Transfer in the Spotlight: New Models, New Opportunities

Transfer has a long history as a key part of higher education, but today it’s in the spotlight as never before. Facing questions about why many fewer students transfer than aspire to do so—and concerns about the effectiveness of the transfer process, particularly for underserved student populations—two-year and four-year colleges and universities are taking a closer look at how transfer is working.

Starting in the early twentieth century, “junior colleges” offered opportunities for students to matriculate from two-year to four-year institutions. General education was an important part of the course offerings of most junior colleges, and agreements were created to ensure that students who sought to transfer credits between institutions could progress to obtain their baccalaureate degrees. Given this long history, the transfer process between community colleges and their baccalaureate partners seemingly would be perfected, but this has not happened.

Credit loss in the transfer process, even when students move between institutions with articulation agreements, is a serious problem. Moreover, poor advising sometimes results in students taking courses that don’t count toward the major or don’t transfer at all, resulting in substantial loss of time and money. When credit loss happens and students are forced to remain enrolled for longer periods than expected, they are at risk of losing financial aid. Without these funds, students are often unable to pursue their baccalaureate degree. Low-income, racially diverse, and first-generation students are especially at risk.

Another transfer issue involves many students’ needs to take courses at times that fit their lives rather than altering their lives to fit college. One initiative created to address this concern is called Credit When It’s Due (CWID), a sixteen-state initiative funded by multiple foundations that is assisting states, higher education systems, and two-year and four-year institutions to reform policies and practices to enable students who transfer without first receiving their associate’s degree to get this credential after they transfer to the baccalaureate level. An initiative like CWID may be important to addressing not only credit loss but credential loss, as the vast majority of transfers do not attain the associate’s degree prior to matriculating to the four-year level. CWID attempts to disrupt traditional thinking about the transfer process to create policies and practices that are more relevant and responsive to today’s transfer students’ needs.

Other transfer reforms include dual enrollment policies that admit students simultaneously to associate- and baccalaureate-degree programs, and structured pathway models that confer associate’s degrees en route to the baccalaureate degrees. This is an approach that the Loyola University of Chicago is adopting, capitalizing on its historic authority to award associate’s degrees. Through its new two-year institution, Arrupe College, Loyola intends to offer an “associate’s degree program for motivated students with limited financial resources and an interest in attending a four-year institution after graduation.”

Pending final approval to open by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association, Arrupe College will focus on student success for underserved populations, particularly low-income students in the Chicago metropolitan area. The new school promises to offer a summer pre-enrollment orientation, small class sizes and academic and social supports, one-on-one contact with specialized faculty, an associate’s degree that is fully transferable throughout the state, and possibly most important, a financial strategy that permits low-income students to fully finance the cost of instruction without accumulating debt that will extend beyond completion of their associate’s degree.

Looking to the future, it will be important to examine how Arrupe College’s program unfolds. Research that identifies the extent to which this model improves the transfer function is needed, including research on the extent to which underserved student populations are supported in attaining the college credentials they aspire to attain.


Debra D. Bragg, Gutgsell Endowed Professor Emeritus and founding director of the Office of Community College Leadership, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign

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