Long before COVID-19 brought chaos to higher education, community college students hoping to eventually earn a bachelor’s degree were routinely undermined by policies and practices that hampered transfer student success. Our country’s poor and deeply inequitable completion rates for transfer students are well documented, and, despite the efforts of many leaders and practitioners, the burden historically has been placed on students for navigating complicated systems rather than on institutions for reforming systems to work better for transfer students.
In recent years, that has begun to change, but too often efforts to improve transfer student success have been disjointed and siloed, rather than operating at the core of our institutions and higher education system. As a result — still today — only 14 percent of degree-seeking students who start at a community college earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, despite the fact that 80 percent start out saying they plan to do so. Less than a third even manage to transfer to a four-year institution. And transfer outcomes are much worse for lower-income students and students from persistently minoritized communities, an especially alarming fact given that those students are more likely to start their education at a community college.
We could go on about the numbers, but suffice it to say that — despite endless admiration of the problems facing transfer students and sincere effort among many practitioners and leaders — we continue to fail these students in huge numbers. That’s devastating for those individuals, and it hinders our country’s ability to build a healthy middle class now and into the future. COVID-19 has only made this situation more dire.
About Tackling Transfer
Tackling Transfer is a national project focused on fostering the conditions for scalable and measurable improvements in bachelor’s degree attainment rates for students who begin at community college, with the goal of achieving greater equity for students from low-income families and persistently marginalized or minoritized communities of color. Tackling Transfer is led by three organizations — the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, HCM Strategists and Sova — and includes focused work in select states, as well as national work aimed at lowering barriers to transfer student success. Tackling Transfer is made possible through the commitment and support of Ascendium Education Philanthropy, ECMC Foundation, the Joyce Foundation and the Kresge Foundation.
But this moment also presents a new sort of hope — a hope that, as COVID-19 forever changes the landscape of higher education in still-unknown ways, we are presented with a new set of opportunities for bold improvement that levels the playing field for community college students who hope to earn at least a four-year degree.
In the coming weeks and months, we intend to use this blog to elevate those opportunities. Last summer Doug Lederman reached out to discuss a survey Inside Higher Ed had commissioned to explore the attitudes of administrators involved in transfer policy and practice at colleges and universities. In the course of those conversations, we explored opportunities for seizing the moment provided by COVID-19 to accelerate and improve work around transfer student success.
During the fall, the Tackling Transfer partners collaborated with Inside Higher Ed to create a three-part webinar series, titled “Can We Finally Fix Transfer,” that elevated the voices of practitioners and advocates working on transfer around the country. Following that webinar series, we were invited to continue the partnership with Inside Higher Ed through a regular blog curated by the Tackling Transfer team. We’re grateful for this venue and delighted to join the esteemed ranks of Inside Higher Ed’s bloggers.
We have two goals in mind with this blog: first, we want to elevate the profile of work underway around the country to dramatically improve outcomes for transfer students as institutions navigate toward a still-unknown “next normal.” Second, we want to share lessons learned and tools being created through the Tackling Transfer partnership that institutions and systems can use to accelerate the pace of change and improve the quality of work aimed at lowering barriers to equitable transfer student success.
The work of the Tackling Transfer partnership is based on the conviction that meaningful — and meaningfully equitable — improvements in outcomes for transfer students entail clear-eyed and comprehensive attention to policy, practice, leadership, communications and culture. This blog will reflect that conviction by covering a wide range of topics that speak to issues across these dimensions of change. We will draw on the work of the partner organizations, the latest insights of leading researchers, the on-the-ground efforts of the leaders involved in the Tackling Transfer Policy Advisory Board and the candid reflections of practitioners working tirelessly to redesign policies and practices at scale. We invite readers to join us in this endeavor by sharing your own insights, stories, successes and challenges as you go about the work of improving outcomes for transfer students.
Together, we can seize the current opportunity for transformation — and fundamentally change the odds for millions of community college transfer students.