Shining the Spotlight on Transfer Students

Students who start at community colleges need timely advising and support to build community, adapt to new institutions, and navigate complex course equivalencies.

Robin Donovan for the American Chemical Society 

Peggy Harbol doesn’t mind giving recommendations to her former students. When mentees who have transferred to four-year institutions circle back to the Cascadia College (Bothell, WA) chemistry professor for a letter to support applications for graduate school or internship programs, she happily writes them. She also sees it as an indicator of a good relationship — one these students felt they had with Harbol but may not have found elsewhere.

“It’s telling that they come back to their community college professor,” she says. Cascadia is a relative newcomer to the two-year scene, a community college that prides itself on hands-on learning opportunities. Most of Harbol’s students will go on to four-year schools where they’re “very successful,” Harbol says. Yet she’s noticed that transfer students from Cascadia are often sent their admissions letters only after the good news has gone out to first-year students. Recently, she’s been in touch with local universities that accept her students, collaborating to improve the transfer experience.

Harbol is part of a larger trend among chemists and community colleges: stronger working relationships between two- and four-year institutions, growing interest among students in lower-cost higher-education options, and increasing attention on helping students build networks and support no matter when they arrive. Community college professors say there’s little to lose from starting at a two-year institution.

“We’re requiring the same things four-year schools are requiring,” Harbol says. “Our students have simply, perhaps, chosen a more economical route.”

Finding Community

Relationship-building and networking are twin challenges for transfer students who enter four-year colleges and universities without the benefits of first-year orientation, often joining classes where other students are already well-acquainted, both with institutional norms and each other. But they’re only two of many hurdles and opportunities for these students, who also must find a way to meld two curricula together, decoding how chemistry course sequences from one school knit into classes offered elsewhere.

Even transfer students from other four-year institutions may not have experience with the same equipment or instruments they’ll find at their new institution, according to Greg Caputo, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Rowan University (Glassboro, NJ). The university partners with three county colleges in its region, offering 10-week summer bridge programs to ensure student success through seminars, social events, and research opportunities. Students receive a stipend for participating and can “start to build that peer network that’s so important,” he says.

Advising during the first two years is especially important to transfer students who start at a community college,” says Laura Anna, chemistry department chair at Montgomery College’s Rockville campus in Maryland. She’s noticed students tend to delay math and science courses, front-loading their general education requirements instead. “I’ve seen students who have been here three semesters, and they still need two or three chemistry classes, which will extend their time here two or three terms,” she says. Advising is critically important to help students navigate course requirements, Anna says. “If you’re going to start gen chem at a two-year college, finish it there.”

At Middle Tennessee State University, Greg Van Patten is the dean of Basic and Applied Sciences. He says sequential courses can challenge students, particularly if they try to complete a sequence at two different colleges or universities. He, Caputo, and Anna also serve on the American Chemical Society’s Committee on Professional Training.

“It’s not simply a matter of saying that one school is more rigorous than another. Having a discontinuity in your progression in any subject is going to be a difficulty,” Van Patten says. So there are academic reasons that transferring is difficult, unrelated to student interest and ability.

Unlike first-year students, who have opportunities to get to know each other in introductory classes, freshman seminars, or other programs, transfer students rarely have an immediate opportunity to get to know their cohort. “Sometimes we require transfer students to take [freshmen] seminars, but those transfer students are not sitting among their peers,” Van Patten says.

Van Patten points out that there are new norms and processes to learn, even in his own moves as a professor and researcher from one institution to another. “New students are on even less solid footing,” he says. Faculty members can mitigate this, he adds, if they are aware of new transfer students in their courses.

Factors for Success

A recent report from the Community College Research Center and the Aspen Institute tracked students who began their higher education careers at two-year institutions in the fall of 2015. Researchers found that 80% of students hoped to graduate from a four-year college, but only about a third went on to complete a bachelor’s degree. And just 18% of students in the study completed their bachelor’s degree within two years of transferring. Students from underrepresented groups tended to have lower graduation rates and higher average time spent enrolled before earning their degree than their peers. Yet professors like Harbol and Anna say most of their students aspire to do so — and are well equipped to make the leap.

With nearly 40% of college students enrolled at two-year institutions, the report’s authors say it’s more important than ever for two- and four-year colleges and universities to smooth the transition for these learners. They recommend strengthening dual-enrollment programs, heightening focus on timely degree completions to mitigate cost, encouraging students to complete an associate’s degree before transfer, and discouraging transfers to online-only, for-profit organizations, which tended to have lower graduation rates.

Some solutions could be even more accessible. Raeann Napoleon at Santa Barbara City College recalls a simple, single-page handout she received as an undergraduate. It listed the classes she needed and when to take them. With today’s burgeoning course offerings, Napoleon says students are receiving such complex lists of options that many fail to realize they’re missing required courses. “If you’re a first-generation college student, it may not be intuitive to you that you need to take English 101 before you take Chicano Studies, which has a lot of writing,” she says. “To me, it might be obvious, but to the student, it’s not.” Napoleon can’t declare prerequisites for her introductory chemistry students, which can paradoxically both help and challenge students.

“Old school thinking is that science is a weeder course,” she says. As someone who was a first-generation college student herself, Napoleon adds, “I take huge issue with that.” Yet she knows it may be difficult for students who didn’t earn high marks in algebra to succeed in an introductory chemistry course. And she worries that students who don’t immediately succeed will decide science isn’t for them, particularly those from underrepresented groups. “Think of a single mom. How much did it take for her to apply, get into the course, and shift her work schedule just to be there day one with pencil and paper, ready to go?”

When it comes to helping transfer students graduate on time, “we’ve always made it our mission to figure it out,” Caputo says. Sometimes, that means summer programs that bridge two- and four-year institutions that engage students in research and campus life.

That determined mindset may offer the greatest hope for improving the odds of transfer student success. Whether it’s two-year faculty who encourage less confident students to give STEM a try and remain a resource long after graduation, four-year professors who make a special effort to engage new transfer students, or department chairs willing to consider ways to boost community-building alongside academic work, institutions across the country increasingly see transfer students a way to engage new community members from diverse life experiences and backgrounds.