Time for Reverse Transfer

Between 2003 and 2013, about two million students transferred from community colleges to universities (i.e., without earning the associate degree) but did not go on to complete the college degree that they intended to. The fact that these students were enrolled for at least two years in college makes the data even more painful to study. Because transfer to college is an increasing pattern but completion from college is decreasing, it is time that college students who earn enough credit be awarded the associate degree.

And that is where the idea of reverse transfer comes in.

Beginner's Challenge

There are many benefits of reverse transfer. First, because completion of bachelor’s degree often takes five to six years or even more, a student who cannot reach all the way to the end of the four-year college programs is able to use credits earned to receive an associate degree (with 60 or more credits). That is, for students who have to drop out of college, the fallback option of intermediate degree.

Second, even if a student is making progress toward a four-year degree, the ability to use an associate degree after some time can make a big difference in their academic, and social lives.

Third, the student gains some self-efficacy toward the daunting journey of pursuing a bachelor’s degree. Let us think of an individual who transferred to a university from a community college where she earned about 40 credits. She has no degree that she can mention yet. Then, say she earns some 30 more credits at a university. At this point, if she wants to find a job (an increasing reality), what is the highest degree in her hand? High School. Some employers do have the check box “some college, no degree”; but even in this case, she is not yet able to mention a degree.

Finally, when a student is able to complete a degree by using reverse transfer, she can enjoy the earning premium (often referred to as “sheepskin” effect) of a credential at hand. In the context of dramatic tuition increase and students dropping out for financial reasons, an increased income can significantly increase the chance of completing college.

Reverse Transfer is the newest manifestation of a century-long Access Agenda (that more citizens have access to higher education and advanced professional skills) and also a means of a more specific national mission called the Completion Agenda (that more citizens complete college level degrees). According to Terry O’Banion, Completion Agenda has been the driving force for community colleges for more than a century. But while four-year college became more accessible and desirable for more people in the past few decades, the idea of lateral/forward transfer of community college credit became more and more popular. With the economic crisis and skyrocketing of student loan debt, the possibility of students falling through the cracks has become all too common. In this context, the idea of falling back to earn a lower degree has become a socially viable option.

There is another reason why reverse transfer has recently started drawing people’s attention. Community college graduates are gaining prestige in a number of areas in business and industry. According to Kelsey Sheehey,

Community college students juggle a lot of responsibilities. Most work at least part time, many have families to care for and homework doesn’t do itself. Successfully keeping all those balls in the air requires focus, determination and maturity – traits that hold a lot of weight with recruiters from businesses and four-year universities.

In a U.S. News article, Kelsey Seehey quotes Maureen Crawford Hentz, director of talent management for A.W. Chesterton Co., a global manufacturing corporation headquartered in Massachusetts: “If you can juggle family, working, homework, school, internships – I want you. It’s just as simple as that.” Hentz used a memorable metaphor to describe her preference for community college graduates (who were employees in a steel factory): “Both were great dancers, but Rogers did it backwards and in heels,” she says, reciting a famous quote. “Community college students do it backwards and in heels.”

Not many employers may agree with Hentz’s point of view, but this is evidently a significant trend.

In the face of a deteriorating economy–which rather paradoxically demands that more students graduate–the potential of reverse transfer to meet the Completion Agenda (notwithstanding its side effects) is huge. As indicated by President Obama’s 2020 Vision the Completion Agenda has become a national imperative, (more so than ever in its two decades long history). The alternative pathway for “completion” provided by reverse transfer is also associated with global competitiveness in terms of degree completion numbers and quality workforce.

Looking at this new opportunity of assisting students obtain college degrees, many states are asking institutions to coordinate to facilitate reverse transfer, which may have a significant impact towards increasing the number of college graduates in their states. Hawaii is leading this initiative and many states are following the suit including Maryland. “Hawaii may be the furthest ahead in statewide coordination,” Inside Higher Ed quoted Holly Zanville, a program director of Lumina Foundation, who have given a descriptive name to the phenomenon — “credit when it is due.”

Policy 3

To highlight the potential of significant contribution of reverse transfer toward Completion Agenda, Community College Futures Assembly, a national think tank, is organizing a National Policy Summit on reverse transfer in January 2015. Dr. David Pelham from the National Student Clearinghouse and Dr. Dale Campbell and Dr. Tina O’Daniels of the Futures Bellwether College Consortium discuss relevance and impact of reverse transfer in this podcast.

According to National Student Clearinghouse’s Research center, 45% of the students who complete degrees in four year institutions, have previously enrolled at two-year institutions for at least one semester. It is in the interest of students, parents, universities, and the nation at large to not let earned college credits to go to waste, just because our students didn’t get past an ultimately artificial finish line.

The mortar and gown may be important markers for our culture, but much more important for the economic and social health of the nation (as well as the dignity of our students and families) is that we do give credit for the hard earned education to our students–whether or not they walk across the podium wearing a gown!

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