As far as college experiences go, Sarah Clymer’s was up there with the best. She was a business major, a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, had an internship, and was valedictorian of her class at Manor College—a two-year institution in the Philly suburbs. But when she decided to transfer to a four-year university and pursue her bachelor’s degree, Clymer’s experience went downhill. She struggled to find the right information about financial aid, on-campus housing, and whether her credits would count toward a major at prospective colleges.
Clymer is hardly alone. Eighty percent of new community college students aim to earn a bachelor’s degree, but only 14 percent do so within six years, according to research from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. Even if students’ credit transfers, it often doesn’t count toward a bachelor’s degree—and they get poor advice, if any, about what classes to take.
New partnerships between community colleges and universities aim to make the transition smoother. Institutions are sharing curriculum and advising information so students can see clearly what it will take to earn a bachelor’s degree, and take explicit steps to get there.
Now, almost four years after she enrolled at Manor, Clymer is pursuing her bachelor’s degree online at Temple University. She has to re-take financial accounting and business communications courses, but with summer classes she plans to graduate within two years.
“When you talk to community college students who’ve transferred you just want to cry,” says Davis Jenkins, senior research associate at the Community College Research Center. “It’s incredibly challenging. They’re basically thwarted. The paths aren’t clear.”
Universities and community colleges tout hundreds of “articulation agreements,” which document transfer policies between the two institutions. In Texas, there are more than 1,000 such partnerships between colleges and universities. The problem with these agreements, Jenkins says, is that most are little more than a formality. Students often don’t know they exist, and university departments might not abide by them or communicate changes in their curriculum to the community colleges. “They should be a real relationship rather than a thing on paper,” he says.
The result of misinformation means students often take excessive credits that delay them from getting their degree. In Texas, students who earn an associate’s degree take an average of 90 credits for a 60-credit degree, according to Complete College America. Students earning a bachelor’s degree at “non-flagship” universities, to which the majority of community college students transfer, take 145 credits for a 120-credit degree. The cost of additional time in school—tuition and lost wages—adds up to tens of thousands of dollars for students.
Sharing data is one way to combat misconceptions around transfer practices. Many universities are unaware of just how vital transfer students are to their programs—and economic success. In 2000, Colorado State University polled faculty and staff about how many transfer students they thought were at their campuses; they guessed about 10 percent. The real number was 43 percent of all new CSU students. Without data on transfer students and their outcomes, faculty and staff are uncertain of how to help learners meet their goals.
A map with a guide
Last year students at Broward College, a two-year institution in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., noticed a revamped course catalog. Now they follow one of eight “career pathways” in areas like public safety and business. Each pathway includes a list of majors, suggested course sequences, and information about careers and earnings potential.
Broward is one of 30 community colleges participating in the American Association of Community Colleges’ “Pathways Project.” Over three years, each institution will overhaul its curriculum to offer structured academic and career pathways to all incoming students.
“It’s a major shift for many colleges,” says Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations at AACC. “It will impact everything from class schedules to the way advising is done, to the way courses are packaged together. It’s a massive change.”
Participating colleges, including Broward, are in their second year of the project. They’ve mapped the courses—seeking input from each other, from four-year institutions where many of their students transfer, and from local industry connections. Now they’re developing wraparound advising services to support students along the way.
The CCRC’s Jenkins says pathway programs show promise in cutting down on the bad advice that community college students receive too often: take general-ed courses, because the credits are easy to transfer. “We actually find that pretty early on if students don’t really know what to study then they’ll have to take even more college credits to meet requirements for their majors.”
For students with the means to spend more time in college, excess credits might not be a huge problem. But for community college students, for whom affordability is a key selling point, more time is often a barrier to graduation. “If we want to talk about upward mobility this is a big issue,” Jenkins says.