Facing Pressure on Enrollment, Will Colleges Support More Transfer Students?

During his yearslong quest for a bachelor’s degree, José Del Real Viramontes encountered trials at four different California community colleges.

At his first college, right out of high school, the young man born in Zacatecas, Mexico, hoped to play for the football team. But Del Real Viramontes never made it to tryouts, he says, and when his best friend left the college, he decided to leave, too.

At his second college, close to his home in East Hollywood, he says that he had a bad experience with the instructor about an early assignment in a developmental English course. That, plus feeling like as the oldest child he should clock hours working to earn money to contribute to his family’s household, pushed Del Real Viramontes out of school again, this time for three years.

At his third college, his enrollment came as something of a surprise. A friend filled out an application and submitted it for him. This institution fit just right. Del Real Viramontes joined its Puente program, which embedded him in a cohort of students in a math and English course sequence. The group studied Chicano literature, offering him the opportunity to read about experiences that reflected his own.

“I think that program was the first program that really provided this idea of transferring to a university,” he says. “We were in a very supportive environment.”

A transfer counselor sat in on class sessions. He took students on tours of university campuses and helped them build connections there.

“It’s ironic,” Del Real Viramontes says, “because I remember going to UC Riverside, where I work now, visiting, and never in my wildest dreams did I think I was gonna be back as a professor.”

Looking back now, at age 40, as assistant professor of higher education administration and policy in the University of California system, Del Real Viramontes can see what his story shares in common with the experiences of so many students who start out at community colleges hoping to eventually earn a bachelor’s degree.

They may intend to earn two years’ worth of general education credits at more affordable rates before transferring to a four-year college or university. They may want to boost their grades before applying to a more selective institution. They may prefer to start out at an institution close to home, one with smaller class sizes and an environment that feels more approachable. Or, like Del Real Viramontes, they may be the first in their families to attempt college and lack information about where else to apply.

But data shows these strategies don’t actually work for most of the people who enroll at community college. Six years after they start out at what is called a two-year college, only about a third of students successfully transfer to a four-year college. And only about 16 percent end up earning a bachelor’s degree.

“It’s a disappointing status quo. It’s really unacceptable,” says John Fink, a senior research associate and program lead at the Community College Research Center. “As a system, that’s just not really living up to its potential.”

The transfer outcomes are even worse for Black students, Latino students, and low-income students, he adds.

This week, the U.S. Department of Education is hosting a national summit about improving transfer outcomes. It’s a goal community colleges have been striving for in recent years. But they can’t do all the heavy lifting alone, experts say. To successfully hand students off from one campus to another also takes effort and resources from the colleges that students hope to transfer to: institutions that grant bachelor’s degrees.

Four-year colleges and universities need to take “co-ownership” for transfer students’ success, says Tania LaViolet, a director at the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute.

As higher ed enrollment declines, will that finally start to happen?

Partnership Required

Many barriers block students from transferring to a four-year college, according to Fink, including bachelor’s-degree programs that don’t accept transfer credits and a lack of adequate advising.

“Too many students are just left on their own to navigate this process,” he says.

Some students get stuck in remedial or entry-level courses at community colleges. That’s what happened to Del Real Viramontes. Even though he fit in at the Puente program at his third college, he struggled to pass English 101 there, having trouble completing a research paper assignment. He attempted it three times, and then had to find a different institution where he could take the course again, he says, due to rules about limits on the number of times students are allowed to retake the same course.

To address this, community colleges have been doing away with developmental prerequisite courses and creating “guided pathways” that blend advising, career exploration and straightforward guidance about what courses to take that will apply toward a bachelor’s degree.

But without participation from four-year colleges, community college efforts are like a bridge that only spans half of a river.

“Right now, the status quo is that supports and advising for transfer students is too little, and too late, and really too absent the presence of the four-year partner,” Fink says.

A few pressures might incentivize four-year colleges to step up their efforts. For example, if it’s part of the mission of a bachelor’s degree-granting institution to educate diverse students and facilitate economic mobility, then supporting transfer students from community colleges fits the bill, LaViolet says.

After all, according to analysis from the Community College Research Center, in the 2020-21 academic year, half of all Hispanic undergraduates were enrolled at community colleges, as were 42 percent of Asian undergrads, 40 percent of Black undergrads and 39 percent of white undergrads. In 2015-16, community colleges enrolled more than a third of dependent undergraduate students whose families earned less than $20,000 a year.

Some public flagships are paying attention to the transfer pipeline’s potential for educating people of varied backgrounds.

“It helps us fulfill our mission as a public university,” University of Virginia president James E. Ryan told The Washington Post in 2022, “which is to be a place of opportunity, a place of social mobility.”

But LaViolet says it’s unlikely that the recent ban on affirmative action will motivate most four-year colleges and universities to recruit and retain transfer students as an alternative to race-conscious admissions. That’s because only a small sliver of such institutions are affected by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this summer on the issue. The majority already admit most of the people who apply and so don’t need nuanced admissions criteria anyway. And the relatively few selective colleges and universities in the country could only enroll a tiny fraction of the students who start out at community colleges even if they tried to recruit more.

Instead, there’s a different force at play that might work in favor of transfer students.

Higher ed leaders are concerned about the fact that college enrollment is on the decline, not only coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic but also because of national demographic changes that will shrink the pool of 18-year-olds to a smaller size than admissions offices have gotten accustomed to fishing in. Recent years have seen some colleges close or consolidate because of enrollment problems.

Improved transfer pathways could yield better enrollment. The pressure four-year colleges are facing these days to boost student numbers — and shore up the bottom line — could spur some to take action on transfer students, LaViolet argues.

“When you support stronger partnerships and collaborations with a local community college, what that does is it increases your market share … in reaching students who would not have come to you otherwise,” she says. “In an enrollment-challenged context, that’s critical to your business operations.”

Collaborations might look like a university agreeing to admit all students from a certain community college who meet specific academic criteria, an arrangement known as guaranteed or dual admission. In such cases, the institutions work out which credits will transfer and apply to which majors, effectively telling students, LaViolet says, “here is a four-year map to complete your bachelor’s degree.”

“It’s the clarity of the pathway and certainty you’re providing students that is at the heart of the value proposition,” she adds.

Successful partnerships tend to be forged between one community college and one four-year institution, which are often physically close to each other, LaViolet says. Examples include the partnership between Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University, called Advance, and a program that ties the University of Central Florida to half a dozen Florida community colleges, called DirectConnect. Most such partnerships are created between community colleges and public four-year colleges, LaViolet adds, but she sees an opportunity for more private institutions to do this, too.

LaViolet says top leaders help drive these collaborations, and Fink adds that academic departments and professors also have a role to play in doing outreach that helps transfer students. That might look like, for example, chemistry faculty at a university talking to chemistry faculty at a community college to align on course sequencing, instruction techniques and assessments of student learning.

“That really requires broad investment from faculty and other academic leaders at the university in particular, really reaching out to their colleagues to figure out what’s the right pathway to a specific major,” he says.

Policy might help, too. For example, new legislation in California will create a pilot program at the University of California, Los Angeles, to offer priority admission in certain major programs to students from some community colleges who earn an “associate degree for transfer.”

The Human Element

University outreach made the difference for Del Real Viramontes. One day, he visited the transfer center at his fourth community college, where he chatted with a peer mentor from UCLA. She eventually invited him to an opportunity at the four-year institution that she thought he might appreciate.

“That program,” Del Real Viramontes says, “changed my life.”

For six weeks, he could take a UCLA summer class and benefit from wraparound services. Del Real Viramontes applied, with a letter of recommendation from his English teacher at his fourth community college. He enrolled in a course about public policy — not knowing what public policy was. He says he received an A in the class.

“I think that’s one of the biggest reasons I am where I am today,” Del Real Viramontes says.

“Being able to be part of that program and doing well in the class, it allowed me to see myself at UCLA.”

He credits that experience with giving him the academic confidence he needed to transfer to a university. It exposed him to campus resources, so he knew where to go to find support. It offered him validation about his culture and background, and revealed how he could view the challenges he overcame at community college as preparation for bigger adventures.

It’s an example of how, as much as sorting out institutional policies and partnerships matter for transfer students, boosting students’ confidence and making sure they can access supportive advising are important elements, too.

“You could have the best major-specific articulation agreements, but if students aren’t using them or working with advisers to explore their options early on and develop a plan and change it as needed and keep progress along the way, all that great articulation work isn’t going to yield any fruit,” Fink says. “It’s not going to change the student experience.”

UCLA offers this kind of program for students through its Center for Community College Partnerships. Run by more than a dozen staff members and six dozen peer advisers, the center also trains community college staff and builds support among administrators and faculty at the university.

About a quarter of community college students who try to transfer to UCLA on their own succeed, according to Santiago Bernal, assistant director of the Center for Community College Partnerships. In contrast, about half of students who participate in the center’s programs are admitted.

For decades, the Center for Community College Partnerships “has been a national example of creating a transfer-receptive culture at a university, one that is affirming to Black and Latino [students] and men of color and women in STEM,” Fink says. “Staff have a regular presence at their partnering community colleges, to sort of help students plan and think about transfer to UCLA before they transfer.”

Del Real Viramontes ended up transferring to UCLA. He majored in Chicano studies, participated in the McNair Scholars program that prepares students for doctoral studies, and graduated with his bachelor’s degree. He went on to earn his Ph.D., and he now studies the college transfer experience, especially for Latino students.

It’s important to him to highlight the agency students exercise, and the cultural resources and relationships they draw on, when they face challenges along the transfer pathway.

“Community college and transfer students, we are very resilient. We are very good at figuring things out,” he says, describing the group as “very aspirational.”

Del Real Viramontes went back a few years ago to teach the summer program class that altered his own trajectory. He still keeps in touch with those summer students he taught.

In fact, he says, giving transfer students the chance to build relationships with other people who already successfully navigated similar paths is key to helping them feel like they belong at a university and can thrive there, too.

“Students involved in this class in the summer program,” he says, “they already see themselves at UCLA.”

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