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Facilitating Community-College Transfers

Once upon a time, community colleges, originally known as junior colleges, were meant as places where many students would attend for two years, earn an associate’s degree, and then transfer to a four-year college. Leaders in traditional four-year institutions championed the idea of junior colleges because professors at B.A.-granting institutions didn’t want to be bothered with teaching general survey classes common in the freshman and sophomore years of college. The movement from two-year to four-year institutions was meant to be seamless.

But today, only 10% of students who enter a community college eventually earn a bachelor’s degree. There are many reasons for this low transfer and completion rate—including inadequate financial aid and growing economic and racial segregation between the two- and four-year sectors—but one important impediment is the difficulty in transferring credits from one institution to another.

This morning, I attended a terrific discussion at the Center for American Progress highlighting programs in several states to make the transfer of credits easier. Improving “articulation agreements” between institutions doesn’t command the attention of people the way, say, Congressman Anthony Weiner’s latest Twitter photo does. But the small audience at CAP was treated to an important discussion of programs that are boosting social mobility and college completion.

According to an issue brief written by CAP’s Louis Soares and others, community-college students who transfer to four-year institutions end up wasting a lot of time and duplicating efforts because credits at two-year institutions aren’t always counted. “The average community college student,” Soares and colleagues note, “is forced to amass 140 credits while pursuing a bachelor’s degree even though only 120 credits are typically necessary. Those 20 extra credits represent individual time, effort and money,” as well as wasted public investment. According to Frank Chang, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Community Colleges at the U.S. Department of Education, the inability to transfer credits also represents a “consumer protection” issue.

According to the panel, leaders in addressing the issue include institutions in Ohio, Indiana, and Texas.

* Ohio: Paula Compton, associate vice chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, outlined the state’s longstanding efforts to work to ensure that community-college credits transfer to four-year institutions. While some four-year faculty were resistant, she said, they worked with community colleges to beef up the rigor of courses to make them more equivalent in quality. Statewide articulation policies make transfers fluid, she said.

* Indiana: According to Amy Sherman of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and Ivy Tech Community College have a strong articulation agreement and enjoy other forms of cooperation. These ventures have increased transfers between the institutions from 240 in 1993 to 2,800 in 2009, Sherman said.

* Texas: Richard Rhodes, the president o f El Paso Community College, discussed the strong relationship between EPCC and the University of Texas at El Paso. Students not only easily transfer from EPCC to UTEP, they also can take courses in both institutions simultaneously.

Breaking down the barriers between two- and four-year institutions is critical for two reasons.

First, most directly, we are not now tapping into the full potential of community-college students because some substantial portion of the 90% who fail to eventually earn a bachelor’s degree should in fact be doing so. Research finds that students who begin at two-year institutions are much less likely to receive a bachelor’s degree than equally qualified students from similar demographic groups who begin at four-year institutions. Weaknesses in the community-college sector are partly responsible, but so is the difficulty in transferring credits between institutions.

Second, easing the transfer between two- and four-year colleges would make community colleges more attractive to middle- and upper-middle-class students—who would, in turn, bring social and political capital that would benefit everyone in the two-year college sector.

There are many strategies for making transfer more common. But the evidence from Ohio, Indiana, and Texas suggests that good articulation agreements represent an important first step to restoring one of the original missions of community colleges: providing many students with the ability to ultimately earn a full bachelor’s degree.

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