Changemaker Spotlight: A Conversation with the Community College Research Center on Understanding the Community College Experience

May 28, 2019

Changemaker Spotlight: A Conversation with the Community College Research Center on Understanding the Community College Experience

Last month, John Fink, senior research associate at the Community College Research Center (CCRC), shared his thoughts with Common App about CCRC’s research findings, common misconceptions about community college students, and what we can all do to support student transitions - no matter what paths they may choose.

What has been one of the most surprising findings through your team’s extensive research on the community college experience?

John Fink: A common idea of community college transfer is that it is usually “2 + 2”: A student spends two years at the community college and two years at the four-year college, and earns a bachelor’s. In fact, as I detail in this blog post, only 8 percent of successful community college transfer students followed the 2 + 2 pattern. When students were tracked over six years, 2 + 3, 3 + 3, and 2 + 4 patterns were slightly more common, though no one pattern applied to a majority of transfer students. This is not a reason to abandon the idea of the 2+2 as the idealized sequence, but the reality is that transfer students’ lives and enrollment patterns are often more complicated.

What is some not-so-well-known wisdom that you want to share with any student thinking about attending community college?

JF: Transfer students might think to ask—“Will my credits transfer?” but they should really be asking “How will my credits apply to my bachelor’s degree?” The difference—between credit transferability and credit applicability—is a bit nerdy, but it might mean the difference of a semester or two of excess coursework. The first question on transferability will yield responses about the college’s numerous articulation agreement and course equivalencies—all of which are fine and good. But without the second part on applying credits to a major, students might be able to transfer their credits but they might not actually count for their degree requirements. Instead, they will end up with a surplus of elective credits.

We know that a relatively small percentage of community college students successfully transfer and achieve a bachelor’s degree within six-years. What are some key hurdles for these students? What can the higher education community do to help reduce some of these barriers?

JF: In discussing barriers to transfer it’s important to talk about institutional barriers because students are often unfairly blamed, and blame themselves, for the difficulties they face in transferring successfully. But actually the biggest barriers are ones that colleges—not students—need to fix. Of particular importance are institutional barriers that affect students early on in their educational journey. Research on academic momentum suggests that students benefit from a strong start in college, yet most bachelor’s-degree-seeking community college students do not even transfer to a four-year institution, let alone complete the bachelor’s degree. Research the Community College Research Center (CCRC) and others have done has pointed to four institutional barriers that potential transfer students encounter: 1) The paths to successful transfer and degree completion are unclear, 2) Colleges may fail to provide adequate advising and progress monitoring to help prospective transfer students explore, enter, and progress along transfer pathways, 3) Colleges may fail to help students gain “aspirational” momentum in a field of interest, and 4) Dual enrollment offerings might not be designed to help students actively explore interests and develop goals for college and careers.

What has your research team learned from high-performing community college systems in terms of improving transfer pathways?

JF: In CCRC and Aspen's Transfer Playbook we outline a set of practices for community colleges and universities seeking to strengthen their transfer student outcomes, based on visits to six highly-effective transfer partnerships across the country.

We found that strong transfer partnerships 1) Make transfer a priority, 2) Create clear program pathways with aligned high-quality instruction, and 3) Provide tailored transfer student advising. These three components work together to create seamless paths for transfer students. At the core is clear alignment (curricular and pedagogical) between community college and four-year courses for a particular bachelor’s degree program, co-developed by faculty at both colleges. But without support from advisors, students might not find these transfer pathways, build their own transfer plan, and make continual progress. Further, without the institution prioritizing transfer success, faculty and staff might not have the support they need to build and maintain these transfer pathways.

As many community college students look to transfer to a 4-year institution, how can they be proactive in making the transition a bit more seamless? What available resources can they seek to help get them to their next destination?

JF: Two important questions for students to explore and clarify as they prepare for transfer are: Where do I want to transfer to and what do I want to major in at the university? The sooner students know the answers to those questions, the better they can take advantage of transfer pathways community colleges and universities may have created to ease credit transfer.

Knowing the specific requirements of the major at the university is crucial to ensuring credits aren't just transferred but applied to a degree. One example we hear over and over again is the different math requirements for business majors: some universities require statistics and some require calculus. Getting it right can save time and money.

Also, students might be told to “get your general education credits out of the way” at community college, but this might not be the best advice if students aren't actively exploring what they want to major in and at what university. Our research on excess credits among BA completers who started at a community college suggests that students aren't taking the right general education credits to ensure they actually apply to their eventual bachelor's degree programs (instead of being counted as extra electives).

Finally, although transfer advising or visiting a transfer center might be on a college’s pre-graduation checklist, it's actually really important to start the transfer planning process immediately, while students are figuring out their educational plan at a community college. Students should work with advisors at the community college to build a full educational plan, including how all of their community college credits will apply to their bachelor's degree program, the inclusion of other co-curricular experiences (like internships or research with faculty), and a financial plan through completion of their bachelor's degree.

Transferring from a 2-year to a 4-year institution is known to be a potentially challenging process. If a student is wondering whether or not their hard work is worth it, what would you say to them to help encourage them to stay the course?

JF: It can be tough to get connected to university life coming in as a transfer. If you are a rising junior, a lot of your classmates will have been at the university for a couple years and you might feel like you are arriving at the party halfway through. Also, incoming transfer students might not have the same access to co-curricular experiences like learning communities or undergraduate research as students who started as freshman (though many universities are working on this).

What's encouraging is many universities are creating dedicated services and programs to help transfer students transition to the university both socially and academically. Your university might have specific transfer programming or a transfer center that you can connect with. What's more, many universities really value what you bring to their campus as a former community college student: you have experiences navigating multiple campus contexts in higher education, something not all students can say they have done! Transfer students are transition pros, and life is full of transitions, so you've got a leg up!


John Fink is a senior research associate with the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.