PDF Version
Executive Summary
The Importance of 2/4 Transfer
The Different Dimensions of Transfer
The Accountability Problem and Transfer “Rates”
Research on State Policy and Transfer
Six-State Focus
    New Mexico
    New York
    North Carolina
Lessons Learned about State Transfer Policy
Conclusions and Recommendations
State Resources
About the Author
The Institute for Higher Education Policy
The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education

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Executive Summary

This paper examines the role of state policy in influencing community college– baccalaureate transfer. The paper discusses the importance of two-year to four-year (2/4) transfer performance as a state policy issue, reviews national research about transfer patterns, and presents findings about state policy and transfer performance in six states. It concludes by offering recommendations to state policymakers for improving 2/4 transfer performance.

The Growing Importance of 2/4 Transfer

Transfer from a community college to a four-year institution is just one dimension of student transfer, but it deserves priority attention from state policymakers for many reasons. The baccalaureate degree is becoming the entry point to the workforce for the majority of students, making it increasingly important that 2/4 transfer works well. Several forces are converging to push more students to community colleges as their initial point of access to postsecondary education: growth in the number of high school graduates; demographic changes that are increasing the proportion of poor and minority students; more stringent admissions requirements in many four-year institutions; and rising college tuitions. Although progress has been made nationwide in closing performance gaps among racial groups in the transition from high school to college, the gaps widen again in baccalaureate completion. 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. Improving the effectiveness of 2/4 transfer will be the key to national progress in closing the gap among racial groups in degree attainment—and it will affect far more students than affirmative action policy.

Understanding Transfer Performance

For many years, data problems complicated efforts to document transfer performance because institutions were not able to track students after they left their institutions. An elusive search for a single measure of transfer further compounded efforts to document transfer effectiveness. In the last decade, however, improvements in national as well as state data have provided useful information about student flow patterns and the attributes of students most likely to succeed in 2/4 transfer. Nationwide, roughly a third of all first- time, degree-seeking students transfer at least once within four years after initial enrollment—about one in four students who begin at four-year institutions and 43% of students who begin at two-year institutions. Approximately half of the transfer students who initially enroll at two-year institutions go on to four-year institutions. Nationwide, about 70% of students who transfer from two- to four-year colleges after taking at least a semester’s worth of credits graduate with a baccalaureate degree. Not surprisingly, students who are most successful in 2/4 transfer have similar attributes to those who are successful in four-year institutions: they have rigorous academic preparation in high school, they enroll full-time, and they do not take time off en route to the degree.

A Look at State Policy and 2/4 Transfer in Six States

Although we now know more about student flow patterns in 2/4 transfer, there has been little research concerning the role, if any, of state policy in influencing 2/4 transfer performance. To address this, six states were selected for intensive study about 2/4 transfer and state policy. The states selected rely heavily on transfer from two-year colleges as a point of access to the baccalaureate degree for low-income students. The criteria for selection also included the states’ grades on completion in Measuring Up 2000, the state-by-state report card for higher education released by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education (2000). Three of the six states selected received high grades on retention and degree completion in Measuring Up 2000, and three received low grades. The high-performing states are Florida, New York, and North Carolina; Arkansas, New Mexico, and Texas received low grades. This paper describes how each of these states uses state policy to affect transfer performance, looking at several dimensions of state policy: governance, enrollment planning, academic policies affecting transfer, and data collection and accountability.

The research shows that there is not much difference between the high-performing and low-performing states in many of their basic approaches to transfer policy. All have paid a good deal of attention to the academic policy aspects of transfer, and have comparable policies in place concerning core curriculum, articulation agreements, transfer of credit, and statewide transfer guides (including web-based catalogues). The key difference between the three high-performing states and the others seems to lie in the statewide governance structure for higher education. Arkansas, New Mexico, and Texas have institutional governing structures, whereas Florida, New York, and North Carolina have stronger statewide governance capacities. All three of the high-performing states also do a better job of using data as a tool to improve transfer performance, including state-level feedback to campuses about their performance relative to others.

The research is most telling concerning what’s missing in state approaches to transfer policies. None of the six states 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 no state has set clear goals for 2/4 transfer performance for all institutions or for the state as a whole. The accountability structures typically focus on two-year college transfer performance instead of also looking at the responsibilities of the four-year institutions. The accountability mechanisms 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 played by the private sector in accepting students for transfer. Only one state, New York, has a form of incentive funding for transfer, and it is available only to private institutions. North Carolina plans to include incentive funding for transfer in performance funding for public institutions, a plan that probably will be derailed because of state budget difficulties. Beyond these slender examples, none of the states has mechanisms for rewarding institutions that are high performers in transfer effectiveness. Texas alone among the six states just recently established a small financial aid program designed to reach transfer students; none of the other states uses financial aid to create student incentives to start their education in a community college before transferring. None of the states has focused on the equity aspects of transfer performance, either as a policy priority or in its data reporting. Although the three high-performing states do a better job than the others in retaining and graduating students of color, all the states have major gaps among ethnic groups in retention to the baccalaureate degree.


The paper concludes with state policy recommendations for energizing 2/4 transfer:

  1. develop baseline information about statewide transfer performance;
  2. clarify state policy and plans for 2/4 transfer, and set goals and measures for performance;
  3. identify and invest in core resources for transfer at the institutional level;
  4. perform statewide transfer policy audits, to ensure that policies are consistent and that performance measures do not inadvertently discourage transfer;
  5. make sure that articulation and credit transfer agreements are in place;
  6. focus state policy change on low-performing institutions;
  7. use financial aid as a tool to promote 2/4 transfer; and
  8. include private institutions in transfer planning and performance accountability.


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© 2002 The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education
and the Institute for Higher Education Policy

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