Chapter 10: Pathways to Success: Easing the Transition to Four-Year Universities with Comprehensive Guidance and Institutional Support
Posted on May 08, 2017Download as a PDF
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About 80 percent of students entering two-year institutions say they aim to ultimately complete a four-year degree. But only 14 percent of those students attain their goal within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
For many, community college is the only viable gateway into higher education. Unfortunately, the road ahead is patchy at best. Most students who begin at community colleges will never transfer to a four-year institution, and among those who do, many will not complete their degrees.
About 80 percent of students entering two-year institutions say they aim to ultimately complete a four-year degree. But only 14 percent of those students attain their goal within six years.
We must address this issue. The knowledge economy of the 21st century demands more college graduates (associates and bachelors) to remain competitive. Of the 7.2 million jobs lost in the recession last decade, 5.6 million were jobs for workers with a high school diploma or less, according to a 2016 report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW). Since 2011, the U.S. economy has added 11.5 million net new jobs for workers with postsecondary education but only 80,000 for those with a high school diploma or less, according to same CEW report.
Individuals need more higher education to reach the middle class. Delivering on this need requires a different approach to access and completion in our colleges and universities, one that is centered on the collaboration of two- and four-year institutions and focused on the best interest of their students. The outcome is the same: studies show that students who begin college at two-year institutions are at no disadvantage in the workforce when they earn a four-year degree.
The chances of securing a good job, one that pays middle-class wages and provides reasonable benefits, are significantly better for people who graduated from college than for those who didn't. According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, a student who graduates with an associate's (two-year) degree earns on average $423,000 more over the course of a lifetime than a student who did not attend college. And graduating with a bachelor's degree adds $541,000 in lifetime earnings on top of that $423,000.
A student who graduates with an associate's degree earns on average $423,000 more over the course of a lifetime than a student who did not attend college, and graduating with a bachelor's degree adds $541,000 in lifetime earnings on top of that.
The nation's six million community college students are more likely to be from minority demographic groups, more likely to be the first in their families to go to college, and more likely to be parents while in college than their eight million peers at public four-year colleges. Community colleges are better suited to the needs of many of these so-called non-traditional students, whose family and job demands often require the flexibility of night and online courses.
These two-year options offer significant savings. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, average tuition and fees at a public two-year institution are less than half the in-state cost at the average public university—and less than one-tenth of the average private non-profit tuition bill. A student who starts at a community college and successfully transfers to a four-year public institution can save more than 25 percent on the cost of a degree. If it weren't for the accessibility of community colleges, many students would never consider going to college.
But once they are in the system, those who aspire to a four-year degree often encounter a flawed, if not broken, transfer system challenged by disconnected curriculum, misaligned academic policies, and lack of effective and consistent transfer guidance and student support. There is limited transfer uniformity, even within states, and this disconnect has serious long-term consequences for students who slip through the cracks.
The message is loud and clear: education leaders must do a better job of removing obstacles along the transfer pathway to more seamlessly usher students from a community college to a four-year university.
With the cost of a college degree – and the importance of earning one – at an all-time high, relationships between community colleges and four-year institutions have never been more critical. That's one reason influential groups such as the Lumina Foundation, the Aspen Institute, the Bill Gates Foundation, and Public Agenda have devoted so much attention to community college transfers in recent years. The message is loud and clear: education leaders must do a better job of removing obstacles along the transfer pathway to more seamlessly usher students from a community college to a local four-year university. This experience should feel more like a transition than a transfer; more like a singular academic journey than a maze that unwittingly traps students with debt and unusable course credits that don't count toward a degree.
The institution I lead, George Mason University, located in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region, and our partner institution, Northern Virginia Community College (commonly referred to as NOVA), want to help lead this charge. We already combine to form one of the largest student pipelines in the country: twenty-nine percent of students who enroll at NOVA eventually attend Mason. Almost 3,000 students transferred from NOVA to Mason in each of the past two years, up from about 2,000 in 2008-09. Fifty-eight percent of NOVA graduates who transfer to a four-year college transfer to Mason, the largest public university in Virginia. A "very-high research" institution in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, Mason is equally committed to its public mission of access and enrolls the largest number of transfers in the state – 26.2 percent of all transfers in Virginia, from 2006-07 to 2009-10, according to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.
NOVA, one of the largest community colleges in the country, enrolls more than 75,000 students at its six campuses across Northern Virginia and through its extended learning programs. In Mason's 2015 graduating class of almost 5,000 students, 46 percent had taken courses at NOVA.
It's easy to understand the appeal of this well-traveled pathway: based on a comparison of current tuition and fees, starting at NOVA and transferring to Mason could save more than $13,000. That savings is significant. Many community college students are denied access to federal student loans in part because two-year schools are not convinced students will be able to repay their loans, and high default rates jeopardize access to other forms of financial aid, including Pell Grants.
Based on a comparison of current tuition and fees, starting at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and transferring to George Mason University could save more than $13,000.
Our partnership with NOVA is already surpassing national norms. Twenty percent of students who enter NOVA earn a bachelor's degree within six years, six points higher than the national average. But we can and must do more. Together, Mason and NOVA, both majority minority institutions, have identified many areas in which we can better serve students and streamline the transfer process.
For one, we must provide advisors who help students navigate through community college, prepare them for a successful transfer, and stick with them through graduation. That relationship and familiarity will provide a sturdier academic foundation and ease any potential culture shock. It also will require a new co-institutional navigation model, synchronization of academic policies across institutions, and resources for a more intensive, student-centered advising process. We must rebuild clear and efficient curricular pathways from community college through majors at four-year institutions and clearly articulate which credits transfer from one institution to the next, particularly which credits meet degree, and not just elective, requirements.
According to the Institute of Education Statistics, students on average lose 13 credits as a result of their first transfer. That is 13 too many – almost a full semester of a student's investment in higher education. We also must simplify the financial aid process for students in the pipeline from community college to a four-year institution.
We have our own work to do as public institutions in terms of coordination, but it must be noted that the most elite private four-year institutions also could take steps to be more welcoming to community college transfers. Transfer access research from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation estimates that fewer than 1 in 1,000 students at elite private institutions are community college transfers. The report cites economics and limited advising as barriers.
For our part, one of the first major steps we are taking is to launch a Mason-NOVA Dual Admissions Compact in mechanical engineering, which incorporates a shared advising process and full Mason transfer credit for NOVA mechanical engineering classes. The agreement also provides NOVA students with a Mason ID card, library and facility access, the ability to join Mason student organizations, and the opportunity to enroll in one Mason course each year. NOVA President Scott Ralls and I believe that the dual admissions program in mechanical engineering is only the beginning of a more finely tuned commitment between our institutions to help more community college students successfully transfer and graduate with a four-year degree.
The economic benefits of this partnership go beyond our graduates. If we can double to 40 percent the rate of current NOVA students completing a bachelor's degree, that's another 14,000 career-ready graduates we can provide to the Northern Virginia workforce, further fulfilling our role as an economic engine for our region. Northern Virginia is a bountiful job market, but it also can be an expensive place to live. So it is often NOVA/Mason graduates, and not workers from outside the area, who fill jobs in our region.
Attending a two-year school before transferring to a four-year college used to be seen as a last resort. Now, for many, it's a first resort, or only resort, because of the lower upfront cost and the realization that the prestigious four-year credential becomes more attainable thanks in part to the money saved those first two years. But the challenge remains steep: as cited, 14 percent of students who enter community college complete a bachelor's degree within six years, whereas 60 percent of those who begin at a four-year institution complete a bachelor's degree within six years, according to the Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment at the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University's Teachers College.
Two-year college students who go on to earn a bachelor's degree from a four-year institution do just as well in the job market as their peers who began their college education at four-year institutions.
The good news is that community college transfer students who complete their four-year degree are at no disadvantage in the workforce. The CCRC says that two-year college students who go on to earn a bachelor's degree from a four-year institution do just as well in the job market as their peers who began their college education at four-year institutions.
Community college students should be encouraged by the fact that it is not where you start but where you finish. With that in mind, two- and four-year institutions across the country must work together to ensure that the bridge between the two stops is as seamless and as sturdy as possible.