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Ed. Magazine

The Trying Transfer

What happened when a state tried to fix the complex, and often inequitable, maze community college students need to navigate when they try to make the leap to a four-year school?
Illustrations by Adam Maida
Illustrations: Adam Maida

Max Tang, Ed.M.’22, was 17 years old when he emigrated from China to Los Angeles. His schedule during his junior year of high school was loaded with ELL classes as he focused on improving his English and adjusting to life in the United States. It wasn’t until senior year that he learned all that was involved in applying for college.

“My parents never went to college, so they didn’t know how to advise me,” says Tang. With just a few months before graduation, he made a plan: enroll in a community college and then transfer to a University of California campus to earn a bachelor’s degree and, eventually, go on to law school.

One of the long-time missions of community colleges has been to provide an affordable path to four-year institutions and a steppingstone to economic mobility for students who are the first generation in their families to go to college, many of whom come from low-income homes. Yet, of the 80% of community college students who say they plan to transfer to a four-year school, fewer than 15% do, according to the Community College Research Center (CCRC). Also concerning is that studies have shown that entering a community college rather than a four-year institution lowers students’ chances of obtaining bachelor’s degrees. One reason for this is that the transfer process is famously difficult to navigate, causing many students to burn up precious time and money taking courses from which the credits don’t count toward their major or don’t transfer at all.

“The process itself is a maze,” says Tang, who often had to wait a week to get a 15-minute appointment with a counselor at his community college. He says even then, getting the information he needed was difficult. “Counselors had different levels of familiarity with the transfer process,” he says.

Things turned out well for Tang, who largely navigated the transfer process on his own, eventually landing at UCLA, where he earned a bachelor’s degree. Word of his transfer spread, and soon he was counseling his community college peers on how to do the same.

The trying transfer process Tang experienced is common at community colleges across the country. In Massachusetts, more than a decade ago, the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education began collaborating with the state’s public colleges and universities to find ways to make the transfer process to a four-year institution easier. In 2007, the state created the Commonwealth Transfer Advisory Group (CTAG) to assess the barriers associated with transfer and to recommend fixes. CTAG’s work resulted in MassTransfer, the collective name for a host of policies aimed at streamlining the transfer process and reducing the time and cost of transfer for students.

Among the changes the state implemented was to make transparent, via a website, the general education courses (known as the Gen Ed Foundation block) required to earn associate and bachelor’s degrees. The state also launched a “course and equivalency” database that specifies which courses at the state’s colleges and universities align with those requirements. In addition, A2B (associate to bachelor’s) pathways were created to identify courses that both satisfy requirements for an associate degree and count toward the requirements for a bachelor’s degree within a particular major.

The question is, did these efforts pay off?

Not All Students Helped

A new study from researchers at the Ed School and Brown University, in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Department of Higher Education, found that the changes Massachusetts made are helping some students transfer and attain bachelor’s degrees — but not all.

The study, Building Stronger Community College Transfer Pathways: Evidence from Massachusetts, followed 10 cohorts of students who enrolled in an associate degree program at Massachusetts community colleges between 2005 and 2014. While the study indicated improvement in some areas, it also revealed troubling inequities along economic and racial lines.

Diploma illustration

The research found that the percentage of students from higher-income families who transferred from a community college to a four-year institution within six years increased steadily (approximately a 7% increase over 10 years). The increase was especially large for female students in this higher income group. However, the transfer rate for students from low-income families remained stagnant. This revealed a widening gap between higher-income students and those from low-income families, with transfer rates for higher-income students rising to almost 40% by 2014 but remaining below 30% for low-income students. (Researchers classified “higher-income students” as anyone who had not been eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch in the 10th grade.)

The study also found that income was a stronger predictor of transfer success than a student’s 10th-grade math MCAS score (the statewide assessment test in Massachusetts). Starting with the 2010 cohort, students from low-income families who had relatively high math scores were less likely to transfer within six years than students from higher-income families with relatively low math MCAS scores. By 2014, this difference was almost 5 percentage points.

Disparities also appeared along racial lines, with smaller percentages of Black and Latinx students transferring to a four-year institution compared to Asian and white students (as much as 3–5 percentage points lower for Black students and 7–10 points lower for Latinx), according to the study.

For students who had made the transfer to a four-year institution, there was an increase in the proportion of those who went on to complete a bachelor’s degree, rising from 51% of students in the 2005 cohort to 63% of students in the 2014 cohort. However, transferring students from low-income families earned a bachelor’s degree at a rate about 12 percentage points lower than that of higher-income families.

One explanation for this, the report notes, is that “structural inequalities that result in Black and Latinx children growing up in relatively low-income families and attending relatively under-resourced elementary and primary schools, play a large role in explaining why Black and Latinx students who enroll in the state’s community colleges have lower six-year transfer rates and lower bachelor’s degree completion rates than do their white peers.”

Senior Lecturer Francesa Purcell, who chaired CTAG and is the co-faculty director of the Higher Education concentration at the Ed School, says while she was happy to see some positive news since MassTransfer was adopted, she’s “heartbroken to see there’s a very significant group of students that we’re not helping.” Purcell has seen this inequity play out again and again across the country throughout her two decades studying the college transfer process. “When it comes to completion, transfer, retention, you’re going to see gaps based on income, race, and ethnicity,” she says.

It’s a gap that is likely to continue. That’s because the proportion of students from low-income families at the state’s community colleges more than doubled between 2005 and 2014, rising from 21% to 45%, the report says. Also rising are the numbers of students from racial and ethnic groups that have historically not been served well in American public schools, many of which are under-resourced.

On one hand, these trends are a good thing, says Professor Richard Murnane, lead author of the study, along with Professor John Willett; John Papay, Ed.M.’05, Ed.D.’11; Ann Mantil, Ed.M.’10, Ed.D.’18; Preeya Mbekeani, Ed.M.’10, Ed.D.’20; and Aubrey McDonough. “It means that young people who in previous generations would not have gone to college at all are going to community college," Murnane says. "But the bad news is that they are not well prepared either financially or academically.”

“When it comes to completion, transfer, retention, you’re going to see gaps based on income, race, and ethnicity.” 

– Francesca Purcell

Nor are community colleges well prepared to support them. “Community colleges are the most-underfunded, least-supported institutions that are trying to support the highest-need students,” says Purcell. While community colleges do a fairly good job with access, students from low-income families and traditionally marginalized groups aren’t getting the help they need to earn bachelor’s degrees, she says.

And that’s significant because research shows that a four-year college degree is still the surest way to earn more money over one’s lifetime. “If we could solve college transfer, we would solve a lot of the equity issues that we are confronted with at a much greater scale,” says Purcell.

How Can We Fix This?

While MassTransfer policies have helped alleviate some of the institutional and technical barriers standing in students’ way, more needs to be done to address financial, family, and academic obstacles many students face, says Murnane.

“About 85% of students at Bunker Hill Community College go part time,” he says, referring to the largest community college in Massachusetts. Many are balancing two or three jobs, along with family responsibilities such as childcare and eldercare while pursuing a degree. More supports need to be in place for students who are going part time, many of whom are immigrants and the first in their families to go to college, he says.

The report points to several initiatives underway that are aimed at addressing these barriers. One is the creation of co-requisite courses that provide developmental content and support in a credit-bearing course, enabling students to build the skills they need to take on college-level math and English without spending time and money on classes that don’t count toward a degree.

Another state-funded effort, says the report, is the Supporting Urgent Community College Equity through Student Services (SUCCESS) program, which provides wraparound services in the form of peer mentors, academic skills workshops, field trips to four-year schools, and targeted academic, career, transfer, and scholarship advising. Purcell says that comprehensive wraparound services that build one-on-one relationships between services that build one-on-one relationships between students and faculty are also needed.

In addition, the transfer process involves a lot of parties that don’t necessarily have the same goals, she says. So, an important part of the solution is building trust among them. The state should continue to act as a convener, bringing together faculty and transfer advisers across institutions to share ideas, come up with solutions, and keep the focus on the student experience, she suggests. There is also a role the receiving institution can play in helping community college students see themselves at a four-year institution. “Faculty could meet with students at community college campuses to create an atmosphere of welcoming,” she says.

“The biggest thing is information,” says Adela Soliz, Ed.D.’17, who is an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University and focuses on policies that affect student success at community colleges. “Schools should be bombarding students with information.” Posters should be plastered all over classrooms, transfer advisers should be visible in the hallways, the cafeteria, and other places students congregate, and counselors should be available not just from nine to five but also in the evenings when many working students take classes, she says. On top of that, the information must be simple and accurate: “Websites are often out of date or very difficult to navigate,” says Soliz.

“The biggest thing is information. Schools should be bombarding students with information.” 

– Adela Soliz

Technology may have a role to play, too. Max Tang has put his plans for law school on hold to evolve his one-to-one transfer counseling service into a technology company that uses artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing (NLP) to streamline the college application and transfer process. Tang says that AI and NLP can do many of the things a counselor can do but can reach more students, more affordably and at all hours. Students can use his platform to search a database of more than 3,000 colleges and universities to find matches based on their profiles. Other features include an AI-powered writing coach and AI-powered interview coach that give students instant feedback based on their facial expressions, gestures, and pronunciation. Tang plans to release an English-language version of the platform soon.

Moving Forward

There has been a lot more sharing of information across states since Purcell was part of CTAG. Organizations such as the Aspen Institute, Interstate Passport, and the Scaling Partners Network, backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are working on bringing together institutions across different states so they can learn from one another. Other groups are calling to reform the community college transfer process from one that is seen as chiefly self-service to one that serves all students. CTAG’s “guided pathways” strategy involves creating a comprehensive education plan for every community college student in addition to providing advisory structures to ensure students stay on track.

In Massachusetts, both Governor Maura Healey and Senate President Karen Spilka have proposed making community colleges more accessible and affordable to non-traditional students — including free for students older than 25 — to create a pipeline of new talent for employment in well-paying industries, such as healthcare, education, clean energy, and advanced manufacturing. Purcell says that an essential step in moving these plans forward is the continued commitment at the state level to evaluative research studies based on longitudinal data like the one conducted by Murnane.

“I’m proud that Massachusetts did this research,” says Purcell, who underscored the need for more. She says that using data to regularly examine policies and their impact on students will focus state and institutions’ efforts on finding solutions to help the significant population of students who currently are not benefiting from MassTransfer policies. “For policymakers, having a resource like this is gold,” she says.

Elizabeth Christopher is a writer based in Massachusetts. Her last piece for Ed. in the summer 2022 issue focused on supporting teachers.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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