The (Potential) Value of ‘Reverse Transfer’ for Transfer Students

by Jason L. Taylor / Sep 3, 2013

For students who transfer from a community college to a university, the chances they transfer with an associate degree are not very high. Researchers estimate that about 20% of community college transfers make the transition to a university with an associate degree in hand. This group of students has recently become the focus of programs that many institutions and states are referring to as ‘reverse transfer,’ as is the case with the Credit When It’s Due (CWID) initiative. My article in the Spring edition of OCCRL’s biannual newsletter, Update on Research and Leadership, addressed reverse transfer programs – not to be confused with existing definitions of reverse transfer used by researchers to refer to students’ physical transfer from a university to a community college.  In the context of CWID, reverse transfer refers to the awarding of associate degrees to transfer students who complete the associate degree requirements while pursuing a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college or university. OCCRL researchers are the research partners for the CWID initiative that involves 12 states with funding from one or more of the following foundations:  Lumina Foundation for Education, The Kresge Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, USA Funds, and The Helios Education Foundation.

In my recent newsletter article, I considered the value of the reverse transfer associate degree and weighed the potential value from diverse perspectives, including students, community colleges, universities, and employers. In this blog, I focus on the student perspective. One could argue if reverse transfer has to work for any one group, it is students. So, what is the potential value of the reverse transfer associate degree for students?

Two Hypotheses about Value of Reverse Transfer Associate Degrees

At least two hypotheses exist about why the reverse transfer associate degree is potentially valuable to transfer students. One caveat, though: because reverse transfer is a new innovation, there is no empirical evidence about the value of reverse transfer associate degrees. As such, I restrict my observations to the potential value and draw from related existing literature.

First, we know that many college students, including community college transfer students, do not complete a bachelor’s degree. These students are in an "all or nothing" situation where they do not receive any credential, even though they may have earned the college-level credits necessary to receive an associate degree. If transfer students receive a reverse transfer associate degree, in theory, the labor market value of their credential is higher than those transfer students with some college-level credits and no credential. Research shows that on average, individuals with an associate degree have higher lifetime earnings than those individuals with some college but no credential. This economic rationale is a compelling reason to award reverse transfer associate degrees to students who, for whatever reason, stop out or drop out after transferring to the university.

But what if transfer students do not drop out or stop out? The second hypothesis goes like this: receiving a reverse transfer associate degree after transfer can motivate students to persist toward the bachelor’s degree. This argument partially rests on descriptive evidence that shows a higher proportion of transfer students with an associate degree also receive a bachelor’s degree, compared to students who transfer without an associate degree. Extrapolating from these descriptive findings, we might hypothesize that earning an associate degree increases transfer students’ likelihood of completing a bachelor’s degree. Although we lack compelling empirical evidence to support this claim, especially knowing many factors contribute to bachelor’s degree completion, the descriptive data suggest that receiving the associate degree may facilitate student persistence and ultimately completion of a bachelor’s degree. Both hypotheses are being investigated in our CWID research.

We are also investigating whether students desire to receive an associate degree, even if they have earned the sufficient credits to receive the degree. Some CWID states provide eligible students with the option of opting-in or opting-out of the reverse transfer process, and for various reasons (e.g., value of the degree, outstanding degree completion requirements, institutional policies, cost, status of degree, etc.), students may or may not decide to attain the degree while they are pursuing their bachelor’s degree.

Does your institution have a reverse transfer program? Have you heard feedback from students about the value of a reverse transfer degree? I invite you to share your experiences about the value of reverse transfer programs for community college transfer students.

Jason L. Taylor is a postdoctoral research associate at OCCRL and is the project director for the CWID research team at OCCRL.