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Reevaluating community college transfer programs

Yesterday, the Hechinger Report published a story about the plight of students who transfer from a community college to a university. The widely syndicated story suggested that transfer students might be wasting their time at a community college. They’re being hamstrung by the age-old problems of articulation.

It’s not that universities don’t have articulation agreements. Or that state legislatures don’t require universities to accept transfer credits from community colleges. They already do. But transfer students don’t end up saving time or money by taking classes at community colleges. Universities accept transfer credits. In Michigan and several other states, they’re required to by law. In many cases, though, the community college credits fulfill elective requirements rather than satisfying degree requirements.

This strategy meets the requirements of these laws while sidestepping their intentions. It also prevents students from taking elective classes at the university that may fit better with their program. Students arrive on the university campus thinking that they’ve completed a year or two of school, only to find out that’s not the case.

In most cases though (6 out of 7), community college transfer students don’t earn a four-year degree within six years. To me, the saddest part of this revelation is that many community colleges have reduced their occupational education program in favor of so-called “transfer” programs. Occupational programs are expensive to operate. Inevitably, some administrator points that out and uses it as justification to shut down a program. (“We’re losing money!”)

You will never find “turning a profit” in the mission statement of a community college. Yet, short-sighted administrators return to this tired excuse every year they need to cut the budget. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of occupational education programs declined to its lowest level since 2005-2006.

Focus on completions so community college transfer students can succeed

The upshot here is that community colleges have dismantled their bread-and-butter occupational programs to focus more resources on transfer programs. But most community college transfer students don’t transfer – and when they do – they rarely succeed.

The “less expensive” path to a four-year degree actually costs more in the long run. When you add the cost of retaking classes that didn’t count toward a graduation requirement and the added time (and increased tuition costs) needed to complete a degree, students have to ask themselves if a community college transfer strategy is worth it.

All of this points to the “correctness” of the McKinsey & Company report I wrote about yesterday. When community colleges focus on completions rather than enrolling new students, everyone wins.

Photo Credit: Christina B. Castro, via Flickr