The Missed Opportunities of Ignoring Community College Transfers

Grant DeRoo

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A 2018 report from the Jack Kent Cook Foundation explored the number of transfer students enrolling at 4-year colleges and universities in the US. The researchers found that just 5% of new students at colleges considered to be “most competitive” transfer in from community colleges.

Colleges are missing out on an opportunity to not only increase their graduation rates, but also the diversity of their programs. Grant De Roo joins Mariah Obiedzinski to discuss.


Podcast Transcript

Mariah: I’m Mariah Obiedzinski, director of content strategy at Stamats. Joining me today is Grant De Roo, director of research and strategy at Stamats. Welcome, Grant.

Grant: Thank you.

Mariah: Today, we’re discussing a 2018 report from the Jack Kent Cook Foundation that explored the number of transfer students enrolling at 4-year colleges and universities in the US. The researchers found that just 5 percent of new students at colleges considered to be the most competitive, transfer in from community colleges.

In other words, colleges are missing out on an opportunity to not only increase their graduation rates, but also the diversity of their programs.

Grant, students who plan to attend community college first before applying to a 4-year school show tenacity and they show dedication to their educations. Why wouldn’t 4-year colleges or universities be clamoring for these applicants?

Grant: There’s a lot of things at work, and I think one of the quick, easy, maybe flip response is to say in the past they haven’t had to. Right? When students were plentiful and not just first-time in college students, but also transfers from other 4-years, they didn’t need to pay attention to community college transfers.

And there was a bit of a segmentation in the higher-ed market between those who got 4-year degrees and those who got 2-year degrees. Today, it’s not quite so easy a path to climb for a lot of 4-year colleges. And they see opportunity in exploring the 2-year school transfer market. So, that’s one of the things.

Inertia is really powerful in higher ed and getting past what’s been done previously can be really hard in recruiting and marketing. And just keep going with the same thing that’s worked in the past. And then of course, there’s this bucket of perceptions about community college students. And again, I used this verb before, this bifurcation of higher education that there were students who were best fit for a 4-year school and there are students who are best fit for a 2-year school.

And it’s not really a true segmentation of the student market. There are plenty of students who would be successful and would thrive at a 4-year school, but instead choose to go to a 2-year school for cost, for proximity to home, for a whole host of reasons. But those are two of the most important. And then would go on to transfer to 4-year schools. They’re just going about it in a much more sensible, practical way because there are constraints in their lives.

For all of those reasons, combined with the fact that again, I go back to this perception of students who go to 2-year schools might not be able to hack it at 4-year schools, to put it very simply.

I think it’s a pretty pervasive perception among a lot of people in higher ed or outside of it, who think that students who go to 2-year schools, they’re going to get their associate’s, they’re going to go out, they’re gonna work in a trade or they’re going to work in maybe a lower-level white collar position. And that 4-year schools just never were intended for them, and it’s not really the case today.

So, I think some of those old, prior perception stigmas are falling away a bit. And 4-year schools are paying more attention, but certainly not as much as they should, as this research pointed out.

Mariah: That’s really unfortunate. What are some of the opportunities, not just for those students, but for the organizations that don’t go after them? What are some of the opportunities of not recruiting those students?

Grant: Well, that’s one of the really interesting things. You hear from 4-year schools all the time that they want to increase diversity of their pools. They want their student bodies to reflect the world at large. And for a lot of 4-year schools, that’s a pipe dream. And they are so far away from that today, that it would take a lot to get there.

And at the same time, that they are putting out these claims about wanting to increase diversity, they’re not paying attention to would-be transfers from community colleges. Community college by-and-large are much more diverse than 4-year student populations.

One of the most obvious ways in racial ethnic diversity, visible diversity, but certainly in terms of socioeconomic diversity. If 4-year colleges are serious about wanting to increase and enhance diversity of their student bodies, community college transfers offer a really great opportunity for that.

So, that’s one of the biggest missed opportunities. On a different level, community college transfers, we know, often have just as strong GPAs or higher GPAs than students who started at the 4-year as a first-time in college student. They graduate in four years at higher rates than other students. And they are retained at higher rates than other students.

So, basically, these students really have their act together. Those who go on to 4-year schools, they really do well. And they actually exceed students who entered as a freshman, you know, first-time in college student. They exceed those students in a lot of different ways.

So, there are missed opportunities in terms of the composition of the student body, but also missed opportunities to increase graduation rates, increase retention rates, increase GPAs, and just generally, having happier, more satisfied students because they’re graduating on time.

Mariah: What are some of the strategies that you’ve seen work in regards to outreach to these community college students?

Grant: So, in terms of outreach, you know, formal articulation agreements are really important. There is – one of the biggest challenges and problems I think in higher ed as a whole, but certainly in terms of transfer between 2-year and 4-year schools, is credits not being recognized by the 4-year institution.

I think in a lot of ways it’s hubris on the part of the 4-year school to say, “Well, yeah, they took biology, but they didn’t take our biology.” And in a lot of cases, I think that’s B.S. – especially for the student who is not going to study biology, but who’s getting a business management degree. They took the courses that they needed to satisfy X, Y and Z requirements, or so they thought. But then they go on to this 4-year school, and they’re told that, “These credits don’t count because you didn’t take them here.”

This actually happened to my sister, who transferred twice, once from a 2-year school to a 4-year school. And her credits didn’t transfer in the way that she was expecting, in the way that she was told would be the case. That’s what happens for a lot of students.

So, having those systems in place is really, really important. Having established concordance tables between a community college or technical college’s curriculum, and what those credits translate to at the 4-year school is essential. So, that way students know what they’re getting, and that really helps them graduate on time.

So, that’s one huge thing. Another is creating cohort experiences. One of the things that’s lost is so much of the literature, so much of the conversation focuses on recruiting these students. And not as much as on what happens when they get there. It’s a big transition. You can imagine what it’s like to be living at home, going to a 2-year school where everybody else is living at home. And you’re going through kind of a similar type of experience.

Now you transfer to a 4-year school and it’s a different student population. There’s different experiences represented on campus. Maybe half the students, maybe two-thirds of the students live on campus. There’s just different experiences.

So, having a cohort experience as a transfer student is critical for their success once they get there, in terms of student advising, core success, and student life, overall life satisfaction at the college. So, having cohort experiences, maybe it’s a transfer student organization, maybe it’s really close student advising in the first semester, maybe first two semesters. And both academic and student life advising is really critical.

Mariah: If an organization is inspired to improve communication with and marketing to those community college transferees, what should they have in place before they reach out to you?

Grant: Yeah. So, clear goals in mind is always critical and an ultimate purpose too. So, do you want to grow enrollment generally? Do you have a specific number in mind? Why are you doing this? What are the specific goals? Is it, again, are you trying to increase retention? Or are you just trying to grow enrollment? Are you trying to increase diversity in a particular way?

And two, through particular programs, you know, if a particular college in the area has ABC associate’s degree programs, but you don’t offer bachelor’s degree programs in those fields, should we really expect many of those students enrolled in those programs to transfer?

So, having those things in places and thinking a little bit further ahead than just saying, “Well, we just want more students.” Thinking a little bit further ahead about what it means to actually recruit, enroll and graduate those students is really critical.

So, ensuring that you’ve thought through a few of those questions is really important, and then identifying several community and technical colleges, often that means regional, so looking to your immediate service area. Maybe it’s a state, maybe it’s just a few counties, maybe it’s a region. But looking to those schools and sharing with us whatever sort of context or history might exist between your institution and those community colleges is really critical. And just recognizing that these partnerships can take some time to form.

It takes both parties demonstrating that they’re eager and willing to participate in this transfer process between the 2-year and 4-year school, and recognizing that does take a while, whether it’s curriculum, politics, what have you. It can be hard, but ultimately it can be really worth it.

It’s important both for the 4-year school, but most importantly for of course the students, who then are getting the bachelor’s degree that they may want and opening up new opportunities that weren’t previously available to them.

Mariah: Thanks for your insights today, Grant.

Grant: Thank you.

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