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Degrees in reverse on the rise in higher ed

Reverse-transfer agreements between four-year colleges and two-year schools are becoming more common
University Business, November 2013

Ask and you shall receive. Ask enough times, and others may receive as well.

That’s what happened with a transfer policy at Schoolcraft College in Michigan. For years, former students who had moved on to nearby four-year universities were checking back with Schoolcraft to ask about getting their associate’s degree based on the credits they’d earned after leaving the college. And officials were generally granting these requests as they were made, says Laurie Kattuah-Snyder, associate dean of advising and partnerships.

Now, formal reverse transfer agreements with four-year colleges and universities—prompted by both student and legislative demand—have paved the way for other students seeking that degree.

Community colleges have a long tradition of articulation agreements with four-year institutions, ensuring that those who begin at a two-year school can seamlessly transfer. As the college trajectory becomes less standard­—even for students with bachelor-sized goals who begin at the community college level—institutional leaders are creating or adding the reverse transfer option to articulation agreements. Many students fall just short of the requirements for an associate’s degree when they transfer. Some even transfer out and then come back to the community college to take their final few courses.

Schoolcraft officials saw an opportunity in 2011 when the Michigan State Legislature began requiring state universities hoping to qualify for performance-based funding to participate in reverse-transfer agreements with at least three community colleges. Adding these agreements could strengthen the positive relations Schoolcraft already had with nearby universities, says Kattuah-Snyder.

The institution now has reverse-transfer agreements with the University of Michigan, Dearborn; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Eastern Michigan University; Grand Valley State University; and Ferris State University.

Many two- and four-year institutions across the country are pursuing these agreements without a legislative push.

According to a 2012 study from Indiana University’s Project on Academic Success, a majority of community college students who transfer to four-year universities go on to obtain bachelor’s degrees. But those who earned a certificate or associate’s degree from the first institution were much more likely to complete a baccalaureate degree: Six years after the transfer, 72 percent of those with a community college degree or certificate had earned a bachelor’s degree, compared to 56 percent of those without a two-year degree.

In pursuit of agreement

Having an associate’s degree doesn’t just increase a student’s odds of completing a bachelor’s degree. That degree is also a valuable credential for obtaining employment while in school or in case the student is unable to finish.

The University of Maryland University College “has added reverse transfer to every alliance agreement simply because it’s the right thing to do for students,” says Lisa Romano, associate vice president of college and university partnerships. “Many students leave community college without earning an associate’s degree, a critical building block in a student’s educational career. For many working adult students, their situation can change quickly for understandable reasons, and so they are left without having earned a credential. It could hamper their prospects for employment.”

UMUC’s reverse-transfer program helps students earn an associate’s degree during the first semester or year at UMUC but without delaying bachelor’s degree studies, by encouraging students to take courses they need for both bachelor’s and associate’s degrees, Romano says.

Reverse-transfer agreements also are beneficial for two-year institutions. While these institutions provide the basic instruction students need, many students then go somewhere else, “and the community colleges don’t get any credit for their part in the process,” says Jeffrey Cass, provost at the University of Houston-Victoria.

“It makes their graduation rates look low,” he adds. “Encouraging reverse transfers helps community colleges improve their numbers and match the work they’re actually doing.”

For universities, reverse transfers can be valuable because “when a student has an associate’s degree, it helps validate the credits and standards they have met, and it ensures that students don’t have to take more credits than they need,” says George Swan, vice chancellor for external affairs at Michigan’s Wayne County Community College District. The agreement essentially transfers the student back to the college where most of the work was done for the degree.

Pat J. Bosco, dean of students at Kansas State University, attended Kansas State as a community college transfer student, a history that makes her especially supportive of reverse transfers. It’s a “win-win for the student and both schools,” says Bosco, adding that the important thing is degree completion, not the way it was completed.

Effective agreements

When Kansas State and Johnson County Community College officials discussed the best ways for the university to welcome community college transfers while encouraging associate’s degree completion, “the natural consequence was to encourage transfers to send back credits that they earned at the university to complete the associate’s degree at the community college,” says Dennis Day, vice president of student success and engagement at JCCC. But “something that sounds simple is always laden with details.”

Structuring the agreement effectively required the registrar, academic affairs, and other departments to partner. “No one compromised any standards,” Day says. “Everyone saw the positive result of such an agreement and presented solutions to all obstacles to do what was best for the students.”

Schoolcraft’s Kattuah-Snyder notes that it’s important to involve in planning all the departments that will have a role in fulfilling the agreement. “Since the registrar’s office will have the bulk of the evaluation and processing, it was critical that they were involved,” she says. “Both student services and the instruction office knew the importance of helping our students earn credentials, so supporting the reverse transfer initiative was easily accepted by both.”

Once signed, most agreements contain components addressing topics such as record keeping, data sharing, credit requirements, and communicating with students about reverse transfers.

And every agreement is different. For instance, Grand Valley State does reverse transfers with 23 different Michigan community colleges, and each requires a different number of credits earned from the originating school and the school of transfer, says Lynn Blue, vice provost and dean of academic services. The minimum number of credits that must be earned at the degree-granting community colleges range from 15 to 45.

Partnering schools must also determine how to communicate with students about the option for reverse transfers. They may even handle the paperwork for students. At the University of Houston-Victoria, for example, the registrar’s office automatically reviews transcripts, at the end of the semester, for all students who had transferred in from community colleges. The transcripts of those who seem to qualify for a reverse transfer are sent back to the institution from which they transferred, and if students meet qualifications, associate’s degrees are awarded.

At Kansas State, all transfer students are notified of the reverse-transfer option during their first semester, but “it is up to the student to secure the K-State transcript and send it to their community college for graduation credit, so it does take prior planning and some personal initiative,” Bosco says.

And at UMUC, students must elect to participate. Once a student signs up for reverse transfer, the university and the student’s former community college “take care of the rest,” Romano says.

Common sense success points

College and university officials who have established successful reverse-transfer agreements emphasize that establishing a common purpose is essential. Schoolcraft College officials and the university officers with whom they partner have a common goal, Kattuah-Snyder says: “To increase the number of Michigan residents with credentials.”

Swan of Wayne County Community College says reverse-transfer agreements work best when the partnering institutions already have a sound articulation agreement. “Good articulation agreements address programs of study and required courses, and having that alignment already agreed upon gives institutions a solid foundation for a reverse-transfer agreement,” he says.

Reverse-transfer partnerships are also more successful when the two institutions divide the workload appropriately. Conducting transfer-credit evaluations and reviewing degree-completion plans requires staff, points out Romano of UMUC. “The four-year institution needs to be responsible for the main communication to the student, since the student transferred to the four-year institution.”

That communication with students is a vital part of the process. “Many students who might qualify [for reverse transfers] do not see the advantage and are not taking us up on the opportunity,” says Grand Valley State’s Blue.

For students who don’t understand the value of earning the associate’s degree, especially if their end goal is the bachelor’s degree, “we open the conversation with a student’s ability to save money, as there may be credits they could still transfer from the community college,” Romano says.

“We discuss how they could earn another credential at no additional cost. We also discuss that, with an associate’s degree, the student could be eligible [for certain scholarships]. Clear messaging is essential for making reverse transfer successful.”

Nancy Mann Jackson is a Huntsville, Ala.-based writer.