Supporting the Transfer Pathways of the Modern Student

by Heather L. Fox / Nov 30, 2016

With over 80% of community college students expressing an intent to earn at least a bachelor’s degree, it is essential that the transfer pathways in and out of community colleges support positive outcomes for both our students and our communities (Jenkins & Fink, 2015). This is especially true when considering underserved populations for whom community colleges are the accessible gateway to higher education. Transfer of students from community colleges to four-year institutions supports upward mobility of students, expands and diversifies the student base at four-year institutions, and results in strong economic benefits for both students and taxpayers (Jenkins & Fink, 2015).  

Recently, the Education Insight Center released a report outlining the complexities in the transfer process between California’s community colleges and California State University (Lewis, Reeves Bracco, Moore, Nodine, & Venezia, 2016). At California State University about half of their new undergraduate enrollment and bachelor’s degree completers are students who transferred from community colleges (Lewis, et al., 2016). Lewis et al. found that despite reforms and improvement to the transfer process, the transfer policies and practices remain overly complex. Further, the information and supports provided to students were both confusing and insufficient. To improve outcomes for students, Lewis et al. made recommendations aimed at simplifying the transfer process and increasing supports for transfer students. Specifically, Lewis et al. recommended that California community colleges and California State University collaboratively work to improve alignment of curricula, improve counseling, and institute degree audit programs.

Lewis et al.’s (2016) study focused specifically on vertical transfer (e.g., transfer from a two-year to a four-year institution). However, the traditional vertical transfer model reflects a limited perspective on the enrollment patterns and pathways students take through their educational journeys.  Students’ enrollment patterns increasingly include both sequential and concurrent enrollment among multiple institutions and institution types. Students are also increasingly offered opportunities to gain college credits through competency-based and prior learning assessments, concurrent enrollment while in high school, advanced placement courses, and dual credit courses. The need to consider transfer extends well beyond this traditional concept of vertical transfer. However, what is striking about the recommendations provided by Lewis et al. is that if they are adopted holistically they have the potential to support the transfer process regardless of whether transfer is through concurrent enrollment, horizontal transfer, vertical transfer, or reverse transfer, or even through some combination of these models. Degree audits and advising, for example, are key dimensions of the reverse transfer process (Taylor & Bragg, 2015).

The challenge is that students’ pathways through education are as varied as the educational institutions serving them. Adapting our current systems to build pathways that support these students is no small task. However, as we learn more about the importance of building quality educational pathways and supports for students, it is increasingly clear that we need to adapt our systems and engage in emerging technologies that allow us to reach students where they are academically and personally in their lives. To do this we may need to reconsider who our “transfer students” are and, as such, what they need. We also need to continue to build understanding around the pathways students are taking, their intent and the rationale for the choices they are making along the pathways, and the challenges they face. If we understand these important facets, we can look for ways to simply systems, build timely supports, and remove systemic barriers impeding their success.


Jenkins, D., & Fink, J. (2015). What we know about transfer. New York, NY: Columbia University, Teachers College, Community College Research Center.

Lewis, J., Reeves Bracco, K., Moore, C., Nodine, T., Venezia, A. (2016). Trial and error: California students make the best of an improving yet complex transfer process. Sacramento, CA: Education and Insights Center, California State University.

Taylor, J. L., & Bragg, D. D. (2015). Optimizing reverse transfer policies and processes: Lessons from twelve CWID states. Champaign, IL: Office of Community College Research and Leadership, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.