By Donna Ekal and Paula M. Krebs
Community-college officials must have a special love-hate relationship with the motivated, successful students who leave their institutions with a good number of credits, but no degree, to transfer to four-year institutions. Such students should be counted as institutional successes rather than failures, but until recently, little could be done to officially record them as such.
Data on graduation rates, as gathered by the National Center for Education Statistics for the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, count only first-time, full-time students who finish a degree at the institution at which they began in one and a half times the duration it would normally take to complete the degree (that is, three years for a two-year associate degree, and six years for a four-year bachelor’s). So a student who transfers from a community college to a four-year institution and completes a bachelor’s degree counts as a failure, in graduation-rate terms, for both the community college and the four-year institution. Until the government changes its data gathering to account in a positive way for such transfer students, thousands of students who complete their college degrees will continue unrecorded in government reporting. Furthermore, many such students will overlook the full value of the community-college experience that started them on their degree paths.
Help is coming from an unexpected quarter, however: the four-year institutions to which such students transfer. Our institutions, the University of Texas at El Paso and the University of Massachusetts at Boston, along with others across the country, have established systems to ensure that transfer students with significant credits from two-year colleges are awarded associate degrees once they have completed the necessary coursework at their new institutions.
The University of Texas at El Paso, in a pioneering arrangement with El Paso Community College, has developed a fully automated reverse-transfer system that allows transfer students to earn their final credits at the university, then have those credits sent back to the community college. A Title V Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program grant from the Department of Education enabled the two institutions to create the EPCC-UTEP Transfer Program, a seamless electronic environment of shared student services. The new data-sharing agreements, along with the student-information system’s degree-audit program, allows the university to track down students who have completed a minimum of 25 percent of their degree at community college, as required by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Those students can fulfill the balance of the associate-degree requirements at the university, then receive their degrees from El Paso Community College, complete with a festive graduation celebration. Up go the graduation rates at the community college, up goes the self-esteem of the newly credentialed student, and up goes the retention rate at the university: It’s the ultimate win-win situation.
In the early stages of the grant, before the electronic system went live, university officials manually identified hundreds of students each year who were finishing their associate degrees via university courses. In the first year, the 2006-7 academic year, 228 degrees were awarded; then 244 the following year, and 344 the year after that. But by the fourth year—2009-10, when the automated credit-transfer system came online—a whopping 1,166 students were awarded associate degrees by El Paso Community College, many of whom were missed during manual counting in previous years. Our hope is that those students, almost all of whom are working-class Hispanic students earning the first degrees in their families, will be the more likely to stay the course to reach the next important educational milestone.