Transfer trailblazers in higher ed

Taking articulation agreements between community colleges and four-year institutions to the next level with a focus on pre- and post-transfer success

Kate Wing, a senior at Smith College, will soon join the 14 percent. That is, the 14 percent of students who started their postsecondary education in a community college, then transferred to a four-year school and earned a bachelor’s degree within six years of entry.

“In general the pathways to transfer are not clear, and universities and colleges don’t often do much about it, but that is changing,” says Davis Jenkins, senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University.

Jenkins unveiled the 14 percent statistic in his 2016 report, “Tracking Transfer: New Measures of Institutional and State Effectiveness in Helping Community College Students Attain Bachelor’s Degrees.”

Successful transfer articulation agreements “go well beyond just a paper transfer agreement,” says Jenkins. “Doing these relationships well is expensive. Institutions have to pay for advisors to go to community colleges, for example. It makes sense for colleges to build relationships with other institutions close to them.”

Smith College’s Ada Comstock Scholars program for nontraditional women (age 24 and over, veterans or women with dependents) is a long-term initiative that has seen nearly 2,200 transfer students complete a bachelor’s degree at the women’s college in Massachusetts.

Sidonia Dalby, associate director of admission and Ada Comstock advisor, recruits students from community colleges throughout the United States.

In addition, since the mid-1990s Smith has had articulation agreements with several institutions, including Greenfield Community College and Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, Miami Dade College, and Santa Monica College in California.

“Smith is very committed to access and some of our strongest students enter the college from community colleges,” says Dalby. “One ‘Ada’ just completed a Fulbright year in Indonesia, another is in graduate school at Harvard and a single mom who graduated in May is in law school at the University of California, Berkeley.”

Dalby has tight relationships with people she calls “transfer champions” at community colleges to help steer students toward a successful transfer to Smith.

“They could be a staff member dedicated to serving transfer students or a faculty member committed to their student’s success. Transfer champions are vital part of relationship-building and keeping articulation agreements alive.”

A few other ways higher ed institutions take transfer agreements to the next level involve offering access to the four-year school early, ensuring the pathway is very clear from the get-go, and recognizing the need to cut through student financial barriers to completion.

Boosting campus: Integration opportunities

Advisors at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania often work with students who aren’t even students there—yet.

Tara Vasold Fischer, associate dean of academic advising and college dean/coordinator of Dickinson’s Community College Partnership Program, says there’s almost a two-year relationship before a student even applies to Dickinson.

The program prepares full-time, highly motivated honors students from four community colleges for transfer.

Fischer works closely with community college advisors to identify transfer prospects as soon as they start taking classes at the community college. Then she’ll have one-on-one conversations—over the phone or in person—with students who express interest in transferring to Dickinson.

“It enables us to do more long-term curricular planning with them and they have a clear view about what their time at Dickinson would look like,” says Fischer. “It is not just about the academic experience. We take a lot of time to connect students with information and contacts they need for the social transition to be smooth.”

Dickinson launched the program in 2008–09 and has relationships in place with four community colleges: Howard Community College and Montgomery College in Maryland, and Montgomery County and Northampton community colleges in Pennsylvania.

Students at these two-year schools intending to transfer to Dickinson must connect with Fischer to indicate interest in the college early on in their career at the community college.

In partnership with Honors contacts at the respective community college, she then works to provide customized advising that helps ensure the student is on the track to transition smoothly into Dickinson (if the student ultimately chooses to apply and is accepted to the college).

She also simultaneously advises in a general enough manner that options are always open for the student to ultimately enroll at any selective liberal arts college.

Since spring of 2009 Dickinson has had 29 students come through the Community College Partnership Program. Three students are currently enrolled (one of whom will graduate in 2017, the other two in 2018).

All of the Community College Partnership students have graduated in four semesters. Looking to the future, the program size will be adjusted based on institutional goals, which are evaluated each year.

Another partnership helping community college students transfer successfully is the UD Sinclair Academy, involving Sinclair Community College and the University of Dayton, both in Ohio. The academy, which enrolled its first class of students in fall 2016, offers pathways to 22 majors at the university.

“Students don’t miss out on being part of the university community while they are taking classes at the community college,” says Julia Thompson, associate director of the Office of Admission and Financial Aid at Dayton.

From their first day at Sinclair, academy participants can join Dayton clubs, meet with academic advisors and take advantage of peer mentoring through the university’s Office of Multicultural Affairs.

Meanwhile, the Bridges to Excellence program for underserved students—a partnership between Dutchess Community College and Marist College in New York—boasts a 90 percent completion rate.

Eight students from the program have graduated with a bachelor’s degree since its launch in 2010, and 33 are currently part of the program. Its secret? Intensive mentoring and advising.

The two institutions work together from the very beginning of the recruitment process. Students choose one of five majors guaranteed to transfer to Marist and are assigned an advisor who assists with academics and provides social and emotional support, says Christopher Doyle, director of transfer admission at Marist.

“We’re focused on students from our community who are, statistically speaking, the least likely to graduate from a four-year college, and we’re focused on helping them graduate one year faster [than the national average of five years],” says Doyle.

“Once someone crosses that educational threshold of receiving a four-year degree, it’s a transformational event, not only for the recipient of that degree, but for their children and their grandchildren, who become much more likely to do the same.”

Supporting nontraditional students

FSU@Mass Bay—a new partnership between Framingham State University and Massachusetts Bay Community College, both in the Boston area—allows students to stay at the community college to finish a bachelor’s degree. Recruiting for the first fall 2017 cohort of students is underway.

“Students get the best of both worlds,” says Lisa Slavin, assistant vice president of enrollment management at Mass Bay Community College. “They get the comfort they know at Mass Bay, but the benefit of being a true FSU student.”

Students in the FSU@MassBay program can go to the FSU campus and have access to facilities just like any student enrolled directly at FSU.

An evening program, FSU@Mass Bay has Framingham State professors come to the community college to teach for the second two years.

“Students love the idea that they don’t have to change their schedule to enroll in this program,” says Slavin. They can keep their evening course schedule and do what they need to during the day with, for example, work or childcare arrangements.

And since the curriculum is already planned for them, they know what the next two years will look like from the get-go.

Removing financial barriers

In 2016-17, the average tuition and fees for a full-time student at public two-year institutions nationally was $3,520, compared with $9,650 (in-state) at public four-year colleges and $33,480 at private universities, according to the College Board.

In other words, transferring to a four-year institution means a mighty tuition bill increase—one that many students feel they can’t afford.

So many community college/university partnerships make reducing costs a priority. Students at UD Sinclair Academy in Ohio, for example, qualify for up to $15,000 in merit aid for their junior and senior years at the University of Dayton, as well as textbook assistance and study abroad scholarships.

They enroll in Sinclair Academy knowing the full cost of their education.

“Our program removes financial barriers by not just having scholarships, but by locking students into their tuition for the full program when they start the academy experience,” says Thompson.

Smith College awards financial aid to the fullest extent of financial need. More than 90 percent of Ada Comstock Scholars receive need-based aid, and about 85 percent get grants to cover tuition, says Dalby. “One student told me it cost her less to attend Smith than her local community college.”

An FSU@Mass Bay bachelor’s degree costs $28,000 if the student completes the program in four years. Students who take longer than four years to complete the bachelor’s degree receive a the tuition discount from Framingham State University of up to $240 per course.

“Ten years ago, transferring was kind of a clunky process. We are trying to change that,” Slavin says. “And a lower cost is an added benefit for future students to help them attain their bachelor’s degrees.”

Elaina Loveland is a Boston-area writer.

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