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Better transfer routes between private and community colleges an underutilized path to equity

Baldwin Wallace University

One way to reduce equity gaps in higher education, according to the authors of a new report from higher ed consulting firm Ithaka S+R , is to boost bachelor’s degree attainment rates for community college transfer students.

The authors call it an “underutilized but essential” pathway, though. Statewide initiatives aimed at strengthening the transfer routes between those two-year public colleges and their four-year nonprofit private counterparts, they said, is one option to help get this done at scale.

Ohio’s already doing some work on this front. That includes last summer’s announcement where 14 of the state’s private colleges announced plans to work together with 10 community colleges to streamline the transfer process. It comes as the pandemic amplified enrollment struggles many colleges across the state were already facing.

Julia Karon, an analyst at Ithaka S+R and lead author of “Playbook for Transfer Pathways to the Liberal Arts: How to Design and Implement Statewide Pathways from Community Colleges to Independent Colleges,” spoke with Crain’s Cleveland Business about the just-released recommendations.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Let’s start with a big picture question: Why is developing better statewide pathways important?

The state of Ohio has great transfer pathways already from public community colleges to public four-years in the state, so expanding those pathways to private institutions is really just providing students with more options to complete their bachelor’s degrees. That benefits everyone. More college graduates leads to more educated employees, which improves the economy in the state, so it’s really a win-win for everybody.

Faculty from both independent and community colleges, as well as some community college leadership, responded to a survey you sent out. What were some of those takeaways?

Especially at the community college level, we got a lot of responses noting that leadership and faculty really want what’s best for their students. They understand that expanding pathways to independent colleges gives their students more options that can set them up for success.

There were also some challenges noted. The main one being just that doing this intensive transfer work takes time, it takes resources, so faculty want to be sure that their time is being compensated, that they’re really being involved in the process in a meaningful way.

The Ohio Federation of Independent Colleges has done a really great job incorporating the voices of faculty. They’re doing peer working groups with faculty at community colleges and independent colleges, really making sure that faculty feel that their voice is heard.

It is so important to involve faculty in the transfer process. They’re often the ones deciding which credits can go towards a certain degree.

You also conducted interviews, too. The playbook includes a quote from a staff member at an Ohio community college who said, “I’ve appreciated the flexibility and involvement that my private partners have brought … to our students. I think some of the publics I work with could learn from our private partners.” Did you get a sense of what they meant by that?

This staff member was referring specifically to when it comes to communicating options to students, and especially accepting credit, private institutions have really done a great job being flexible when it comes to how many credits students can transfer in and how long it takes them to finish that degree.

In addition to incorporating faculty’s voices, what else are leaders here in Ohio doing well?

We talk about in the playbook, when you’re choosing the goals for your initiative, you really want to engage not only your member institutions, but also community colleges, the public sector, legislators. There are so many stakeholders involved.

OFIC (the Ohio Foundation of Independent Colleges) has done a great job not only reaching out to the member institutions, but also surveying community colleges and holding focus groups with independent college and community college staff to determine which major transfers pathways they wanted to pursue, what the goals of their initiative should be.

They’ve also done a great job reaching out to ODHE (the Ohio Department of Higher Education), which has been a helpful thought partner throughout the initiative. And they know that they can rely on the resources that already exist so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Conversely, of course, what could Ohio do better on this front?

That’s honestly something we’re going to have to figure out. Ohio has contracted with the Council of Independent Colleges to evaluate their initiative. And so that evaluation, and our evaluation in later years, will bring up how the initiatives have gone, where are areas for improvement. This playbook is meant to highlight the practices that states are using thus far, but we definitely have more to learn in terms of how effective these practices have been.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus.

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