The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) recently released the research brief Transfer: An Indispensable Part of the Community College Mission, outlining the key role community colleges play in postsecondary student transfer and highlighting some of the ongoing challenges associated with capturing this complex phenomenon. Higher education policy discussions and performance metrics have become increasingly focused on graduation as the primary measure of institutional effectiveness. The AACC is concerned that two-year institutions are increasingly being held accountable for a single outcome and, therefore, many of their other functions are becoming less visible. Promoting student transfer to four-year institutions, for instance, is a critical role of community colleges that is frequently lost in the completion dialogue. The AACC notes that community colleges play an important role in bachelor’s degree attainment in the U.S., evidenced by the fact that over 25 percent of all bachelor’s degree holders started at a community college.
In assessing transfer student success, the brief notes that little attention has been paid to the role four-year institutions play in the transfer process and the impact of post-transfer policies on the subsequent success of these students. Research has shown that articulation agreements and issues of credit acceptance are very important for student success. For instance, one study found that 82 percent of transfer students earned a bachelor’s degree during the study period when the four-year institution accepted all of a community college student’s credits, though the graduation rate fell to 42 percent when the institution accepted only some of the students’ credits.
Some of the practices four-year institutions can employ to promote greater post-transfer success include developing a strategic enrollment plan, cultivating close relationships with feeder colleges, developing transparent policies for accepting transfer credit, and monitoring and evaluating the transfer student experience in a manner similar to the first-year student experience. Several issues that pose significant barriers for transfer students are being addressed at the state level through legislation and policy changes. However, the movement toward seamless articulation remains a piecemeal effort nationwide. In practice, the acceptance of credits remains largely subject to institutional discretion, a process that often is not transparent.
Student transfer is a complex phenomenon that deserves more attention by researchers and policy-makers, because it has important implications for student success and college affordability. Nonetheless, there are important challenges to better understanding student transfer behavior. For example, the traditional view of transfer students progressing from two-year to four-year institutions is not consistent with actual practice. The transfer picture is more complicated. Community colleges are often recipients of large numbers of reverse transfer students, and many students who transfer do so from one community college to another. Related challenges include determining a precise and data-driven definition of transfer students, accurately counting transfer students across the higher education system and assessing the ability of four-year institutions to accommodate these students. The research brief closes with a call to not lose sight of the many valuable missions community colleges fulfill, including promoting student transfer in the push toward emphasizing certificate and degree completion as the primary measure of student success.
The impact of the recent economic recession may be influencing the career trajectories of recent postsecondary students, as suggested in Table B06, (“Percentage of students who considered their current job to be the start of a career…”) of the postsecondary data tables in the recently updated ED/NCES CTE Statistics section. The table shows that for all students who were in the workforce in 2009 and who had begun their postsecondary education six years earlier but were no longer enrolled, a smaller percentage reported that they felt that their current job was the start of a career than did those students with the same characteristics in 2001. In 2001, slightly more than 67.3 percent of such students felt that their current job was related to the start of a career. By 2009 that figure had fallen to 53.5 percent, a decrease of 13.8 percentage points.
In a related finding, ED/NCES CTE Statistics Table B04 (“Percentage of students who were employed …”) indicates that in 2009 the percentage of students who had begun their postsecondary education six years earlier but were no longer enrolled and who reported they were employed at all went down compared to those in 2001. This was true across all levels of credentials, including the sub-baccalaureate and bachelor’s degree levels. The drop in employment was more severe for males, 10.5 percentage points, compared to that for females, which was a drop of 4.4 percentage points.
Additional tables in the revised ED/NCES CTE Statistics section portray trend data on CTE offerings and credentials from 1997 to 2006, as well as student enrollments in 2007–08, and students’ costs and financial aid in 2007–08, among other topics.
The “condition of college and career readiness has slightly improved over the past several years, specifically in the subject areas of math and science,” according to The Condition of College & Career Readiness/2012: National, a recently released report by ACT on the high school graduating class of 2012. This report covers 52 percent of all 2012 high school graduates in the United States in continuing ACT’s practice of assessing students’ academic readiness for college, a practice begun in 1959.
In regard to the findings, the report concludes: “While encouraging, far too many students are graduating from high school ill-prepared for the academic rigors of college and career. The results again indicate that the US education system must do better at helping our young people to compete with their peers in other nations for meaningful jobs and careers in the 21st century global economy.”
ACT defines college and career readiness “as the acquisition of the knowledge and skills a student needs to enroll and succeed in credit-bearing first-year courses at a postsecondary institution … without the need for remediation.” ACT makes this determination by applying empirically derived College Readiness Benchmarks. The benchmarks are the minimum scores needed on the ACT subject matter tests for the student to have a 50 percent probability of obtaining a B or higher or about a 75 percent probability of obtaining a C or higher in credit-bearing, first-year college courses in corresponding subjects.
Twenty-five percent of 2012 high school graduates taking the ACT met the College Readiness Benchmarks in all four subjects that were tested. The individual subject results were: English, 67 percent; reading 52 percent; mathematics, 46 percent; and science, 31 percent.
Between 2008 and 2012, the percentage of tested students attaining each benchmark remained relatively stable. English went from 68 to 67 percent; reading from 53 to 52 percent; mathematics from 43 to 46 percent; and science from 28 to 31 percent. Twenty-five percent of 2012 tested graduates met all four benchmarks, compared to 22 percent in 2008.
Based on its own research, ACT offers the following suggestions as key to improving college and career readiness.
1. “Early Student Monitoring and Intervention,” including early and systematic guidance and feedback from educators to students, appropriate interventions, and rigorous courses aligned with college and career readiness standards.
2. “Use of Student Growth Models in Early Monitoring,” including appropriate college and career standards to guide academic growth coupled with metrics for measuring academic growth aligned with these standards.
3. “A Comprehensive Framework of Best Practices,” using ACT’s Core Practice Framework, which outlines evidence-based educator practices for increasing readiness at the district, school, and classroom levels.