Anna Peace, Ball State University
Editor’s Note: Readers who would like to learn more on this topic may be interested in NACADA’s eTutorial on Advising Transfer Students.
Community colleges are a vital component of four-year universities as nearly half of all students who completed a baccalaureate degree at a four-year institution in 2016 had been enrolled at a community college sometime in the previous 10 years (National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 2017). For many students, community colleges serve as their path to higher education access and social mobility as transfer students are more likely to be from low-income families and to be first-generation college students (Taylor & Jain, 2017; Wyner et al., 2016). With their low costs, open admissions policies, and convenient locations, community colleges provide pathways for historically underserved student populations (Cohen et al., 2014).
Transfer is a salient function of higher education. Although the majority of community college students intend to earn a baccalaureate degree or higher, an approximate 13% of those from the transfer-intending community college cohort earn a baccalaureate degree within six years (Shapiro et al., 2017). The significant disparity between students’ intentions and baccalaureate degree attainment points to issues within the transfer function.
Supporting transfer students must be a commitment across higher education. One means of prioritizing transfer students is fostering a “transfer receptive culture” (Jain et al., 2011, p. 253). Created with the lens of critical race theory, Jain et al.’s theoretical framework encourages a commitment by four-year universities to support transfer students from community college through graduation with a baccalaureate degree. Jain et al. detailed five elements to foster a transfer receptive culture: (a) establish transferring students as high priority, (b) create resources regarding transfer-specific needs, (c) provide financial and academic support, (d) recognize students’ unique experiences and intersectional identities, and (e) assess transfer programs and student outcomes frequently. Within the transfer receptive culture framework, there are a variety of actions four-year institution leaders should consider to reduce barriers, promote student success, and center equity.
Transfer-intending community college students experience difficulties in transferring to and moving through four-year institutions. Some of the most significant barriers include issues with advising, credit loss, financial aid, and stigma (Jain et al., 2011; Wang, 2020). The responsibilities to guide and support students rest on both transfer-sending and transfer-receiving institutions. It is critical that four-year academic advisors understand the barriers this population faces and how they can support students. Advisors are well-positioned to learn students’ needs, refer individuals to resources, and advocate for meaningful change. Within the transfer receptive culture frame, university leaders must pay special attention to academic advising, course articulation, campus partnerships, campus resources, and advocacy opportunities to address challenges faced by transfer students.
In her book entitled On My Own: The Challenge and Promise of Building Equitable STEM Transfer Pathways, Wang (2020) shared the experiences of transfer students who felt left to their own devices in the transfer process. Students expect accurate information from their advisors regarding registration, graduation timelines, university policies, and expectations. Further, advising errors and omissions can result in wasted time and money for transfer students (Allen et al., 2014; Hodara et al., 2016). Some transfer students reported advisors were inaccessible; communicated inaccurate information about transfer processes; shared contradictory information; and merely provided website links to assist students (Wang, 2020). Students who self-advise risk missing critical requirements or resources, so advising must be relational, accurate, and accessible.
To begin, as one of the first individuals with whom a transfer student meets, advisors must actively listen to learn about students. Transfer students report feeling they must retell their educational history and goals upon every meeting with an advisor or professor (Allen et al., 2014). It is important to keep detailed information about students so they feel welcome, heard, and valued. Next, four-year university advisors should encourage students to choose their major early (Wyner et al., 2016). When students choose their major prior to transferring, they start their first term in coursework for their degree, which results in quicker graduation pathways. Last, academic advisors should immerse themselves in the policies, practices, and procedures within the university and academic departments. Students rely on advisors to help them navigate higher education’s complex systems (Allen et al., 2014). Academic advisors are uniquely positioned to connect with transfer students individually.
Students are negatively impacted when their credits do not transfer or if their credits transfer as elective credits rather than as courses that fulfill degree requirements. Credit loss during transferring results in longer timelines to graduation, increased educational expenses, and inflated chances of students stopping out (Hodara et al., 2016). Many students feel frustrated and confused with the transfer articulation process from their community college to a four-year university (Schudde et al., 2020). While a student may have transferable credits that are accepted at the receiving institution, this does not equate to the applicability of the credits counting toward their major or degree requirements. Monaghan and Attewell (2014) found fewer than 60% of community college students were able to transfer most of their credits and approximately 15% of students transferred almost no credits. Some of the cumbersome transfer processes can be repelling, intimidating, and lead students to believe they are not welcome at the university.
On the other hand, students who transferred almost all their community college credits were 2.5 times more likely to attain a baccalaureate degree than those who transferred fewer than half of their credits (Monaghan & Attewell, 2014). Articulation for credit application rests on state policies and formal agreements between colleges. When no course articulation exists, academic advisors assist students on the case-by-case syllabi review process with academic departments (Cohen et al., 2014). This can be tedious and time consuming for students to collect previous syllabi. Further, when students do not know what credits count within their major until they are enrolled, they cannot make an informed decision as to where they transfer or their major. University leaders should consider centralized transfer advisors who work with academic departments on course articulations prior to when the student enrolls (Wyner et al., 2016). Building systems to reduce using transfer students’ time and capital centers equity and student success.
Fostering connections between transfer-sending and transfer-receiving institutions supports transfer experiences. To begin, four-year university advisors should share admissions processes, tuition costs, scholarship opportunities, and course requirements with two-year academic advisors to clarify and bolster transfer pathways (Jenkins & Fink, 2016). As some institutional websites can contain outdated or inaccessible transfer information, it is critical that four-year advisors connect with community college advisors (Schudde et al., 2020). Based on location and previous student transfer information, four-year advisors should identify two-year university partners with whom to facilitate smoother transitions for students.
While transfer students are familiar with college in general, they rely on academic advisors to introduce them to their new university. It is critical that four-year university academic advisors share campus resources. For example, when a student asks about the campus health center, the academic advisor should detail information regarding any fees associated with the resource, how to make appointments, and what students can expect. Where native students typically learn about campus services through summer orientation, residence hall programs, or first-year seminars, transfer students may not have these same learning opportunities (Jenkins & Fink, 2016). On a larger scale, administrators should consider how to replicate first-year activities for transfer students. Personalized and proactive campus referrals support students’ accumulation of transfer student capital.
Advisors support students within the university’s policies and procedures. Further, advisors can play a role in in changing policies or procedures that might be unintentionally harming students. For instance, financial aid policies requiring full-time student status to use financial aid may be a barrier for students who work full-time or care for dependents (Wang, 2020). In the face of several barriers and opportunities associated with transferring to a new university, academic advisors hold a unique role to empower transfer students throughout multiple aspects of their next phase and advocate for transfer students’ needs. There are a bevy of suggested practices for four-year university leaders and staff to center transfer students in addition to the aforementioned academic advising considerations.
- Dedicate staff and resources specifically for transfer students (Wyner et al., 2016)
- Allow faculty release time to collaborate with community college faculty on articulation agreements and transfer program maps (Jenkins & Fink, 2016; Shapiro et al., 2017)
- Allocate financial aid for transfer students (Jain et al., 2011; Wang, 2020)
- Update websites for accuracy and accessibility (Schudde et al., 2020; Shapiro et al., 2017)
- Track transfer and share data on transfer student outcomes (Wyner et al., 2016)
- Consider policies that may unintentionally harm transfer students (Wang, 2020)
- Promote a culture of self-assessment among administrators, faculty, and staff (Wang, 2020)
- Encourage personnel to seek out opportunities to learn about community colleges and transfer students
Within Jain et al.’s (2011) transfer receptive culture frame, four-year university administrators, faculty, and staff promote diversity, equity, and inclusion when they prioritize transfer student success. Four-year university advisors can help reduce friction on individual, departmental, and university levels. Supporting transfer students must be a university-wide initiative.
Department of Theatre and Dance
Ball State University
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Wang, X. (2020). On my own: The challenge and promise of building equitable STEM transfer pathways. Harvard Education Press.
Wyner, J., Deane, K. C., Jenkins, D., & Fink, J. (2016). The transfer playbook: Essential practices for two-and four-year colleges. Aspen Institute. https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/publications/transfer-playbook-essential-practices.html
Cite this article using APA style as: Peace, A. (2022, June). Supporting community college transfer students at four-year institutions. Academic Advising Today, 45(2). [insert url here]