pathways. Because every college/university has different requirements, we must “customize” the pathway at the Alamo Colleges to align with the programs of study at four-year universities. Through this alignment effort, we can help improve the odds that students will already be on a pathway to college completion before they come to us.
Additionally, in order to maximize their time in community college, our students need to determine to which university they seek to transfer early in their post-secondary journey, by the 30th credit hour at the Alamo Colleges. Our goal is to then pass on the names of all the students to their preferred universities so those universities can begin reaching out to the students to prepare them for successful transfer. Meanwhile, we will ensure we are advising the students on the university’s defined course guides for the majors the students will be pursuing. That way we can help ensure that the students will take the right course sequence to successfully transfer to that particular university – with no to minimal credit loss during the transfer process.
Evo: In terms of internal resources, what does it take for a college to actually do this in terms of the staff time that goes into supporting the students but also in terms of the tools that are needed to manage a program like this?
BL: As we began to roll out the AlamoADVISE program, we hired approximately 45 new advisors across our five colleges, with the goal of hiring an additional 30 to 40 advisors. However, due to recent budget cuts, we are considering an alternate strategy we call Plan B. Plan B entails using more student peer tutors with work-study money and also developing faculty mentors to augment the support of our students. We are planning an Aligning for College Access and Completion Summit this fall with the region’s high school and community college counselors and advisors, all of our university partners, and the community-based organizations who also help advise our students. We plan to bring all of these stakeholders together with the goal of collaboratively designing a community-wide process for advising so that collectively we can have a greater impact on student success in our region.
Moreover, there are new technological tools emerging that can help us automate a great deal of interaction with students to remind them of the milestones, to ensure they stay on track, and to help us more effectively and frequently communicate with them.
Evo: Why is it so important that better transfer mechanisms be put into place for non-traditional students who attend community colleges?
BL: The existing transfer and articulation system is designed for a world that no longer exists. Transfer and articulation agreements were established to deal with the exceptions, not the majority. Today, 70 percent of Texas university graduates have earned credit at an institution other than the one from which they are earning their degree. Moreover, the vast majority of community college students are non-traditional. Every university has multiple agreements with the various community colleges with whom it partners. Articulation agreements, because they vary across the state’s universities and private colleges, are very difficult to maintain and exceedingly complex. Texas community colleges spend $ millions annually to enter into excessive articulation and transfer agreements, with the intent to foster a smooth transfer process. Research indicates this approach is largely ineffective. Establishing more than one agreement between the same institutions often is necessary because each program may have different requirements. The current transfer and articulation system is such a mess that students often use the term “nightmare” when navigating the transfer process. We have tried to persuade the legislature to pass some bills that would make the transfer system more effective, but we have not been successful thus far. The latest conversation that I’m having with the commissioner is to determine whether we can do something outside of the legislative process to bring together the public and private universities interested in statewide articulation agreements. Several states have done that. Maine is the most recent to do something along those lines. Our ultimate goal is, with the legislature’s support, to systematize a statewide transfer process.
Today, approximately 77 percent of our students are part-time, and many of them are first-generation college goers who are trying to balance family, friends, home, work, and the day-to-day exigencies of life, and need a strong, caring, knowing college family upon which to depend; who will effectively guide them. As a result, we have the moral obligation to ensure we effectively, properly, intellectually, honestly, maturely, and with rigor and high standards create the environment and infrastructure our students need to succeed.
Evo: What can be done at a national level in the post-secondary space to address the problem of transfer from community colleges to four-year universities?
BL: The perception by universities is that the quality of education at community colleges does not rise to a standard the university expects, and yet the proof is totally the reverse. Research indicates strongly that students who attend community college—particularly if they graduate with an associate’s degree—do as well or even better than the native students at their university. Many students will tell you they have greater quality at a community college than at a university because they have a full-time teacher, not a part-time one spending the rest of their time on research, and classes are smaller, allowing for more personal attention to students.
When universities stop questioning the quality and do more to collaborate and align with the community colleges, students win.
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Author Perspective: Administrator