What We Have Learned About Preparing Transfer Students

The following post is based on a soon to be published chapter in Building Transfer Student Pathways for College and Career Success, Joseph & Poisel, (Editors), National Resource Center for The First Year Experience & Students in Transition.

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In the last twenty-five plus years, we have had the opportunity to work intentionally on designing transfer pathways for students who start at a community college and complete a bachelor’s degree at a university. While most community colleges were founded with this “transfer mission,” educators have long known that the transfer student experience is not particularly linear or smooth. Recent research has shown that nationally, 29 percent of entering community college “transfer” students earned a certificate or associates degree and 42 percent complete a bachelor’s degree in six years (Jenkins & Fink, 2016). The issues include universities not accepting all of the credits earned at the community college; students not completing the correct pre-requisite courses for their intended university major; students changing their university major once they enroll there; and what is commonly called “transfer shock” such as adjusting to larger classes and classrooms, different faculty expectations, academic technology, increased academic program rigor, and complex university procedures.

Valencia College (4)In the last 10 years, there has been an increased focus among community colleges to be more intentional in getting students on a “pathway” that reduces course choice by clarifying exactly what courses students need to complete each term in order to prepare for a specific university major (Completion by Design, 2011; Complete College America, 2018; Guided Pathways, 2015).  Most educators who delve into transfer pathways gain a quick understanding of why the choices are confusing to students, particularly community college students, who are more likely to be first-generation college students and have to negotiate their way through not just one, but two institutions. Sorting out common prerequisites, program prerequisites, electives that are “recommended” or true “electives” from the descriptions in college catalogs is a lesson in the real complexity of academic programs. Pathways programs are designed to simplify student choices, making the path from the associate’s degree to the bachelor’s degree more transparent. Pathways assist students and advisors with clarifying the coursework to take at the community college so that the courses both transfer and apply to the specific bachelor’s degree the student aspires to complete at the university.

student_pexels-photo-261651Pathways are an important means to improve student transfer success, but the curricular clarity that defines many pathways programs is not all that is necessary to prepare students to be transfer-ready. There are additional factors that should be considered by transfer students, and community college and university educators who are working to prepare students, for a successful transition and completion of their bachelor’s degrees.

  • Personal aspirations – “People like me can …” Our view of the world is shaped by what we see the people from “our kind of background” doing. In order to consider additional options, students need to believe that people from a background like theirs can be successful, belong, and are welcomed into higher education in general, and in whatever aspirational profession they are considering (e.g., engineer, doctor, teacher, nurse, scientist, computer programmer). There are many examples of people who have reached aspirations well beyond their beginnings, but psychologically it has to begin with an individual’s belief that it is possible.
  • Purpose – Students need to clarify their personal direction and goals, and tie their career goals to a set of educational programs that can move them in that direction, even as those goals emerge and change over time.
  • Curricular plan – Students complete course prerequisites for specific bachelor’s programs with few excess credits so that all (or most) lower-division coursework satisfies the requirements for the bachelor’s degree and permits direct entry into upper-division (junior level) course work.
  • Academic preparation – Students demonstrate the ability to achieve in the specific academic discipline they are pursuing, including the ability to demonstrate academic rigor, knowing how to persist when the academic work is challenging, knowing how to engage faculty for productive assistance, and knowing the expectations for learning (learning how to learn) in the specific academic discipline.
  • Career preparation – Students understand the expectations for professional behavior in the career field for which they are preparing. This may include learning through undergraduate research, internships, and academic mentors. It includes gaining an understanding of what is involved in the day-to-day life of the chosen profession and committing to the life that it entails.
  • Social preparation – Students understand and adopt behavioral expectations for success at the university. This includes physical and behavioral navigation, an emphasis on independence, the ability to self-advocate, and the ability to plan financially as well as career and academically for degree completion.

The implications for students, community colleges and universities include a concerted focus on career and academic planning, as well as other forms of student preparation and development. We believe this comprehensive approach to transfer student programs and development will prepare more students to complete the bachelor’s degree and achieve their dreams.

Valencia College (3)The Johnson Scholars program, which began at Valencia College and the University of Central Florida (UCF) in 2013, was designed to provide comprehensive support for community college students preparing to transfer. Valencia identifies scholarship recipients based on their academic interest in biomedical sciences, which has a specific degree path from Valencia to the UCF, both located at Valencia’s Osceola Campus. The scholarship creates a cohort of students with similar interests who support each other with the assistance of an assigned advisor. Faculty in the pre-requisite courses support students in learning what is needed to prepare for rigorous university study, including opportunities for undergraduate research.  The scholarship continues when students transfer to the university.  Valencia College and the University of Central Florida recognize the achievement of Johnson Scholars who have been successful in transfer, as well as associate and bachelor’s degree completion.

Dr. Joyce C. Romano is Vice President for Educational Partnerships at Valencia College through which she works to improve the educational pathway for students from K-12 through community college and successful university transfer to bachelor’s completion. Dr. Romano has a B.A. in Psychology from State University of New York-College at Cortland, an M.S. in Counseling Psychology from Central Washington University, and an Ed.D. in Higher Education from the University of Kansas.

Maria Hesse serves as Vice Provost for Academic Partnerships at Arizona State University, helping to create and sustain productive relationships with community colleges and other institutions. Prior to coming to ASU in July 2009, Dr. Hesse served as President and CEO for Chandler-Gilbert Community College (CGCC), one of the Maricopa Community Colleges in the Phoenix area. Dr. Hesse holds Master of Business Administration and Bachelor of Science degrees from Arizona State University. She has Master and Doctoral degrees in Educational Leadership from Northern Arizona University and is a graduate of the Harvard Institute for Educational Management.

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