Cleveland State University

Ohio’s colleges have long been keeping tabs on the state’s shifting demographics as the number of graduating high school seniors in the state is projected to continue to drop.

The pandemic amplified enrollment worries, too, as numbers fell at colleges here in Northeast Ohio and across the country last fall. Community colleges were among those hit the hardest.

There has been a growing emphasis on transfer students. College presidents are talking about expanding pipelines. Fourteen of the state’s private universities and two-year public colleges announced a new pathways partnership this summer. The “Ohio Transfer 36,” introduced in May, is a rebrand of an initiative that allows general education classes to easily transfer between colleges.

“There was a wide acknowledgment that, particularly for institutions that were very dependent on traditional first-time freshmen, there was going to be a need to look beyond,” said Jonathan Wehner, vice president and dean of admissions, enrollment management and student success at Cleveland State University.

Cleveland State and Cuyahoga Community College are now collaborating on the “Future Vikings” program to make the transfer process more streamlined for their students. National data show that out of 100 people who begin at a community college, roughly a third will move to a four-year institution, but only 14 will eventually earn a bachelor’s degree.

“There is a shortage of adults in Northeast Ohio with college degrees and the skills needed for current and future jobs,” Angela Johnson, Tri-C’s vice president of access and completion, said in a recent release. “Increasing the number of college graduates is critical to the economic vitality of our region and the state.”

Community college students looking to work toward a bachelor’s degree can face barriers, according to Melissa Swafford, manager of Tri-C’s transfer center.

There can be confusion over which degrees actually transfer from one institution to another. They might not be able to envision themselves at a four-year college. Credits might not fully transfer, or they may have an outstanding unpaid balance with an institution that results in a transcript being withheld.

It can be a lot to navigate, especially as students at two-year publics often have a lot going on outside the classroom. The majority of students are women and/or people of color attending part time. A third are the first in their families to attend college, and 20% have a disability.

“Students don’t necessarily understand what they don’t understand, especially if they’re first-generation,” Swafford said.

Officials said the schools have a long history of working together. The largest number of transfers out of Tri-C are students moving to CSU, due in part to the campus being easily accessible for students who use public transportation.

The current push is more of a framework, not an entirely new effort. It brings all of the related, existing efforts under one umbrella. That includes Degree Link — an initiative that allows students to take up to three classes at CSU as they study at Tri-C before eventually enrolling at CSU once various requirements are met — as well as the Mandel Scholars program.

“What we realized is we have all these great pathways, programs and partnerships with CSU,” said Swafford. “For students, it’s sometimes hard to figure out where they should go.”

It’s also set to put more emphasis on five specific degree pathways between the institutions. The list includes associate’s degrees that will directly align to earn bachelor’s degrees in the fields of accounting, business, nursing, computer science and health management.

Those particular offerings are “areas of strength” at Cleveland State, the university’s Wehner said, and are also projected to be linked to some of the region’s most in-demand positions.

“We really wanted to look at a set of programs that we felt like was going to create a pipeline to successful jobs,” he said.

A new aspect of Future Vikings is the push to identify Tri-C students who may be interested in participating early on in their academic careers. The goal is to then provide additional programming, such as connecting them with CSU departments or offering targeted advising, to help them stay engaged and on the right track.

“You tell us you want to go to CSU, we will figure out what the best program is for you based on your program of study, your circumstances,” said Tri-C’s Swafford. “And then you’re a Future Viking. We know you want to go to CSU, CSU knows you want to go to CSU, and we’ll help you navigate whatever pathway or partnership that we’ve established.”

The institutions received a $26,000 two-year grant as part of a national initiative aiming to boost transfer rates for students of color, along with adult and first-generation populations. There’s also additional support, like a monthly call with a coach and more in-depth tracking efforts.

The goal is to identify cohorts of 100 net students to transfer in the first year of the grant and then double that amount in year two.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.