“Community college was the perfect fit for me,” exclaims energetic, 21-year-old Mariah Boos. “I got a great experience at an affordable price.”
In spring 2022, Mariah graduated from Madison Area Technical College (MATC), her local Wisconsin community college. She enrolled at MATC in fall 2020 after reversing course on plans to attend a large out-of-state public university—a decision she and her family made during the first COVID-19 summer.
This fall, she is transferring to the University of Wisconsin- Madison—a transition she describes as “no stress, smooth, and easy.”
Mariah’s journey transferring to a four-year college after two years is, however, not the typical path of community college entrants.
About 80 percent of community college students aspire to earn a bachelor’s degree, yet only 31 percent transfer to four-year colleges within six years. Moreover, only 14 percent complete bachelor’s degrees within that timeframe, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics and the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC).
The Tackling Transfer Policy Advisory Board characterizes the transfer process as “broken” and in need of a “reset.” In a 2021 report, the board of experts organized by higher education policy organizations concluded that “transfer students face an uphill battle as they contend with unclear information and insufficient guidance on this complex process, along with disrupted financial aid and other challenges.” The report emphasizes that “barriers to completion are particularly high for Black, Latinx and Indigenous students, and students from lowincome communities,” noting that the six-year bachelor’s degree completion rate for low-income community college students is just 9 percent.
NACAC professionals who work with transfer students affirm that too many obstacles limit timely community college completion and that transfer processes involve too much friction. “There is no true pathway from the K–12 system to community colleges to the bachelor’s degree,” states David Follick, assistant vice president for academic student services at Nassau Community College (NY) and a NACAC member who co-leads the NACAC Community College/Transfer Special Interest Group.
Yet Follick, other transfer professionals, and advocates are optimistic that headway is being made on transfer improvements. “Previously, some four-year colleges saw two-year colleges as competitors” he states. “Now we all see the value-add of working together to make transferring as seamless as possible.”
Heather Adams, a transfer expert with Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, believes that the turbulence and stress of the past 2½ years are catalyzing “momentum and innovation” toward transfer reform. “When things get all shookup, you get busy making changes.”
Santa Clara University (SCU) in California enrolled 135 new transfer students in fall 2015. By fall 2021, the number increased to 240, equal to 15 percent of new enrollments, with about 60 percent transferring from community colleges.
A.J. Williams, director of transfer, athletic and international recruitment, predicts a higher intake of new transfers this fall.
The upward trajectory of transfer enrollment is no accident, says Williams. Transfers are a critical vehicle for SCU’s “slow creep” from 5,600 total undergraduates to 6,000. Transfers are actively recruited and courted; their applications are not just passively received and then processed with a second-class lack of urgency.
“We try to make the transfer process transparent and as easy as possible,” he says.
According to Williams, the key elements of SCU’s transfer recruitment strategy are 1) transparent and web-publicized transfer agreements with local community colleges, 2) targeted email marketing campaigns, and 3) a deliberate strategy for conducting transfer recruitment outreach activities.
If SCU lands a larger transfer class this fall, it will be running counter to recent higher education trends.
Nationally, community colleges have lost 827,000 students since the COVID-19 pandemic began. As a cascading consequence of this and other factors, transfer enrollments are down 16 percent nationwide since early 2020, according to NSC data. Private nonprofit four-year institutions like SCU, with the exception of the most highly selective institutions, have actually been more deeply impacted by these declines than public four-year institutions.
Rutgers University-Newark (NJ) is one institution confronting a steep falloff in new community college transfer enrollments.
Pre-pandemic, the Newark campus was routinely enrolling 1,200 new transfers annually. As of early 2020, administrators at the university planned for new transfer enrollments, already at 48 percent of all new enrollments, to reach parity with new first-time freshman enrollments.
But then the pandemic arrived and in-person recruitment activities halted. Prior to the pandemic, the presence of Rutgers-Newark transfer counselors at feeder community college campuses had been critical to the university’s transfer recruitment effort.
“We lost the best way to engage with students and answer their questions. We had leaned heavily on these partnerships and satellite offices,” says Vincent Tepedino, director of transfer admissions.
The numbers of inquiries, applications, and final enrollments from community college students diminished, as did “the quality of students’ readiness for Rutgers’ requirements,” explains Tepedino. At the same time, the number of international transfers plunged, particularly from China. This was the perfect storm, and in 2021, new transfers enrollment dropped 30 percent from the 2019 level to 851 students, which was a return to the 2014 new transfer intake level.
Now in 2022, Rutgers-Newark counselors are back in satellite offices at community college campuses. Yet there are progressively fewer community college students to recruit. The pandemic-prompted enrollment slump is a sustained enrollment plummet. Between spring 2020 and spring 2022, enrollment at New Jersey’s community colleges fell 25 percent from 119,177 to 89,220. With this narrowing of the community college funnel, Tepedino predicts another rough fall 2022 transfer intake.
Finding a bright side amid an otherwise scary context, Tepedino notes that Rutgers-Newark is implementing several transferfriendly reforms. A recently launched online undergraduate marketing degree will be attractive to transfers. Further, a new technology platform will enable Tepedino and his team to turn around credit transfer evaluations more quickly, a critical must-have for successful transfer recruitment, he says.
“The pandemic and its fallout are pushing us to be progressive, to use technology more, and to better engage prospective students,” he shares. “Our hand was forced by the pandemic to innovate.”
In the future, he would love to see more model transfer best practices at Rutgers-Newark, such as a transfer mentorship program, a one-stop transfer center, a transfer equivalency database, and, on a statewide basis, a common course numbering system.
For now, however, his immediate attention is on the fall 2022 recruitment effort and “getting students excited.”
As higher education leaders and transfer professionals work to strengthen transfer pathways, an increasingly popular reform has been the introduction of 2+2 partnerships between community colleges and four-year colleges.
A foundation for these partnerships is formal articulation agreements, which delineate how classes completed at one school will be accepted for credit at the other school (or schools). The best and most seamless 2+2 partnerships also include dedicated advising, data sharing, and high-level administrative collaboration, according to the Tackling Transfer Policy Advisory Board.
The UD Sinclair Academy (UDSA), a partnership between the University of Dayton (UD) and Sinclair Community College in Ohio, has been cited as a national 2+2 model.
Donnell W. Wiggins, associate vice president for strategic enrollment management and dean of admission, explains that UD was seeking to “diversify its recruitment channel” when it launched UDSA in 2016. “We couldn’t just rely on the first-year channel anymore.”
In the program, UDSA students are jointly enrolled at both institutions. They follow major pathways specifying the courses to take at each institution, and they receive coordinated advising to help them stay on track toward degree completion.
While attending classes at Sinclair, students are full-fledged members of the UD community and can join UD student clubs, study at the UD library, and exercise at UD’s RecPlex gym.
Low tuition at Sinclair for the first two years is the key selling point. Yet Wiggins points to another benefit—a guaranteed minimum financial aid package for the third and fourth years at UD, awarded upon entry to the UDSA program. This provision enables UDSA students to financially plan for the back half of their degrees and communicates that net UD tuition for low and moderateincome students is well below the sticker price.
From just nine students in fall 2016, the UDSA program grew to 117 participants by fall 2021. The initiative recently received $2.25 million in philanthropic funding, including from the Bloomberg Philanthropies, to offer UDSA students further scholarships and services.
“These students transform our campus for the better. As graduates, they meet critical needs in our local workforce and uplift our region,” noted Eric F. Spina, UD president, in a statement.
“Working with a local community college can really pay off,” adds Wiggins. “The status quo just wasn’t working. You have to be intentional and invest.”
An organization investing big in transfer students is the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation (JKCF).
The much-publicized JKCF Undergraduate Transfer Scholarships award up to $55,000 a year to top community college students transitioning to four-year colleges. Scholarship recipients additionally benefit from ongoing advisement, as well as opportunities for internships, study abroad, and graduate school funding.
Since 2002, nearly 1,200 scholarships have been awarded, with recipients enrolling at the country’s most elite institutions and earning degrees at high rates.
“Enrolling more transfers at highly selective institutions is not only viable, but it also enriches those institutions and the campus experience,” explains Mojeje Omuta, JKCF’s scholarship programs manager.
Over the past few years, a number of highly selective institutions that had previously never accepted community college transfers have begun to do so. They include Princeton University (NJ) in 2018 and Bowdoin College (ME) in 2022.
“We at the Cooke Foundation would like to see more community college transfer students accepted to elite four-year institutions,” states a 2019 report from the foundation. “Community college transfers are not only successful but also have the potential to diversify selective institutions’ student bodies along the lines of socioeconomic status, first-generation status, or age.”
Transfer experts offer the following recommendations:
Mauricio Majano, a college and career access specialist at Highline High School (WA) located in the sprawling region between Seattle and Tacoma, wishes that community college worked as a gateway for his students on a more consistent basis.
“Starting with an associate degree can be a perfectly successful path to a bachelor’s degree,” he says emphatically. But his experience monitoring the progress of Highline alumni also suggests that barriers related to cost, complexity, and a host of other factors sometimes derail students from achieving their educational goals.
This summer, he’s partnering up with counselors at one local community college to provide enrollment transition support and troubleshooting to Highline alumni. But overall, he wishes “that community colleges were more hands-on and that advising was more systematic.”
Many of his students are “inclined to stay close to home,” a lingering effect of the pandemic. As a consequence, he argues it’s particularly important that there be more resources and increased accessibility to those resources for community college students. “Free college or tuitionfree college is an important conversation that I’d like to see happen more.”
Eric Neutuch is a freelance writer.