William Ingram, Audrey J. Jaeger, and C. Ryan Knight: Prioritizing Transfer: The Path Forward for Transfer Student Success

Transfer remains a vital component of community colleges’ missions, particularly as the cost of higher education at universities makes it difficult for many students to matriculate. Allowing students to start in higher education at a community college and then transfer provides access for many students who would otherwise not be able to pursue their goals and dreams.

Yet numerous problems abound with transfer programs at community colleges. In The Transfer Playbook, the Aspen Institute and the Community College Research Center (CCRC) reported that less than 20% of transfer students attained baccalaureate within six years.

The reasons many transfer programs fail to live up to their potential are well-documented: inadequate advising, weaknesses in remedial education, poor quality of coursework at community colleges, insufficient financial aid planning, and more. Some students persevere through these setbacks and complete their bachelor’s, but far too many do not have the support they needed to persist.

Fortunately, several community colleges give us a better understanding of the most important steps needed to improve transfer programs. The Transfer Playbook identified three essential practices of successful transfer programs:

  • prioritizing “transfer student success”;
  • creating clear pathways for programs, which are taught by exceptional faculty; and
  • providing “tailored transfer student advising.”

The successful transfer program at Durham Technical Community College (Durham, NC) supports all three of these findings. It requires all new students (either in transfer or technical education programs) to attend orientation and take College Transfer Success (ACA 122) during their first semester. Beyond basic study and success skills, new students set academic and career goals and learn about their transfer and higher education rights as North Carolinians. In ACA 122, students develop a plan of study based on degree requirements. Transfer students build their plan of study based on course selection guides that identify what classes select senior universities require for various majors.

Tailored advising is central to the success of Durham Tech’s transfer program. Professional advisors help students select their classes for their first semester. Students are re-assigned to faculty advisors during their first semester, and faculty advisors use the plan of study students develop in ACA 122 in advising. This process allows students to retain responsibility for their academic progress, relying on faculty advisors chiefly for approval for registration and guidance through issues as they arise.

Durham Tech’s transfer program affirms the three essential transfer practices established by the Aspen Institute and CCRC. Yet research by Envisioning Excellence for Community College Leadership found additional concrete practices associated with a successful transfer program.

  • Select employees need to be directly responsible for and committed to transfer programs. Durham Tech created a Transfer Center, run by the Assistant Dean of Arts, Sciences, and University Transfer. The Transfer Center regularly updates course selection guides, organizes university transfer sessions on campus, and provides one-on-one assistance to transfer students.
  • Faculty ensure academic rigor by collaborating with colleagues at neighboring universities. Durham Tech faculty routinely interact with their university colleagues through transfer committees, professional organizations, and informal communication. They swap syllabi, discuss textbook adoption, and try to match software used in STEM courses. These activities create an analogous academic experience for transfer students.
  • Form bilateral agreements and understandings with receiving universities can improve articulation beyond comprehensive or universal articulation agreements. Durham Tech has formed supplemental agreements with receiving universities like UNC-Chapel Hill and North Carolina Central University to prepare students for baccalaureate while still at the community college.
  • Use software accessible by faculty and students alike increases transparency and improves advising. Durham Tech recently adopted a web-based software package “Self-Service.” This program allows students to upload the academic plan they’ve developed in their ACA 122 course and track their own progress toward degree completion. Faculty advisors have access to their advisees’ academic plans, enabling them to provide guidance to students before they register for subsequent classes.
  • Focus faculty development on the art of teaching. Beyond providing instructors with discipline-specific development opportunities, Durham Tech’s Teaching and Learning Center offers numerous workshops on instructional strategies and classroom techniques. Faculty-Staff Interest Groups (“FIGS”) are self-selected teams of instructors and administrators who meet to discuss specific educational issues and concerns. For example, a recent FIG addressed plagiarism for several semesters, discussing how best to teach it to students. As a result, a Durham Tech English instructor has developed a lesson designed to help students identify plagiarism.

Even the most successful transfer programs can do more to facilitate student goal attainment. Without constant monitoring and communication, bilateral transfer arrangements serve as a single “point in time” agreement between the institutions. When a receiving institution changes graduation requirements for a particular major, transfer partners need to be quickly apprised so they can implement curriculum revisions to ensure continued seamless articulation.

Further, success at the senior institution requires more than simply accepting the right credits accumulated at the community colleges. Many four-year institutions expect students to participate in service learning, to volunteer or otherwise give back to the campus or community. Other institutions may include broad focus on global issues or the environment as part of the undergraduate experience. Community college students need access to similar co- or extra-curricular activities before transfer so they are prepared to fully engage in campus life after transfer.

Transfer programs are difficult to do well, but they are nonetheless crucial since they provide access to higher education for thousands of students. How other community colleges design their transfer programs to promote student success will differ based on location, resources, and program offerings. But the example of Durham Tech shows that aligning resources to student needs and transfer destinations yields great results in increasing student success.

Dr. William Ingram is President of Durham Technical Community College (Durham, NC). Dr. Audrey J. Jaeger is Professor & Alumni Distinguished Graduate Professor at NC State University and Principal Investigator of Envisioning Excellence for Community College Leadership. C. Ryan Knight is Lead Program Associate for Envisioning Excellence for Community College Leadership.

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