Tackling Transfer: A Guide to Convening Community Colleges and Universities to Improve Transfer Student Outcomes

December 4, 2017

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Nationally representative surveys reveal that the vast majority of students who begin community college aim to earn a bachelor’s degree, but fewer than 15 percent achieve that goal within six years of community college entry. As the bachelor’s degree becomes a prerequisite for an increasing number of jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage, students will continue to aspire to attain a bachelor’s degree. For the more than one million degree-seeking students who start their education in community college each year, successful transfer is an indispensable means to achieve that goal.

The college-going population continues to become more diverse racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically. Yet traditionally underrepresented students, who are more likely than others to begin at a community college, are the least likely to experience transfer success. Higher-income students entering community college transfer and complete bachelor’s degrees at higher rates than lower-income students (19.6 percent versus 9 percent), and White students transfer and complete bachelor’s degrees at higher rates than Hispanic and Black students (19 percent versus 11 and 9 percent, respectively).

While reforming state policy has long stood at the center of efforts to improve transfer student success, improving student outcomes also depends on colleges and universities changing their practices, policies, and social and cultural environments. Findings from a 2016 Aspen, Community College Resource Center (CCRC), National Student Clearinghouse study — Tracking Transfer — demonstrate that similar community colleges achieve significantly different student outcomes on every measure of transfer student success and that these differences largely cannot be explained by institutional or student characteristics. Though institutional characteristics explain more of the differences in outcomes at the four-year level, significant variation remains. In other words, what colleges do matters to the success of transfer students. For transfer to work for students, community colleges and universities need to work together to strengthen pathways.

The Transfer Playbook, published by Aspen and CCRC in May 2016, explores the pivotal role of institutional practice. Using lessons learned during visits to six highly effective two- and four-year college partnerships as its foundation, the Playbook outlines specific areas of practice that contribute to transfer student success.

State systems of higher education play an important role in improving transfer outcomes, not just by setting policy but also by setting the conditions through which statewide conversations and plans for transfer improvement can be developed. By understanding that institutional practice is essential to improvement, state systems of higher education can play a role in both inspiring and supporting opportunities for institutional self-reflection and improvement, as well as partnership building.

This implementation guide, a complement to The Transfer Playbook, is designed to help state entities organize workshops where teams from two- and four-year institutions can work together to improve transfer outcomes for their students. Specifically, the guide is designed to help states bring together two- and four-year public colleges to:

  • Better understand transfer outcomes at their institutions, within their partnerships, and across the state.
  • Assess their own practices against research-based practices from leading transfer partnerships across the country.
  • Develop strategies and plans within their institutions and among partners to improve transfer student outcomes.

Informed by on-the-ground work in three states — North Carolina, Ohio, and Washington — the guide is designed to support high-quality, solution-oriented dialogue, deliberation, planning, and action by diverse actors who have a role in transfer practice and policy, in particular practitioners from two- and four-year institutions. The guidance, templates, and tools provided here can help conveners develop and implement promising strategies and methods for engaging critical stakeholders who can make or break efforts to improve and even transform how students navigate the two- to four-year transfer process.

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