The Educational Dynamics of the Transfer Dilemma

The Educational Dynamics of the Transfer Dilemma

Paulette Brower-Garrett
College of Staten Island/CUNY

Transfer students are increasingly becoming a major constituent group within higher education institutions. Institutional leaders at both two- and four-year colleges rely heavily on transfer students for revenue, additional classroom perspectives, and positive contribution they make to an institution’s profile. The high percentage of transfer students may be surprising. Ewell, Schild, and Paulson (2003, p. 2) reported, “More than half of the students who ultimately earn bachelor’s degrees enroll in two or more institutions, and almost a fifth attend three or more.” These students often incur additional educational expenses because they frequently lose credits through the transfer process. Consequently, both transfer students and institutional funding sources have begun to apply pressure on institutional governing boards to finally rectify the persistent dilemma of transfer credit articulations. This concern continues to be reaffirmed as exhibited by the most recent statement from the National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education (2011a):

Overall completion rates among students who lose significant credits in the transfer process are low, and it is not difficult to see why. Students are often required to enroll again in courses they have already taken, incurring significant costs in terms of tuition and time. In the absence of effective statewide policies, the burden of negotiating transfer, often between large, complex institutions, falls primarily on students seeking to transfer. Additionally, the costs of inefficiencies in the transfer process (e.g., credits not transferable; excessive credits taken after transfer because community college credits are not applied to degree requirements) are borne by students and states. (p. 5)

To compound transfer issues further, pressure on institutional governing boards has begun forcing faculty (more than other groups) to wrestle with some deeply divisive attitudes towards transfer students that have become systematized over the last 50 years. In fact, Cejda (1997) suggested that faculty members and administrators at four-year institutions might view students transferring from community colleges as academically suspect and lacking academic rigor. Whether these attitudes are perceived as correct or incorrect, this tension of negative attitudes towards transfer students and increased reliance on transfer students has unavoidably created an upsurge of intense debates surrounding the educational roles and responsibilities of two- and four-year colleges in higher educational institutions. In an attempt to provide a framework for understanding this progressively evolving complex dilemma, this article will examine its evolution by first identifying its scope, next addressing its history, then by looking at its current concerns and finally by highlighting some of its needed resolutions.

Transfer Student Proliferation: National Study

According to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), college transfer is the movement of students from one college, university, or other educational provider to another. It is the process by which credits representing educational experiences, courses, degrees, or credentials are accepted or not accepted by a receiving institution (CHEA, 2000). Nationally, many students transfer out of the first institution they initially attend. In fact, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES, 2011) 2003-2004 study of four million first-time undergraduate postsecondary students, roughly 1.3 million (approximately 32%) of them transferred, and 40% of transferring students moved between one or more colleges throughout their careers. Nationally, 18% of undergraduates transfer from the first institution at which they enrolled within three years of beginning their postsecondary education (Berkner & Choy, 2008). Additionally, transfer directional statistics indicated that while two-year to four-year transfer behavior was most prevalent (10.9%) four-year to four-year, four-year to two-year, two-year to two-year, and two-year to less than two-year transfer decisions were also commonplace (NCES, 2011).

The Transfer Dilemma: Its Creation

Historical Background

The creation of today’s transfer student dilemma began during the 1940s.  Initially in 1911, with the creation of America’s first community college, Joliet Junior College, through the 1950s, governing the transfer of students from two- to four-year schools was the primary goal of community colleges (Rendón & Nora, 1988).  In 1919 only 39 community colleges existed making this task fairly manageable.

In 1946 the President’s Commission on Higher Education was formed by Harry Truman.  The commission concluded, “forty-nine percent of the American public had the mental ability to complete 14 years of schooling” (Witt, Wattenbarger, Gollattscheck, & Suppiger, 1994, p. 130). After the report was issued, community colleges proliferated throughout the country. Additionally, the Servicemen Reenactment Act of 1944 (GI Bill) was created to divert veterans away from the scarce job market and into the educational system after World War II.

Prior to the 1940s, higher education institutions were primarily privately funded, limited, and largely restricted to individuals who had both the financial and political connections to access them. However, with the influx of government monetary funding, community colleges surged throughout America (Goodale & Sandeen, 1970), educational funding was provided to citizens who would not otherwise be able to obtain it, and the landscape of higher education institutions vastly shifted. Thus, the GI Bill extended higher learning access to veterans, those in lower socioeconomic classes, and to groups of people who previously had limited or no access to such opportunities (e.g., women and people of color).

Evolution of the Transfer Dilemma

Millions of Americans eventually took advantage of the GI Bill’s educational and low interest, zero down payment home loans. Because of this, community college enrollment boomed, and both transfer student populations and the American higher educational system proliferated. Contemporary economic struggles continue to expand this growth. Massive unemployment, corporate downsizing, adult career changers, state tuition incentives, and ongoing veteran education all contribute greatly to the ongoing evolution of transfer student classifications and behaviors. In fact, the National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education (2011b) states, “There is a critical need to educate all Americans. With the virtual disappearance of opportunities for unskilled labor in the U.S., in this century a college education has become essential for anyone who seeks meaningful employment and social mobility (p. 2).”

Additionally, the entrance of community colleges into American higher education brought with it internal and external student learning and pedagogical challenges and biases. For example, on average community college students usually come from relatively less advantaged backgrounds (Dougherty, 1994), and many are first generation college students who may also be the first in their family to graduate from high school (Chandler, 1999). The National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education (2011b) confirmed that these two populations have learning and pedagogical challenges, “Too often universities and colleges tend to focus more intently on emulating their more selective peers than on taking stock of their students’ learning needs and helping them achieve educational success. The element that tends not to figure substantially in the visions and strategic plans of institutions is a concern for measurable improvement in learning” (p. 2).

Agreeing Gonzalez (2001) stated that the faculty at four-year institutions often negatively perceive the capabilities of community college transfer students. Consequently, students transferring from two-year to four-year institutions were oftentimes viewed as possessing less ability and overall preparation than their peers in four-year institutions. They were often deemed less likely to succeed than those who matriculated directly from high school into a four-year college. However, Ratcliff (1995) noted that two- and four-year institutions provide relatively equal cognitive gains for students after the initial year, suggesting students who begin college at two-year institutions do not sacrifice intellectual gains.

The Transfer Dilemma: Its Current Status

Student Classifications and Behavior

Laanan and Sanchez (1996) and Susskind (1997) recognized the vastness in transfer student behavior. They suggested that community college leaders measure effectiveness by identifying various transfer types in addition to monitoring transfer rates. They classified the types of transfer students into the categories presented below:

  • Vertical transfers: students who move from a junior to a senior college
  • Horizontal or lateral transfers: students who move between two institutions at the same level (e.g., from one two-year to another two-year institution)
  • Reverse transfers: students who begin their studies at a four-year college and graduate from a two-year college
  • Swirling transfers: students who enroll in two or more colleges simultaneously

Additionally, I would supplement this list by adding the following category:

  • Internal transfers: students who earn both their two- and four-year degrees at the same college. This scenario is most often only found at comprehensive colleges accredited to offer more than one degree level.


Institutional Response to Transfer Student Behavior

Student transfer behavior between educational institutions has created the need to successfully educate diverse student populations within a singular institution. As a result, the quest to address student learning and pedagogical cultural changes has begun proliferating throughout American higher educational institutions. Coupled with this, today’s massive unemployment rates, corporate downsizing, adult career changes, and state tuition incentives continue to influence previously unseen college enrollment patterns. Current unemployment rates and adult career changes have motivated highly-educated citizens to enroll in two-year colleges to earn associate degrees (even though they have already earned baccalaureate and master degrees); state tuition incentives are encouraging high-achieving recent high school graduates to directly enroll in community colleges before attending four-year institutions; and corporate downsizing has led to a host of mature adults returning to the classrooms to expand their professional credentials.

Gone are the days when American educational institutions could focus primarily on homogenous educational groups and monolithic teaching methods. Furthermore they can no longer expect a plethora of federal, state and local funding, non-parental interaction, and limited or postal communication. In fact Goldstein (2009) and Kimmich (2011), current and former Chancellors of The City University of New York (CUNY), repeated emphasis that higher education design must change. Contributing factors described by Goldstein and Kimmich included the diversity of special student population needs, globalization, access to instant communication and information, limited funding resources, increased accountability, increased demand for greater student access, and an increase in the type and number of higher educational institutions at-large. These factors have led to the restructuring of the basic design, philosophy and operations of higher educational institutions over the last 75 years.

I believe money is at the heart of all of these changes. Economics, whether masked under the disguise of surplus or deficit, is the fundamental element that has prompted these institutional changes. Kimmich (2011) indicated that long-term job security is becoming a relic from the past, educational standards to achieve a minimum standard of living have been raised, teaching and outcomes (job placement) accountability are being scrutinized, and both the public and private sectors are demanding more service—more options with less revenue. Additionally, the biggest obstacles impeding transfer student progression and timely completion of degrees have been identified as accurate and timely evaluation of transfer credits, loss of credits, and/or additional credits required after transferring. Lynch (1994) concurred with these and identified other barriers as well. Plus, Cejda (1994), Diaz (1992), and Knoell & Medsker (1965) found that a 0.5 (or more) drop in a student grade point average occurs due to transfer shock. These barriers cannot be overlooked. Each of these obstacles places a huge economical burden on students.

In response to the growing numbers of transfer students across the United States and ongoing economic challenges, many legislatures and boards of education have responded by directing energy toward creating system-wide transfer initiatives and articulation mandates. Additionally, federal pressure to address these concerns continue to be applied through such recurring legislation bill goals as the Higher Education Affordability and Equality Act of 2010 (HR 5078). As a result of these multiple forces discussed in this section, American educational institutions are being pushed to simultaneously address credit transfer, remediation and student preparation needs in general, and faculty teaching expectations at-large, at both institutional and federal levels.

Student Learning and Pedagogical Challenges

The issues of how credits transfer and how they are articulated both within and outside of similar or differing educational programs and institutions have been areas of contention for many decades. Over the last 10 years, several state educational systems have taken on these issues by undergoing the massive challenge of revamping their in-state transfer articulation policies and procedures. Florida (Florida Department of Education 2011), Georgia (University System of Georgia, 2008) and Illinois (Illinois Board of Higher Education, 2001) have successfully undergone this tremendous task; and New York’s CUNY (Goldstein, 2011) system has resolved to complete this task by 2013. As these examples show, states have begun to move away from allowing individual school-to-school transfer and articulation agreements and are instituting statewide mandated agreements.

Additionally, states are being forced to address the incredibly political task of improving the effectiveness of academic and degree progression of two-year institutions. They are also charged with reducing entrance barriers and inappropriate academic stereotypes at four-year institutions. The National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education (2011b) stated:

The nation’s system of higher education is often described as a pyramid in which the foundation layer consists of students attending open-enrollment institutions, including students who matriculate in community colleges, technical institutions, and proprietary institutions offering two-year degrees or certification in targeted employment skills. Further up the pyramid is a substantial cohort of students in public regional universities as well as in less selective independent liberal arts colleges. The next stages of the structure include students in state flagship research universities, and finally students enrolled in the nation’s most selective independent colleges and research universities.

As it tapers toward the top, the pyramid comprises an ever smaller number of institutions with selective admissions that enroll the nation’s highest-achieving students, who in many cases are also the most advantaged students in terms of educational and socioeconomic background. What may be less clear from the image of the pyramid itself are the different expenditures made to educate students at each tier of the structure. In fact, the dollars expended per student in the lower tiers of the system are substantially less than the dollars spent to educate students in the upper strata. From the standpoint of meeting the nation’s need for a better educated and more highly skilled population in the coming decades, the higher education pyramid as it now exists would need to be inverted. (p. 2)

Unquestionably, privately funded higher educational institutions have been in the education business far longer than most publicly funded institutions. As a result, they generally have the economical means to selectively choose which caliber of students they desire to admit; and by choosing their student body, they oftentimes are able to avoid addressing more diverse and complexly challenging student learning pedagogical issues. This is simply not the reality for our public sector.

The junior college movement actually began with its founder William Rainey Harper in 1892 when he divided the upper and lower divisions at the University of Chicago, named the lower-division departments in 1895 “junior colleges,” and created an associate degree for its graduates in 1899 (Witt et al., 1994). Between 1929 and 1939, the Great Depression and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) allocated funds to communities and helped to firmly establish the existence of junior colleges (Witt et al., 1994).

The relatively recent arrival of public higher educational institutions within the past 75 years has indeed provided educational access to the masses of the American people. The United States’ movement toward open access and ultimate creation of a plethora of two-year colleges also brought with it the quest and complication of determining the best means to educate the tremendous number of students who require remedial education. The goal of providing all Americans with “the critical knowledge and skills that allow graduates to function as thinking, engaged, and contributing members of society throughout life” (National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education, 2011b, p. 2) has also unavoidably spawned the widely debated and equally academically complex issue of “who,” “how,” and “where” this responsibility should be placed.

Since the beginning of the junior college movement, there seems to have been a general consensus among the two- and four-year sectors to retain the association of experiential and research learning with four-year colleges. As a result, remedial, English as a second language, and general education learning were delegated as primary responsibilities of the two-year colleges. Additionally, this responsibility was further compounded by the fact that state and federal funding mandates their mission includes servicing and adapting to the needs of all students (Witt, Wattenbarger, Gollattscheck, & Suppiger, 1994).

Unfortunately, these practices have more now than ever thrust community colleges into the remediation arena, and in some cases, have required them to serve in roles, which were formerly held by our secondary schools. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education expands upon this by stating (2011b):
The element that tends not to figure substantially in the visions and strategic plans of institutions is a concern for measurable improvement in learning. The more typical strategy is to focus an institution’s imagination, energy, and resources on becoming more selective, more attractive to the best students and faculty, rather than on configuring the institution to educate the student body of the future.

Even less likely to appear in the aspirations of most four-year public and independent higher education institutions is a goal of working constructively with regional K–12 schools to foster a better understanding among students of the advantages that result from a college education, and to help students and schools identify the middle and high school courses and the habits of mind that best prepare one for college-level study.

Discussion Questions

The results of these student learning practices have forced both academic and student affairs professionals to partake in some currently ongoing and fiery pedagogical conversions. As a seasoned administrator in this field who is firmly committed to professional development, I have come to understand that many of these concerns surround the following issues:

  • Why are two-year colleges’ retention and graduation rates so low?
  • Does at least half of our general public still have the intellectual capacity to continue their studies past their high school education?
  • Are retention and graduates rates being fairly defined for the two-year sectors?
  • Are students who transfer from two-year colleges adequately prepared?
  • Do faculty within two- or four-year colleges truly know how to teach?
  • Are all higher educational institutions responsible to teach all students?
  • Should faculty know how to teach diverse educational groups before they can earn the title professor?
  • How can technology be used to increase student success?
  • How can colleges work more effectively with high schools to prepare students for college?
  • Is there a point when students must receive advisement services to support them in their educational success?
  • To what extent do environmental factors hinder transfer student success?

In the world of academia, obtaining answers to these challenging questions can be a time consuming and comprehensive process. However, the mere discussion and ultimate resolution of them oftentimes leads to some enhanced and transforming educational experiences for the country at-large.


Transfer students are a major constituent group of higher education institutions. The added value they bring to the educational environment is historically rich and profitable. Their road traveled throughout their transfer process is oftentimes filled with barriers, obstacles, and financial challenges. Colleges must make an investment in their success by ensuring that faculty and staff can systematically make conscientious efforts to help ease transfer students through their transitions.

Maintaining our national educational commitment to access is unquestionably a daunting process. Increasing our nation’s competitiveness in a global economy by increasing the educational preparedness of all its citizens is vital to our continued national strength; however, it is no small undertaking. Yet, the literature firmly indicates that it is not only our nation that should make a sound investment, but it is also critical towards ensuring our country’s continued success.

Transfer Issues Workshop

Given these tough issues affect our professional responsibilities daily, the Commission for Academic Affairs Administrators and the Commission for Student Development in the Two-Year College co-hosted a one-day drive-in workshop on March 23, 2012 at Jefferson Community and Technical College located in Louisville, KY. This workshop was intended to help us address ongoing transfer, remediation, articulation, and pedagogical teaching concerns. During this conference attendees participated in conversations surrounding: (a) articulation issues between the community college and the four-year institution, (b) policy issues between the institutions, (c) overall preparation of the students for academic work at the four-year institution (d) dual program agreements, (e) dual scholarship and research opportunities, (f) two-year/four-year collaborations in preparing our students for academic scholarship, (g) faculty who teach at both two- and four-year institutions, (h) academic challenges of teaching students at diverse educational levels, and (i) grant opportunities available for two-four year college collaborations.


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About the Author

Paulette Brower-Garrett serves as Director of Academic Advisement & Evening & Weekend Services at the College of Staten Island/CUNY. She served as an ACPA Directorate Member with the Commission for Student Development In The Two Year College from 2009-2011, and as their Advisory Board Member during the 2011-2012 academic year. Also a National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) member, she has over 25 years of advising experience and has taught as an adjunct faculty member and presented at various national and regional conferences. Ms. Brower-Garrett has a BA degree in Botany (Drew University), MS degree in Counseling (Seton Hall University), MA degree in Social Sciences and MBA in Finance (William Paterson University) and is a Pi Lambda Theta member.

Please send inquiries to Paulette Brower-Garrett at [email protected]

The opinions expressed by Developments author(s) are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members, Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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