Community colleges have always been a popular place for students to begin their higher education career. Often smaller, closer, and more affordable than their four-year counterparts, they can help students get accustomed to college-level work or simply save on tuition. The national goal of producing more college graduates has increased the focus on ensuring students actually transfer on. Keith Coates, a student services advisor at Columbus State Community College, Delaware Campus (Ohio), reports that they’re seeing a lot of students who want to transfer but may not know to where.
Read on to learn about six less obvious questions transfer students should be asking, and what the answers can be.
With newspapers regularly running articles about students needing to start from scratch after transferring, this is one question students likely are asking. In Ohio, where public institutions have been charged with improving transferability, Transfer Assurance Guides (TAGs) designate classes that are portable, and with the Ohio Transfer Module, a subset of general ed classes will transfer en mass, explains Tara Houdeshell, director of gateway operations for Central Ohio Technical College. Educating students on the in’s and out’s of these programs, as well as articulation agreements with private schools, “is a major opportunity across the board for Ohio,” she says. “There are so many different opportunities. It lies on us to articulate that information and put it out there.”
Students may not realize it’s not just about credits being accepted, but about whether they will count toward core courses. “I warn them every school has different requirements and your AA won’t magically fit,” says Jennifer Alleman, assistant professor of counseling at Harrisburg Area Community College, Lancaster Campus (Pa.)
“We help students select proper courses, but it’s up to the student to be in contact with the counseling office at the target school.”
Receiving institutions often do their best to educate students, as well. Statewide articulation programs are mandates for public colleges and universities, but also something private institutions can use as guidance. Campus leaders at Eckerd College (Fla.), a private four-year institution, have equated the public courses to their own offerings, explains John Sullivan, dean of admissions. Students can find the information on the Eckerd website and either match courses themselves or apply for pre-evaluation.
An issue Sullivan sees is students not understanding the difference between an AS degree and an AA degree and ensuring their target school will accept both. At Eckerd, a student with an AA will enroll as a junior, but only parts of the AS will be accepted.
Since students don’t understand all the nuances in higher ed, they might not realize there is more to transferring credits than just course alignment. “We have a number of schools in the area that don’t have regional accreditation, and students plan to transfer there,” Coates says delicately. In those cases, he presents a broad discussion of what accreditation is and how it relates to transferring. “I try to give them as much of the story as I can and encourage them to do research,” he says, including sharing anecdotal information about other students.
Coates sees the issue mostly with students interested in nursing because of the long waiting list resulting from limited clinical space in the Columbus area. Believing advertising promises, students enroll at the higher-cost tuition, can’t finish in the timeframe the ads promise, then find out the credits won’t transfer anywhere. “We tell them to be cautious about where they plan to go,” he concludes.
The need to research schools of interest is just the beginning of students becoming independent. “They come in and say ‘I was told you can tell me everything,’ ” Alleman says. “We say, ‘We’ll tell you as much as we can.’ But they have to be advocates for themselves.”
“Advocacy is something I think a lot of our students lack,” agrees Houdeshell. She points out that traditional-age students are coming from K12 where teachers and parents advocated for them. And even adult learners might have a K12 mindset because it was their last educational experience. “So yes, they are shocked that they have to advocate for themselves,” she says. Although the Gateway is a one-stop-shop, students still have to navigate the available resources. If they aren’t asking questions, the staff won’t know where to direct them.
“Sometimes, it’s a surprise to them that the onus of owning their education is on them,” Coates agrees. Student Services staff strive to create an environment where students are comfortable either seeking information themselves or asking for help. “We want them to be accountable, but also enjoy their overall college experience,” he says.
Self-advocating comes more easily to some than others. A big question Alleman gets is, “What do you think I should do?” Fortunately, her department also handles career counseling and can provide undecided students with career or personality assessment tools.
Why a student is enrolled in a community college will inform whether next steps have been considered. “When you are talking about transferring, the biggest thing for students to be thinking about is their end goal,” says Houdeshell. Even those who have only just begun a two-year program need to decide if they want to pursue a BA. Not having an end goal can result in not meeting the current goal of saving time and money by enrolling at a community college. Since research has shown that students who enroll in community colleges with the goal of transferring are more likely to do so, it is best to get them thinking about it as soon as possible.
At HACC, students are provided with information about everything from dual enrollment programs to transfer opportunities, starting from the time admissions recruiters visit their high school through to orientation, with posters, email, and snail mail once they enroll. “We try to get the information out to students as soon as possible to ensure they are aware of the information we have so they are carefully selecting courses,” says Alleman.
As important as deciding that next step is understanding how all the pieces will fit together. Sullivan points out that some majors, like marine science, might take longer than four years to finish, so despite having an AA, students might need 2.5 years at their final school before they graduate. It’s another example of why planning ahead and being in touch with counselors at the target institution is an important step.
At Eckerd, once a transfer student is admitted, he or she is preregistered for classes, with fine-tuning taking place at the start of the semester. “It eases their minds to know they have a schedule before they get here,” he says.
Students who know they want to go to a particular school but don’t have a program in mind are approaching their educational goals backwards, says Coates. “We encourage them to select a program first.” He warns students that going to the closest school, or the one with the best football program, might not be in their best interest.
Students often attend a community college because it’s in their backyard, points out Houdeshell. “We have to help them understand that they can select from a local college, or have to travel, or look at online,” she says. “You would think that’s common sense, but sometimes they don’t realize.”
Comfort and distance are as much factors in the target schools students select as are course offerings, Alleman says. HACC staff try to expose students to as many options as possible through online research, workshops, and transfer fairs. Fifty colleges attended the November 2011 fair, and in planning the next one, her team is excited about adding an evening session highlighting dual-admissions schools, which will be convenient for students with day jobs.
Although research shows community college students are more likely to be working full-time while attending school, it also shows many are unaware of financial aid opportunities. “Students need to know about cost,” asserts Coates. “We can’t give them all the information they need, but we can give them an idea.” He says the variety of higher ed institutions in his area ensures a variety of price tiers, and he hopes that students who aren’t asking him about costs are asking their target school.
Students who are receiving financial aid to attend the community college probably just need to be reminded to update their FASFA. Others might need more help.
Houdeshell worries about students who are hopping from one college to the next without obtaining a degree running out of aid. “We speak a different language in higher ed,” she says ruefully. “They might have been told about ‘maximum time frame’ and it just wasn’t relevant to them.” Once again, constant communication, both online and in person, is an antidote. Alleman shares, “Whatever we get from the colleges, we keep in a binder that students can look at.” It’s information that, no doubt, will spark more questions from transfer-inquiring minds.
—Ann McClure is a regular contributor and former associate editor at University Business magazine.