• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

The Many Faces of Transfer

And they all matter.

February 6, 2018
 
 

Ashley Smith has a terrific piece in IHE this week about the importance of the ‘transfer’ function of community colleges. She addresses -- correctly -- the fact that many jobs that pay decently require a bachelor’s degree or higher, and that students who start at community colleges and go on tend to be more diverse racially and economically than students who start at four-year schools. As I’ve said repeatedly, transfer IS workforce development.  

But her piece assumes the standard unidirectional model of transfer. That model is real, but only part of the picture. I’d like to add some of the other faces of transfer that I see on a regular basis.

The Penitent Sinner. This is the student whose high school career didn’t inspire confidence, but who still really wants to “go away” to a four-year college.  He often makes a deal with Mom and/or Dad that he’ll do a year at a cc and get decent grades to show that he’s serious.  When he does well, they agree to help him to where he really wanted.  In other words, he uses the cc as a sort of purgatory, cleansing himself of sin to move on to the promised land.  This student shows up in our numbers as a dropout, even though he got exactly what he wanted.

The Lateral. Community colleges send transfers, but they also receive transfers. And some of the most common sources of received transfers are...other community colleges. This group barely exists in the policy discussion, but it’s significant. One of the underappreciated truths of low-income life in America is that it’s often highly mobile.  As jobs change, relationships change, and life happens, students often move from one school to another.  Students who arrive here with credits from other places don’t show up in our first-time, full-time grad rate, because they aren’t first-time.  They show up as dropouts in the numbers for the first school, and they’re simply invisible in the numbers of the second school.  I suspect that accounts for the disparity between the national average cc grad rate (low 20’s) and the percentage of bachelor’s degree credits with significant cc credits (a majority).

The For-Profit Refugee. Like the lateral, these students don’t show up in our grad numbers, but I like to think we make a positive difference for them. They often show up with significant debt and very little transferable credit; they also often bring an understandable skepticism. But from a harm-reduction standpoint, this is some of the most valuable work we do.

The Four-Year Refugee. Every January we get a decent number of students who “went away” to four-year schools in the fall, only to discover that it wasn’t where they needed to be. Sometimes the issue is academic, but it’s more often some combination of financial, familial, and/or personal.  For this group, the community college represents a second chance.  Progress doesn’t always happen in a straight line.  I’ve had some pretty bracing conversations with parents who were upset at paying $50k or more for a student who didn’t know what she wanted.  

The Returner. In surveys, the “some college, no degree” group is massive. This group represents an elusive but potentially major market for community colleges. We get some of them now; they tend to be older than the average student, and they skew female. They usually, but not always, gravitate towards applied fields; nursing departments tend to have more than their share. Again, these students don’t count in our graduation rate, but we make real differences in their lives (and, frequently, in the lives of their children).  

The Career Changer. This is the student who may or may not already have a degree, but who has decided to take her career in a new direction.  I know a grad from our Culinary program who came in with a Master’s in English literature, but who wanted to go in an entirely different direction. (She brags that the grammar on her bakery’s facebook page is flawless.)  These students tend to be driven, for the simple reason that they know what they want.  

The Late Bloomer. This is the student who coasted through an indifferent semester or two decades ago, lived life, shook off some bad habits, and now wants to finish what she started.  I always root for these students, because they bring a seriousness, honesty, and productive impatience to the table.  In my teaching days, these were the students who had absolutely zero time for other students’ nonsense. They nearly always have great stories.

The Immigrant. Self-explanatory, but some of them come with serious academic backgrounds in other languages. Evaluation of transfer credit from international sources can be a task, but once these students get started, they tend to move quickly.

The Veteran. Military veterans often bring in some sort of transfer credit, whether through previous college, CLEP, or DSST.  I’ve noticed community colleges getting much better at working with veterans over the last several years, which is heartening. This group really took it on the chin from the for-profits; I’m glad to see us stepping up to do right by them.

As dual enrollment programs gain steam, I’d expect to see more students come in with credits from those, as well. If the dual enrollment program was at a high school outside the county or district of a given cc, these students will be simultaneously traditional and transfer.  That should make for some challenging discussions of statistics.

Wise and worldly readers, what other faces of transfer have you seen?

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