New England developing new guaranteed transfer pathways

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The New England Board of Higher Education, a multistate compact dedicated to supporting higher ed in the region, is developing guaranteed transfer pathways in three additional states as a part of its New England Transfer Guarantee.

The guarantee, already established in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island last year, allows eligible community college graduates to transfer directly to participating colleges and universities in their states. Students must have earned their associate degrees and met the minimum GPA requirements of the state-level transfer agreements and four-year institutions to be eligible.

The initiative will be expanded to Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont and will provide new transfer opportunities, especially pathways to liberal arts programs, for community college students wanting to transfer to public or private four-year institutions in those states, NEBHE announced Tuesday.

Emily Decatur, senior program manager of transfer initiatives at NEBHE, said barriers to transfer have increasingly become a concern among higher ed leaders in recent years, especially in New England, where states are expecting an impending decline in the number of traditional-age college students.

“We’re kind of having a bit of an enrollment crisis here in New England, so institutions are looking for ways to enroll more students,” she said. “And some of them have found transfer students could be a possible way to do that, with the additional benefit that transfer students are bringing in this different life experience and diversity onto their campuses.”

The New England Transfer Guarantee, and its expansion in northern New England, is funded by the Teagle Foundation, which supports liberal arts education; the Davis Educational Foundation; and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, which funds projects dedicated to “religious, charitable, scientific, literary and educational purposes,” according to the foundation’s website.

The new transfer pathways are expected to be available to students in roughly two years, though Decatur said the timing is hard to predict. She noted that higher ed systems in northern New England have less existing infrastructure for guaranteed transfer pathways, so it may take more time to work with faculty members to ensure curricula enable smooth transfers between two-year and four-year programs.

The guarantee will now include campuses in the Maine Community College System, the University of Maine system, the Maine Independent College Association, the Community College System of New Hampshire, the University System of New Hampshire and the New Hampshire College and University Council, Community College of Vermont, and the Association of Vermont Independent Colleges.

In total, 49 higher ed institutions in these states have signaled interest in participating in the New England Transfer Guarantee, including all community colleges and public four-year institutions and 72 percent of independent institutions in the three states.

Decatur has high hopes for the expansion given preliminary data from Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, which implemented the first iteration of the transfer guarantee in spring 2021. More than 500 community college students from those states have successfully transferred through the initiative. NEBHE also encouraged participating four-year institutions to offer transfer students special scholarships to make college more affordable, which resulted in $4.5 million in tuition savings across the three states. She said community college students too often view private institutions as financially unattainable.

“Historically, and even currently, there’s just this idea that independent institutions have these really high sticker prices, and students that are from low-income backgrounds, or are historically underrepresented minorities or first-gen students, might feel as though they’re shut out of even applying to those institutions,” she said. “But the reality is that a lot of these independent institutions, especially in New England, given all of this enrollment crisis we’re facing here … they’re really competitive actually with publics” and willing to offer competitive costs.

Some college leaders said they were eager to see the new guaranteed transfer pathways come to fruition.

Joyce Judy, president of the Community College of Vermont, praised the initiative as a benefit to her students.

“By creating streamlined, reliable pathways for CCV graduates to earn their bachelor’s degree, the Transfer Guarantee will increase equitable and affordable access to quality higher education in Vermont,” she said in a press release.

Janet Sortor, vice president and chief academic officer of the Maine Community College System, noted that ensuring easy transfer could be especially impactful in Maine, which recently launched a free community college program for students who graduated high school during the pandemic.

“Implementing the Transfer Guarantee in Maine at a time when the state has just rolled out a free community college program will be a real boon to students looking for a good deal on a valuable bachelor’s degree in Maine,” Sortor said in the same press release.

Transfer student enrollment rates fell 6.9 percent nationally over the last year and about 16 percent since the onset of the pandemic, according to a report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Upward transfer, from two-year to four-year institutions, fell 11.6 percent this spring compared to last, a troubling trend to higher ed researchers.

Mamie Voight, president and CEO of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said only 31 percent of community college students transfer to four-year institutions, and only 14 percent of those who transfer graduate with a bachelor’s degree within six years.

“There are some incredible leaks there in the pipeline for students who are trying to achieve that higher level of learning,” she said. “States and institutions working to build these smoother pathways through transfer are critically important to make sure all students, but particularly students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, who are more likely to begin at a community college, have that opportunity to achieve a bachelor’s degree.”

IHEP, a policy research and advocacy organization, is currently working with Arizona, Illinois and Virginia to improve transfer pathways as part of a project called Transfer BOOST, or Bachelor’s Opportunity Options that are Straightforward and Transparent. The effort is part of the Catalyzing Transfer Initiative, a collaboration between nonprofits to ease the transfer process and increase bachelor’s degree attainment among underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, spearheaded by the ECMC Foundation, which funds efforts to improve academic outcomes for underserved students.

John Fink, senior research associate at the Community College Research Center of Teachers College at Columbia University, agreed that the transfer system was broken and ineffective long before the pandemic, and there’s a growing national movement at the state level to address barriers, partly in response to enrollment declines. He previously co-authored a report called “Tracking Transfer” and the “Transfer Playbook,” a guide to best practices for developing transfer pathways.

Fink said he’s noticed a renewed focus on pathways that help students transfer within a specific field of study and more emphasis on “a collective responsibility for transfer” between community colleges and four-year institutions rather than leaving students to figure out the transfer process on their own. He also noted that guaranteed transfer pathways can also attract dual-enrollment students interested in clear pathways to a bachelor’s degree in subjects that interest them.

“People know we need to do something differently because what we’re doing is not really working,” he said. “It’s working for too few students.”

Decatur said barriers to transfer are “national and pervasive.” She highlighted a Government Accountability Office report, published in 2017, which found that students lost an estimated 43 percent of their college credits when they transferred.

“That means students are not only losing out on money and time to degree, but that also definitely has an impact on them psychologically, on motivation and persistence and all these other things,” she said. Transfer students have also been this “historically overlooked population, and they don’t get as much support,” such as peer counseling or mentoring, while navigating what can be a confusing transition.

“I myself have looked at, just given my work, probably thousands of different institutional, state, system transfer websites, and half of them I can’t really decipher or understand very easily,” she added. “And if I can’t, I can only imagine what it would be like for a student to try to understand what the transfer process is and what their options are.”

Voight said problems with transfer pathways are an equity issue at their core.

“We say as a higher ed field that it’s an affordable way to get a bachelor’s degree to begin at a community college,” she said. “If we’re going to be making that promise to students, we need to make sure that we then deliver on that promise by creating these streamlined transfer pathways, particularly to support those students who have too often been left behind by our higher education system.”

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