Researchers Seek to Increase 4-Year Degree Attainment among Community College Students

A new data report from the U.S. Department of Education suggests that community colleges and four-year universities can collaborate to enhance the transfer student experience.

In each state, the U.S. Department of Education released data on the institutions with the highest graduation rates for transfer students. The top-performing states were New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Maryland, and Virginia, while the lowest were South Dakota, Delaware, Indiana, New Mexico, and Louisiana.

This report was announced during a November summit that brought together hundreds of higher education leaders at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Virginia.

The data report highlights a persistent issue of poor graduation outcomes for college transfer students.

According to Josh Wyner, founder and executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute, community colleges have not adapted their practices to meet the increasing demand from students. He acknowledges that when community colleges only educated a small percentage of Americans, there were very few students who started at a community college and transferred to a four-year school. However, now approximately 40% of all undergraduate students attend community colleges with the goal of earning a bachelor’s degree.

In a press release, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona emphasized the need for increased support for transfer students, as the current higher education system often places barriers in their path, such as denying credit acceptance and requiring students to retake courses.

The Department of Education’s data report also focuses on the successful partnerships between community colleges and four-year institutions, known as “dyads,” that have high graduation rates for transfer students. Specifically, the report highlights the collaboration between Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and George Mason University’s ADVANCE program, which aims to improve transfer experiences and graduation rates.

Within the ADVANCE program, 13% of students who transferred from NOVA to George Mason University graduated with a bachelor’s degree within eight years. The program involves about 4,500 students.

The ADVANCE program offers a streamlined admission process, financial aid, academic advising, and dedicated support for transfer students. It also emphasizes the importance of defining curricular pathways and ensuring course alignment between the community college and the four-year university.

Jennifer Nelson, director of university transfer and initiatives at NOVA, highlights the positive impact of the collaboration between schools. She notes that every decision regarding the ADVANCE program is made jointly.

As for the broader patterns in transfer student data, research from the Community College Research Center suggests that graduation rates for community college students transferring to four-year universities are generally low. There are also significant variations in bachelor’s degree attainment rates among dyads of institutions, both within and across states.

The report concludes that institutional practice plays a crucial role in a student’s chance of graduation. While state policies can have some influence, it is troubling that certain institutions within the same state perform significantly better than others.

In order to ensure transfer student success, colleges must adapt their practices to meet the needs of this growing population. This includes creating clear programs of study, offering tailored advising, and prioritizing transfer students in terms of financial aid.

Leaders from community colleges and universities should collaborate and analyze transfer student population data. They can also align their expectations and course offerings to facilitate a seamless transition for students.

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