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National CrossTalk Summer 2002
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Unfinished Agenda
Transfer accountability should be a top state policy priority

By Jane V. Wellman

The genius of the design of the American "system" of higher education is its promise of access, quality and success-not just for students who are wealthy or academically well-prepared, but also for adult learners, and those who are poor or in need of academic remediation. For the promise to be translated into reality, transfer from two- to four-year institutions has to be a viable, rather than a high-risk, path to the baccalaureate degree.

There are several different types of transfer: from two- to four-year institutions (2/4), from four-year to other four-year institutions (4/4), from four-year to two-year institutions (4/2), and from two-year to two-year (2/2). National research tells us that roughly one-third of all first-time, degree-seeking students transfer at least once within four years of initial enrollment-about 25 percent of students in four-year institutions, and 43 percent for students beginning at two-year institutions. Among those who start in two-year institutions, about half transfer to a four-year institution, the rest to other two-year institutions.

Nationwide, the baccalaureate graduation rate for students who transfer from two- to four-year colleges after taking at least a semester's worth of credits is 70 percent.

Several forces coalesce to place new importance on 2/4 transfer as a special statewide policy priority:

  • The bachelor's degree is fast replacing the high school diploma as the entry point to the workforce. While access to some college might have been good enough for earlier generations, that is clearly no longer the case.

  • Twenty or more states face structural state budget deficits at the same time they need to expand postsecondary capacity just to find room for recent high school graduates. These states can save on expansion costs for new four-year institutions if they use community colleges for the first two years of college.

  • Rising college tuitions and tightened admissions requirements in the public four-year colleges are forcing more baccalaureate-bound students into community colleges.

  • Transfer effectiveness will be the key to continued national progress in educational equity for baccalaureate degree holders, affecting far more students than the fate of affirmative action policy. Nationwide, estimates are that 80 percent of new college students will be students of color, many of whom are low-income and the first in their family to attend college. The U.S. has made some progress in reducing the ethnic group gaps between high school graduation and first-time college enrollment. The disparities widen again when it comes to baccalaureate completion, for the simple reason that the majority of students of color initially enroll in a community college, and do not persist to the baccalaureate. (Nationwide, only 34 percent of African American, and 35 percent of Hispanic, students who enter college persist to the baccalaureate degree five years later, in contrast to 50 percent for white students.)

Yet a look around the country shows that, despite its importance, statewide 2/4 transfer performance is not a priority in most states. Instead, the issues at the top of the policy agendas are politically sexier topics like fights over governance, affirmative action in admissions (not degree completion), the location of new research universities, and institutional wars over faculty superstars.

Part of the reason for the problem is that transfer policy requires a statewide rather than an institutional focus, and most states continue to approach planning at the level of the individual institution or sector rather than the statewide level.

Another part of the problem is that the metrics of transfer-figuring out which students to count, and when in their careers to count them -have always been problematic within higher education. A number of studies using similar databases have produced different answers to questions about transfer effectiveness: Depending on the way the question is asked, research can support the finding that transfer students persist and graduate with the baccalaureate at equal or even superior rates to native students; that the transfer function faltered for some time but is now returning; or that a false promise of transfer "ghettoizes" higher education by funneling high-risk students with little hope of getting the resources they need to succeed in higher education into poorly financed institutions. These statements are all true for some colleges and some students, but no one of them accurately characterizes state-level performance for any state.

Because the issue is so important, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education commissioned a fresh look into state policy and transfer performance, to see what lessons could be learned about policies that improve performance. The states that have major investments in community colleges were identified, and the Center's "Measuring Up 2000" report was used to identify three at the high end of performance on student retention and degree completion (Florida, New York and North Carolina) and three at the low end (Arkansas, New Mexico and Texas).

Each state's policies and performance data on transfer were examined, looking at several dimensions of policy that might affect transfer performance: governance, data collection and accountability, enrollment planning, and academic policies affecting transfer such as core curriculum, articulation agreements, and credit transfer systems. The research results were a little surprising, and slightly depressing. The states could not really be compared on 2/4 transfer performance separate from other aspects of completion and retention, because they collect data in different ways. So it was hard to be sure whether the differences between the "high" and "low" performers were attributable to success in 2/4 transfer or to other factors.

Having said this, there wasn't a lot of difference between the high-performing and low-performing states in their approach to state policy and transfer. All of them have paid a good deal of attention to the academic policy aspects of transfer, and have generally comparable policies in place affecting core curriculum, articulation agreements, transfer of credit policies, and statewide transfer guides, including web-based catalogues. Florida and North Carolina additionally have common academic calendars, and Florida and Arkansas have common course numbering systems.

The key difference between the three high-performing states and the others may lie in the statewide governance structure for higher education. Arkansas, New Mexico and Texas are all institutionally governed states, whereas the other three have stronger statewide governing capacities.

In New York, the two-year institutions are embedded within the State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY) systems. North Carolina's Board of Governors for the University of North Carolina is also the statewide planning and coordinating board-a unique structure that puts statewide planning and performance assessment with the same agency that has responsibility for governing the four-year institutions.

Florida historically has taken a statewide approach to planning, through a 2+2 structure that has explicitly directed the majority of baccalaureate degree seekers to community colleges for their first two years. Many of Florida's state universities were initially started as upper division rather than four-year campuses.

Arkansas, New Mexico and Texas all have state coordinating and policy boards, and pay attention in their research to transfer performance. They also have some two- and four-year institutions with a history of partnership and transfer performance. But they also have historically emphasized technical and vocational education over transfer for many of their institutions. And they don't have a statewide governance structure that forces a common policy and planning framework onto both the two- and four-year institutions.

In New York and Florida, the structure that supports performance seems to be the legacy of prior generations of state policy makers. In the last decade, New York has decentralized state responsibility for transfer performance to SUNY and CUNY, and no longer places statewide policy, planning and accountability at the top of its agenda. For several years in the 1990s, New York stopped statewide reporting of transfer altogether. (It now is returning.)

Florida similarly seems to be moving away from its historic commitment to transfer, despite the need to expand capacity for postsecondary education. Florida's plans to increase baccalaureate attainment are centered around expanding capacity in the four-year institutions, including extending baccalaureate authority to some two-year institutions, rather than improving 2/4 transfer effectiveness in community colleges.

North Carolina alone among the high-performing states has recently taken steps to energize its transfer policies, through statewide planning and policy work that resulted in the current framework. North Carolina clearly understands that it has to do a better job of increasing college-going rates and baccalaureate production, and that it is unlikely to have capacity to do all that needs to be done in the public four-year sector alone.

The research is most telling for what it reveals about what's missing in the approaches to transfer policies in these states, because none of them uses all of the tools of state policy to energize transfer. Transfer is routinely included as one of many priorities for the community colleges, but none of these states has set clear statewide goals for 2/4 transfer performance. Their accountability structures typically focus on two-year college transfer performance instead of looking at the responsibilities of the four-year institutions.

The performance measures that are in place in the four-year institutions may actually work against the transfer priority, such as the requirement to report five-year retention and graduation rates. Since community college students rarely complete the baccalaureate degree in five years, this measure discourages four-year institutions from serving transfer students, particularly if they are funded on the basis of degree performance.

Most of the states confine transfer reporting to public institutions, leaving out the important role that is played by the private sector in accepting students for transfer. Only New York has a form of incentive funding for this aspect of transfer performance. North Carolina plans to include incentive funding for transfer in performance funding, but this mechanism may be derailed by the current budget crisis.

Beyond these slender examples, none of the states has adopted measures to recognize and reward institutions that are high performers in transfer effectiveness. Texas alone among the six states recently established a small financial aid program for transfer students; none of the other states uses financial aid to create student incentives to start their education in a community college before transferring. And none of the states has focused on the equity aspects of transfer performance, either as a policy priority or in its data reporting.

The three high-performing states do a relatively better job of retaining and graduating students of color: not a grand accomplishment, since baccalaureate retention for African American and Hispanic students hovers between a low of 28 percent and a high of 47 percent across the six states. While the baccalaureate degree may not be the best or only goal for all students, there is no public policy rationale for why it should be a lesser goal for students of color than for white students.

Going to the next level
Improving statewide performance on 2/4 transfer will be essential to improving performance on degree productivity, cost effectiveness and educational equity in postsecondary education. The states in this study have gotten into the habit of treating transfer as a technical matter, and are focusing their attention on academic and institutional strategies, rather than using statewide policy to affect transfer performance.

The goal of state policy should be something more than getting out of the way of effective individual or institutional performance: State policy should be used to set goals, recognize, reward and improve performance. There can be no doubt that proportionately more students than ever before are going to end up in the community colleges in the next decade. Paying attention to state transfer policy-through statewide plans, goals, performance measures, financial incentives (and sanctions), and student aid-can make a huge difference in ensuring that greater community college enrollments do not become the cause of even greater social and economic stratification within higher education.

If higher education is to continue to play its role as an engine for economic advancement and social mobility, state policy attention to transfer accountability has to be at the top of the agenda.

Jane V. Wellman is Senior Associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, in Washington, D.C. Her full report on transfer policy will be published by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in August.

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