The Student Transfer Problem and How States Can Help Solve It

Blog Post
April 28, 2015

Nearly one third of students transfer institutions at some point in their college career, losing credits along the way. A recent study found that 15 percent of community college transfer students lost nearly all of their credits during the transfer process. Another third lost a significant amount—anywhere from 10 to 89 percent—of their credits. By losing credits or not having their credits count towards a degree, students waste precious time and money. For years now, both states and colleges have implemented policies to help improve the pathway for transfer students. So why haven’t these policies fixed the problem? There needs to be stronger alignment of state policy and institutional partnerships to create clearer pathways for students.

The best way to ensure transfer goes smoothly is to create a common understanding of the competencies gained through college classes. But since most states and institutions are far from agreeing on common competencies, they have focused on improving 2+2 transfer between community colleges and 4-year universities. This makes transfer more predictable and easier for students to navigate. There are a well-known set of state policies aimed at smoothing this connection. These policies include:

  • General education core curriculum. A set of lower division courses that are guaranteed to fulfill the general education requirements at all public four-year institutions within a state.
  • Guaranteed transfer of associate Guarantees that students who have earned an associate degree will be admitted to a public four-year college with junior standing.
  • Common course numbering system. Ensures that classes which are delivering equivalent learning outcomes have the same numbers across state systems so students know what the courses will count for at the receiving college.
So how do these state policies reinforce and align with institutional transfer partnerships?

Two state examples are illustrative. Florida has one of the strongest transfer systems in the country while Illinois’ system is not as robust. Florida has a guarantee that once a student has completed the general education classes at any university or state college (formerly community colleges) they will not be required to take another general education class when transferring to another public institution. The state also guarantees any student who has graduated with an associate of arts degree acceptance into a public four-year institution with junior standing. Before they earn 30 credits at a state college, prospective transfer students are required to declare what BA program they are interested in and the college is required to tell them the prerequisites for that program. This helps ensure their course taking at the state college is fulfilling the degree requirements at the four-year institution.

Illinois, however, doesn’t create as clear of a pathway for transfer students. There is a general education core but it is voluntary for institutions that want to participate. And if students don’t complete the entire thing there is no guarantee that the individual classes will transfer. There is no guarantee that students graduating with an associate degree will be admitted to a public four-year college.

To understand what this looks like at the institutional level, there are partnerships in both Florida and Illinois that can help to tease out how these different state policy environments correlate with increased transfer.

The University of Central Florida has a partnership with four state colleges called DirectConnect to UCF guaranteeing admission to UCF. The program also provides:

  • Preferential admission to select bachelor’s degree programs at UCF.
  • Joint advising from UCF and the two-year college.
  • UCF classes offered on the two year campus or UCF’s nearby regional campuses
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is participating in the general education core.  But they also have a partnership with nearby Parkland College called the Parkland Pathway that also guarantees admissions to UI in a number of particular degree programs.  The program also provides:
  • Joint advising from Parkland and UI.
  • The opportunity to take classes on the UI campus while enrolled at Parkland.
  • Guaranteed access to certain UI perks like libraries, extracurricular activities, and recreational facilities.
While the partnerships are very similar, UCF admits over 7,000 transfer students just from Florida’s state colleges and 86 percent of those come from the four partner colleges. UI only admits 700 transfers from Illinois’ 2-year colleges and only 27 percent of those originate at Parkland. Of course, this comparison is imperfect. UI is a flagship university while UCF is not and Parkland College is much smaller than the colleges in partnership with UCF.

To be sure, we need better data and more research to understand how the state policy context affects the success of these partnerships. But as Illinois and Florida illustrate, the state policy context could create better incentives for more effective partnerships among institutions. In this case, Florida’s comprehensive state policies may help ensure students who want to transfer have a smoother path. As more states follow Florida’s lead, they should consider how to deliberately create incentives for strong institutional partnerships.  Well aligned, these partnerships can reinforce implementation of the state policy on the ground.