In Texas, Transfer Students Get an Extra Pat on the Back

Elizabeth M. Claffey for the Chronicle

Marc Cutright directs the U. of North Texas' Center for Higher Education.
May 21, 2009

Three years ago, Sophia Berry was wandering around the University of North Texas campus in Denton, map in hand, trying to find her next class. After spending a semester at a one-building community college, she found the university impossibly spread out. And the social pressures she felt there, among 28,000 undergraduates and 7,000 graduate students, were daunting.

Now she is so much at home that she serves as a counselor for incoming freshmen and transfer students, teaching them the university's fight song and helping them make the transition to a large public college.

Ms. Berry is luckier than most community-college students who struggle to find their way to the universities where they hope to earn bachelor's degrees. Nationally, about 6.7 million students enroll in community colleges each year, many of them intending to transfer to four-year institutions.

But in Texas, as in other states, fewer than a quarter of the students earning associate degrees end up applying to universities. The eventual result is widespread underemployment and a stagnating work force that doesn't keep up with population growth.

Now Texas educators are trying to change that with two ambitious programs —one aimed at college employees and the other at students and their families. Last week more than 1,000 educators and administrators, from more than 80 colleges and universities across Texas, held video conferences in eight cities. The brainstorming event was sponsored by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and held by the university's National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students and its Center for Higher Education.

"States that are concerned about their economic future are finding ways to incentivize, and in some cases pressure, public colleges and universities to increase the numbers of students who make successful transfers from two-year to four-year higher education," says Betsy O. Barefoot, co-director of the Policy Center on the First Year of College, in Brevard, N.C.

2 Years, Aiming for 4

Those pressures are more intense than ever, says Marc Cutright director of the Center for Higher Education. "There's no question that economic circumstances mean that more people are beginning at two-year colleges with the expectation of finishing a four-year degree."

While the University of North Texas initiative is aimed at training campus employees to help transfer students succeed, another effort in the state is focused on getting more information directly to students and their families. Transfer 101 is a joint program of the University of Texas and Texas A&M University, as well as the Texas Association of Community Colleges, which represents the state's 50 public community-college districts.

Nearly three-quarters of the state's freshmen and sophomores are enrolled in community colleges, says Martha M. Ellis, assistant vice chancellor for community-college partnerships at the University of Texas. About 40 percent of them say they want to transfer to four-year institutions, but only 19 percent of them do, she says. The state loses out when the others, who include "students who wanted to be a teacher or an engineer," don't reach their goals, Ms. Ellis says.

"One of our key findings was that many community-college students just don't know how to transfer," says Ms. Ellis. "There's a lack of user-friendly, jargon-free available information for them and their families."

To help remedy that, beginning this fall, the Web sites of each of the state's community colleges will include a logo for the Transfer 101 program. Clicking on it will take a student to instructions on how to choose a four-year college, apply for financial aid, and determine which course credits will transfer. If a minimum grade-point average is required, students will be told that.

Before joining the University of Texas last year, Ms. Ellis was president of Lee College, a community college in Baytown that serves large numbers of minority, first-generation, and low-income students. The college offers tours of local universities for students who have never set foot on a four-year campus and encourages them to get involved in undergraduate research at Lee. "We wanted them to understand what a university climate would be like," says Ms. Ellis.

That climate can be intimidating. A study released last year found that transfer students have less interaction with faculty members on their new campuses than other students do, and are less likely to say their campuses are supportive. The National Survey of Student Engagement, which is released each year, also found that it is increasingly common for students to attend more than one college (The Chronicle, November 14, 2008).

Nationally, more than 60 percent of students earning bachelor's degrees transfer at least once, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Transfer students often are older, have dependents, and live off-campus.

Derek Newman, 23, transferred to the University of Texas' flagship campus last year from Temple College, a community college of about 4,800 students north of Austin. His mother, who teaches there, was able to help him figure out the transfer process, including steering him to a Web site where he could determine which credits would transfer. "You go from a class at 30 to a class of 500, so you're not going to get that one-on-one interaction with your teacher," says Mr. Newman, who is majoring in sport management. "Coming from a really small school, it can be pretty overwhelming."

But at the same time, a two-day orientation session geared toward incoming freshmen seemed largely a waste of time. "I didn't need to know about living in dorms and taking classes for the first time," says Mr. Newman, who had moved into an off-campus apartment. "I left and called a friend, who told me everything I needed to know in a couple of hours."

Ms. Berry, a 22-year-old senior at North Texas who is majoring in operations and supply-chain management, transferred halfway through her freshman year at a campus of Lone Star College, a community-college system near Houston. "I guess the hardest part was social," she says of the move. "People had made friends in the fall, and their groups were all set. It took a while to figure out where I belonged at a much bigger school."

Avoiding 'Transfer Shock'

During last week's statewide video conference, John N. Gardner, Ms. Barefoot's husband and business partner at the Policy Center on the First Year of College, urged participants to "overcome decades of myths, half-truths, falsehoods, bottom-line prejudice against transfer students." Those myths include the idea that transfer students are less prepared and perform more poorly than students who start out at four-year colleges.

Several colleges and universities were cited for their efforts to streamline and improve the transfer process. Texas Tech University, for instance, has an umbrella program that includes peer mentors for new transfer students. The program has an advisory council of transfer students. The idea, its Web site says, is to help students avoid "transfer shock," in which "students feel lonely, lost, overwhelmed, and uncertain about their decision to transfer, which can result in a drop in grade-point average, and in some cases, dropping out."

One transfer student who was going through a divorce had an easier time settling in at Texas Tech with the help of a peer mentor, also a nontraditional student, who referred her for counseling and became a close friend. "We match them up and try to provide a personalized experience with someone who's been in their shoes," says Candice N. Laster, who oversees the transfer program at the university's Center for Campus Life.

The University of Texas at San Antonio was also praised for its transfer-student center, where students learn about financial aid and housing and get academic advice. The program offers monthly events for prospective transfer students and their families.

"We can't simply blame the students for what happens when they come to us," says Mr. Gardner. "We are ultimately responsible for many of the conditions, policies, practices, and pedagogies that shape the success or lack thereof of transfer students."