Reverse-Transfer Programs Reward Students and Colleges Alike

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

June 19, 2011

Community-college officials must have a special love-hate relationship with the motivated, successful students who leave their institutions with a good number of credits, but no degree, to transfer to four-year institutions. Such students should be counted as institutional successes rather than failures, but until recently, little could be done to officially record them as such.

Data on graduation rates, as gathered by the National Center for Education Statistics for the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, count only first-time, full-time students who finish a degree at the institution at which they began in one and a half times the duration it would normally take to complete the degree (that is, three years for a two-year associate degree, and six years for a four-year bachelor's). So a student who transfers from a community college to a four-year institution and completes a bachelor's degree counts as a failure, in graduation-rate terms, for both the community college and the four-year institution. Until the government changes its data gathering to account in a positive way for such transfer students, thousands of students who complete their college degrees will continue unrecorded in government reporting. Furthermore, many such students will overlook the full value of the community-college experience that started them on their degree paths.

Help is coming from an unexpected quarter, however: the four-year institutions to which such students transfer. Our institutions, the University of Texas at El Paso and the University of Massachusetts at Boston, along with others across the country, have established systems to ensure that transfer students with significant credits from two-year colleges are awarded associate degrees once they have completed the necessary coursework at their new institutions.

The University of Texas at El Paso, in a pioneering arrangement with El Paso Community College, has developed a fully automated reverse-transfer system that allows transfer students to earn their final credits at the university, then have those credits sent back to the community college. A Title V Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program grant from the Department of Education enabled the two institutions to create the EPCC-UTEP Transfer Program, a seamless electronic environment of shared student services. The new data-sharing agreements, along with the student-information system's degree-audit program, allows the university to track down students who have completed a minimum of 25 percent of their degree at community college, as required by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Those students can fulfill the balance of the associate-degree requirements at the university, then receive their degrees from El Paso Community College, complete with a festive graduation celebration. Up go the graduation rates at the community college, up goes the self-esteem of the newly credentialed student, and up goes the retention rate at the university: It's the ultimate win-win situation.

In the early stages of the grant, before the electronic system went live, university officials manually identified hundreds of students each year who were finishing their associate degrees via university courses. In the first year, the 2006-7 academic year, 228 degrees were awarded; then 244 the following year, and 344 the year after that. But by the fourth year—2009-10, when the automated credit-transfer system came online—a whopping 1,166 students were awarded associate degrees by El Paso Community College, many of whom were missed during manual counting in previous years. Our hope is that those students, almost all of whom are working-class Hispanic students earning the first degrees in their families, will be the more likely to stay the course to reach the next important educational milestone.

Since the 2003-4 academic year, when the university first established a package of transfer-student services—including a transfer-student center at the community college, joint training for academic advisers for both institutions every semester, and improved orientation for transfer students—retention has also been improving steadily. Between the fall of 2009 and the fall of 2010 alone, transfer-student retention increased 9 percent. The university offers many programs that have contributed to that success, but automated reverse transfer has played a key role: The system eliminates human error, ensures timely awarding of accurate transfer credits for registration of future courses, and enables both institutions to stay up-to-date on changes. The next few years should give an even better indication of the success of the program, but the immediate indicators are still good enough to inspire other institutions with large transfer populations.

The University of Massachusetts at Boston, a large urban research university, is one such institution. The majority of its entering students transfer from one of five area community colleges, and most arrive without associate degrees. The university has many support programs in place, but retaining community-college transfers through to the attainment of their bachelor's degrees is a struggle for any campus, and administrators are eager to add another tool to their kit.

Modeling its program on that of the University of Texas at El Paso's, UMass at Boston is piloting a reverse-transfer procedure this year with Massasoit Community College. Transcripts will be examined manually at first, while the campuses work to automate and eventually merge their transcript-transmission procedures. If the project works as well in Boston as it has in El Paso, and increases retention at UMass while boosting graduation rates at Massasoit, the university hopes to expand the pilot to the rest of its area community colleges.

As institutions establish reverse-transfer agreements, advisers at both community colleges and universities should take care to educate their students about those agreements and how to take advantage of them. A student who begins her postsecondary studies at a community college should be able to pursue a bachelor's degree while still having an associate degree to show for her earlier efforts. The associate is a valuable credential in the job market, both for job hunting and for career advancement for those already working while pursuing their degrees. Many students who are employed full time while pursuing a bachelor's would benefit from being able to demonstrate—and, indeed, to understand—that they have completed a course of study that has improved their writing, quantitative, and critical-thinking skills.

Awarding a degree is not enough: Both two-year and four-year institutions must work throughout the reverse-transfer process to help students to understand the educational achievement, job credential, and building block to further academic accomplishments that the associate degree represents.

Donna Ekal is associate provost for undergraduate studies at the University of Texas at El Paso, and Paula M. Krebs is ACE Fellow at the University of Massachusetts President's Office and a professor of English at Wheaton College.