8 keys to building a fairer college transfer system

Newly formed network pushes for reforms that would make transferring more equitable and affordable
By: | October 30, 2020
Minority students from working-class and lower-income backgrounds are the fastest-growing segment of future college students. (GettyImages/Marcus Chung)Minority students from working-class and lower-income backgrounds are the fastest-growing segment of future college students. (GettyImages/Marcus Chung)

More than half of transfer students who eventually earned their bachelor’s degrees could not apply all their transfer credits toward those diplomas.

Black, Latinx and Native American students are all more likely to transfer than are white students, while low-income students are far more likely to start at a community college.

And, 20% of students from higher-income communities who begin at a community college earn a bachelor’s degree in six years. That number is 9% for students from lower-income communities.

These and similar numbers have led a group of high-profile organizations to push for reforms they say would make the transfer system more equitable at public colleges and universities.


More from UB: Working students look to community colleges for balance


Members of The Scaling Partners Network, created by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, say changes are urgently needed as the COVID economic crisis could create a historically large wave of transfer students.

At the same time, minority students from working-class and lower-income backgrounds are the fastest-growing segment of future college students, says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, one of the organizations in the coalition.

More students are also likely to enter four-year institutions with community college credits because of the momentum building behind the free college movement and expansion of high school dual-enrollment programs, Carnevale says.

“The public system needs to become all one system in a sense,” Carnevale says. “The current higher ed business model, especially for privates, does not encourage transfer.”

The network is calling upon legislators to:

  • Analyze transfer policies with a racial equity lens.
  • Design state aid to be portable when students transfer.
  • Incentivize institutions to develop, scale and sustain programs that promote collaboration between institutions.

Recommended actions for higher education leaders include:

  • Disaggregating, analyzing, and regularly distributing data from sending and receiving institutions to community colleges to better understand current student outcomes
  • Developing tuition price guarantees and scholarships for transfer students similar to assistance awarded to an institution’s first-year students
  • Creating clear pathways with robust dual-admissions agreements that map student pathways
  • Building a sense of belonging for transfer students
  • Guaranteeing applicability of credits upon transfer

More from UB: How a community college aims to reverse STEM underrepresentation


The common course numbering system now used by two- and four-year public institutions in Florida is one model that other states could replicate to increase equity and affordability, Carnevale says.

Florida’s system gives students confidence two-year credits will transfer and they won’t have to spend money on courses that might be repetitive, he says.

“There has to be continuity between the structures of four-year and two-year institutions at the program level,” Carnevale says. “We’ve got to build a system with pathways that start in high school.”