Improving Transfer and Articulation Policies.
by Tobolowsky, Barbara
Transfer and articulation policies have grown more complicated as higher
education has developed into a complex web of federal and state agencies,
accrediting bodies, administrators, faculty, and staff (Rifkin). Articulation
refers to the services provided for students transferring throughout higher
education, including formulas developed to exchange credits, courses, and
Initially, articulation was simple. A student went from high school
to junior college to the university--a vertical progression (Kintzer).
Today, the system is much more complicated. Baratta identifies several
progressions as students move through higher education (Laanan & Sanchez).
Traditional transfer (community college to four-year institution)
Returning transfer (community college to four-year institution, then
returning to a community college)
Reverse transfer (four-year institution to community college)
Concurrent transfer, sometimes referred to as cross-enrollment (undergraduates
simultaneously attending a four-year institution and a community college)
Transfer eligible admitted (community college student admitted to a
four-year school, but not enrolling in the four-year institution).
Thus, the ideal of a smooth progression of students through various
higher education programs can be difficult to achieve. This is particularly
so if there is little communication between the institutions involved or
if the community college lacks programs to assist students in transferring
This Digest examines transfer and articulation in relation to the changing
mission of the community college and the multiplicity of methodologies
employed to assess transfer rates. It also presents some suggestions for
improving community colleges' ability to address the needs of today's students.
THE EVOLVING MISSION OF COMMUNITY COLLEGES
Community colleges were developed as "elongated high schools...providing
the first half of the baccalaureate degree" (Kintzer). However, even from
inception, their mission included offering "terminal, semiprofessional
courses" (Kintzer). In fact, vocational training has rivaled transfer as
the primary community college mission in some institutions. Many adult
students who have not attained a college degree enter community colleges
to upgrade skills for reentry into the work force or advancement. However,
they represent just a fraction of the new population of students entering
Today, it is clear that a bachelor's degree is essential for success
in many careers, and a key aspect of the community college mission continues
to be to provide courses for transfer toward a baccalaureate degree. Some
colleges are establishing transfer centers or enlisting the support of
faculty and staff committed to the transfer function who can help ease
students' passage from one institution to another. However, not all institutions
are committed to the goal of transfer. Thus, some states have stepped in
to demand that institutions work toward the smooth flow of students into
baccalaureate programs (Robertson & Frier).
THE SUCCESS OF COMMUNITY COLLEGES
Success in this context is narrowly defined in terms of the ability
of community college students to transfer and persist in the four-year
institution. While there is agreement that this success should be understood
and assessed, there is disagreement about how to measure it (Laanan &
Many different methodologies have been suggested, used, and criticized.
Calculating transfer rates "must be based on some group of students: an
entering set, an exiting set, or some subset within a larger group" (Cohen).
Which group do you study? Where do you get the data? What is the time frame
of the measurement? Do students transfer immediately after they complete
their associate degree? Do they wait a year, two years, or four years?
TRACKING THE TRANSFER STUDENTS
Laanan and Sanchez outline some of the models employed to calculate
the transfer rate.
Flaherty used the number of students who transferred to an Illinois
four-year college divided by the total enrollment the previous fall in
all pre-baccalaureate programs.
Flaherty also studied the California community college system and calculated
transfer rates by dividing the number of students who transferred in 1988-89
by the number of high school graduates who had entered community college
three years earlier.
The National Effectiveness Transfer Consortium (NETC) developed a more
complex measure. It surveyed students who enrolled in community college
for a term, completed a minimum of six units, and did not return to the
community college by the following fall term. The time frame is limited
to a single year and required follow-up surveys of leavers or the cooperating
four-year institutions to determine who transferred.
The Center for the Study of Community Colleges (CSCC) used a method
developed by Cohen. This method tracked entering students who complete
a minimum of twelve units divided by the number in this group who take
one or more classes at the university within a four-year time frame.
McMillan and Parke from the Illinois Community College Board adapted
the NETC and CSCC models to limit the entering cohort studied to only those
students in a baccalaureate-transfer, occupational, or general associate
program, excluding students in self-improvement type classes and those
who expressed no desire to transfer. They also raised the course requirement
from six to twelve college credit hours.
Each of these approaches results in different transfer rates that range
from 5% to 84% (Cohen). They also vary among community college districts
and states. There are discernible differences between community colleges
with high transfer rates and those with low transfer rates. The differences
center on their articulation agreements, proximity to four-year institutions,
common course-numbering systems, advising, cooperation between institutions,
and transfer expectations at the community college itself.
These transfer rate measurements do not tell the whole story, however.
Viewing only the students who transfer is not an accurate measurement of
the success of the community college in properly preparing students for
transfer (Rifkin). Some models have been developed that consider transfer
readiness as well. One such approach, developed by Birdsall and Boese,
looks at students who have completed transfer level courses in math or
English and have earned fifty-six or more transferable units with a minimum
grade point average of 2.0. This approach also is criticized because some
students transfer with less than two years of courses (Spicer & Armstrong).
Since every approach has strengths and weaknesses and the range of results
is vast, it is appropriate to use different measures for different purposes.
As Laanan and Sanchez state, "The underlying policy implication for employing
more than one measure is the notion that the diverse populations served
by community colleges require multiple measures of success," (p. 42).
Community colleges have been pressured to respond to the growing population
of adult students in need of retraining or skill upgrading to assist them
in career advancement. In some instances, institutions have adopted the
use of educational technology that gives the adult access to upper division
courses without having to transfer physically to a four-year institution.
Knoell suggests community colleges prepare students to become faculty
and staff at high schools and two-year institutions, particularly in the
technologies. There has been some development to this end with a new "two-plus-two-plus-two"
program that would eventually lead associate degree students to a master's
degree in teaching by taking a specified menu of courses. Two important
elements of this innovation are the seamless transfer agreements between
institutions and the acceptance of work experience for credit units. This
is a variation on existing six-year career education programs that begin
in high school and lead to a baccalaureate degree.
It is essential that college and university faculty collaborate with
their community college peers in the development of a seamless transfer
curriculum. There needs to be coordinated agreement on general education
requirements. Acceptance to both the two- and four-year institutions simultaneously
would also assist in the articulation and transfer of students. Collaboration
among institutions would aid students in concurrent or cross-registration.
Knoell suggests joint use of some facilities and staff--library, articulation
officers, laboratories--as a part of that collaborative effort.
Collaboration was in evidence when the Illinois Board of Higher Education
worked to develop a general education curriculum in communications, math,
humanities and fine arts, social and behavioral sciences, and physical
and life sciences. This year-long project involved faculty members from
the different disciplines at more than 100 two- and four-year institutions
Issues of transfer and articulation have grown more complex as the higher
education system has grown. No standard measure of transfer rates exists;
however, each of the methodologies offers information that is helpful in
understanding the ability of community colleges to serve their ever-changing
The transfer mission of community colleges has not always been the primary
goal for institutions. However, with the growing belief that a bachelor's
degree is required for professional success, the issue remains central
to the current mission of community colleges. Collaboration between four-year
and two-year institutions can only help to facilitate transfer.
This Digest is drawn from "Transfer and Articulation: Improving Policies
to Meet New Needs," New Directions for Community Colleges, Number 96, edited
by Tronie Rifkin, published in Winter, 1996. The cited articles include,
"Orderly Thinking About a Chaotic System" by Arthur M. Cohen; "A Historical
and Futuristic Perspective of Articulation and Transfer in the United States"
by Frederick C. Kintzer; "Moving Toward Collaboration in Transfer and Articulation"
by Dorothy M. Knoell; "New Ways of Conceptualizing Transfer Rate Definitions"
by Frankie Santos Laanan and Jorge R. Sanchez; "Transfer and Articulation
Policies: Implications for Practice" by Tronie Rifkin; "The Role of the
State in Transfer and Articulation" by Piedad F. Robertson and Ted Frier;
and "Transfer: The Elusive Denominator" by Scot L. Spicer and William B.