There’s a long list of similarities between Cuyahoga Community College and Cleveland State University.  

The downtown Cleveland campuses are less than a mile apart. Each is a public higher education institution still dealing with enrollment declines amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. And the colleges’ presidents, Tri-C’s Michael Baston and CSU’s Laura Bloomberg, both took over in 2022. 

It’s the last point that’s arguably the most important. The leaders maintain they’re building a working relationship filtering down to staff at all levels. This may make it easier to transfer from one institution to the other.

“Tri-C and CSU, for a long time, have had transfer collaboration, so that’s not what’s new,” Baston told Signal Cleveland. “What is new is the right level of coordination.” 

The hope: partnerships bring economic prosperity 

Working to strengthen the institutions’ connection could be a big deal for the economic future of Cleveland and its residents. Those with bachelor’s degrees are projected to have higher lifetime earnings than people who have only a high school diploma. 

Advanced education brings other positive benefits, like being more civically engaged and boosting social mobility. Plus, Northeast Ohio employers and leaders constantly talk about the need for a more educated workforce. 

Moving from a two-year to a four-year college can be overwhelming. Though a reported 80% of community college students say they want a bachelor’s degree, only 14% actually earn one within six years of transferring. It’s due, in part, to the 43% of community college credits that aren’t accepted towards four-year degrees. 

Transferring has often been treated like a back-end process, said Tania LaViolet, director of the bachelor’s attainment portfolio at the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. 

“It’s very transactional,” she said. “It deals with credit transfer, rather than a front-and-center student success priority that comes from presidents and senior leaders and then permeates across the institution.”  

The most successful transfer partnerships between two- and four-year colleges have a few things in common, according to LaViolet and the team at Aspen.

There’s that buy-in from the top leaders, putting more money and commitment towards changing long-existing transfer systems where students can get lost in the shuffle. Clear course roadmaps are created to make sure credits transfer easily.  Support, connections, and advising specifically aimed at making sure transfer students have the help they need in and out of the classroom is also key. 

“The reality is the transfer experience for a student is so much more than moving credit,” said Melissa Swafford, director of the Transfer Centers at Cuyahoga Community College. 

Roughly 1,600 students transferred from the college to the state’s other public institutions in 2021. But most students who transfer head to Cleveland State. Out of every 10 students who transfer out of Tri-C, three head to CSU. 

Sometimes, though, Tri-C students who indicated they were interested in heading to CSU found that the information didn’t necessarily translate to the four-year school. And over the years, more and more separate initiatives popped up to help boost those numbers. The list includes Degree Link. And the Mandel Scholars Academy. And a nursing continuum. And a dual-admission initiative. It was a lot.

“We had, like, five separate transfer-related programs with CSU,” said Swafford. “It was very confusing for students to understand where they fit.”

Establishing connections earlier 

Things are easier now. Tri-C students who want to eventually get to CSU and the programs aimed at helping them get there are housed under one umbrella dubbed “Future Vikings.” Launched in 2021, it includes access to counselors and advisers at both campuses, direct course pathways, and early connections to Cleveland State. 

According to Swafford, Tri-C loads up buses from each of its four campuses and takes students downtown to CSU, where they tour the campus and hear from faculty members in areas they’re interested in, all to help get them to start thinking about transfer possibilities earlier. 

Cleveland State’s thinking about them, too. 

“Tri-C is probably our single largest feeder of students to Cleveland State, but they’re also our single largest competitor,” said Jonathan Wehner, vice president and dean of Admissions, Enrollment Management and Student Success at Cleveland State University.

Pandemic-era enrollment declines hit community colleges, where the majority of those enrolled are students of color and/or women, the hardest. That, then, impacts the pipeline of  transfer students moving to four-year institutions. 

Transfers still make up the second biggest chunk of CSU’s student population after first-time freshmen. It’s an important group, especially as the number of high school graduates in Ohio continues to decline. 

“Part of our doubling down on this, and our continued re-emphasis, is understanding we can’t afford to take transfer students for granted,” Wehner said. 

What comes next 

Wehner points to the lead of presidents Baston and Bloomberg, saying focusing on this group of students seems to rank higher in institutional priorities than in previous years. 

A transfer summit held last fall. The administrations’ cabinets and senior staff got together in January. A joint committee focusing on transfers is set for the beginning of April. This meeting will move beyond just enrollment officials, with folks like chief financial officers and institutional research having a seat at the table, too. 

The presidents want the teams to come together with coordinated visions and plans, Wehner said.  

Maybe the plans will include launching a single application covering both institutions at once, or doing financial planning for the combined years when students would be at both institutions, both examples provided by Wehner. The pipeline can go both ways, too, as CSU students or graduates could head to Tri-C to earn a certificate or credential in a specialized area.  

The hope, Wehner said, is to move into action sooner rather than later. He anticipates more work will be done on this front over the summer. Time is of the essence for both institutions. 

“Tri-C’s enrollment has dropped over the past few years,” Wehner said. “Cleveland State’s enrollment has dropped over the past few years. When we think about workforce development in Northeast Ohio, when we think about accessibility in Northeast Ohio, we just can’t afford to be talking about it anymore. We have to be doing now.”

Amy Morona covers higher education for Signal Cleveland, in partnership with Open Campus.

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