Using the Past to Guide the Future


There is a great deal of work being done on transfer in Texas today. It can be helpful to revisit past studies that illuminate strategies for supporting transfer students and contextual considerations that are still relevant today.

The Pell Institute conducted two studies focused on transfer in Texas from 2008 to 2011 (supported by the Trellis Foundation) that focused on gathering insight into the experiences of historically marginalized community college transfer students through a mix of data analysis and site visits. The first study focused on promising practices for facilitating transfer from the two-year level, such as structured academic pathways, institutional articulation agreements, developmental coursework initiatives, active learning, flexible scheduling and learning communities.

The second study focused on challenges and strategies for supporting transfer student success at the four-year level. This research revealed several surprising results that still hold.

Differing Philosophies: One unexpected finding that emerged was the stark contrast between two distinct transfer philosophies, both across and within four-year institutions. Leadership, staff, faculty and students either (1) expressed the need to designate transfer-specific support services to address transfers’ unique characteristics and challenges, or (2) did not see a need for separate services. Although individuals holding the latter philosophy design programs and services with characteristics of historically marginalized students in mind — low-income, first-generation, nontraditional-aged, working or commuter students — they expressed concern that creating separate transfer services would stigmatize or label these students rather than facilitate their integration into the institution.

What Do the Data Really Say? Also unexpectedly, we found that administrators at several institutions believed their transfer students were outperforming “native” students (those who began at the four-year institution), while data showed that it is actually the native students who graduate at higher rates than their transfer peers, when making a fair comparison. Texas transfer students typically enter the four-year institution with 45 credits or more, at sophomore or junior status. However, administrators were comparing transfer students’ graduation rates to those of freshmen. The Pell Institute study compared transfer outcomes to a cohort of junior-standing students, based on the number of credits earned. Since institutions typically measure six-year graduation rates of freshmen, we compared the four-year graduation rates of transfer students to an equivalent junior cohort.

Transfer Student Needs: Transfer students often face a host of challenges typically associated with the challenges of historically marginalized students. Our study revealed that financial aid and academic credit discontinuity due to insufficient advising are particularly salient challenges. Perhaps the greatest challenge among transfer students is a lack of engagement or integration into the institution. Transfer students often attend part-time, work off campus and face multiple responsibilities such as caring for dependents — which leaves little time for participating in on-campus activities outside the classroom. In addition, transfer students are often older and miss out on student “bonding” that many traditional-aged, first-time students experience during their first year. By the time transfer students arrive on campus, native students at a similar academic level (i.e., juniors) have already settled into social niches. Some transfer students may have little interest in socializing beyond the classroom and simply come to campus to complete the requirements to attain the degree. Regardless, without an attachment or connection to the campus, transfer students are at risk for getting lost in the system.

Transfer-Specific Support Practices: Our study revealed promising practices tailored to supporting community college transfer students at four-year institutions, including:

  • Transfer centers
  • Transfer-specific advising
  • Required transfer orientation
  • Transfer “ambassador” mentors
  • Social and networking events for transfer students
  • Transfer financial literacy workshops
  • Transfer scholarships

Perhaps more important, however, was the institution’s overall approach to, and understanding of, the common characteristics of community college transfer students — many of whom are often first-generation, nontraditional-aged and part-time students. For example, some proactive institutions offered student organizations, extended-hour services, free transportation and childcare support that met the needs of nontraditional, working transfer students. Several administrators emphasized that seemingly minor logistical considerations can make a huge impact in a student’s ability to persist.

Recommendations for Policy and Practice

Seamless integration between degree plans at the community college and four-year university levels is a critical component in transfer success. Such institutional partnerships include articulation agreements, curricular alignment and reverse awarding of degree agreements. Cross-institutional training, online degree audit systems and joint admissions are some examples of additional ways that two- and four-year institutions can work together.

Moreover, these findings endorse the need for states to identify transfer as a state priority. Recognizing four-year institutions for their role in facilitating transfer student bachelor’s degree completion will incentivize them to develop policies and practices that promote transfer student success. Public universities should be required to report these graduation rates in comparison with native juniors, and successful institutions should be recognized for their work in this area.

Finally, institutions should consider the entire transfer experience within the context of relevant state and institutional policies as they plan the programs and services that guide their transfer students toward bachelor’s degree completion. Further research into the connection between practice and outcomes is critical to the success of economically disadvantaged students who begin the postsecondary pipeline at the two-year level with aspirations of achieving a bachelor’s degree.

Abby Miller is a founding partner at ASA Research.



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