Jake Wilson was a military brat who found himself in community college upon landing in Michigan after the university application deadlines passed.
He is among about 80 percent of community college students nationally who say their ultimate goal is to use the less expensive two-year colleges as a springboard to a four-year bachelor's degree or higher, according to research compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics.
But like many others, Wilson said his path through community college was sometimes diverted by potholes. Perhaps most frustrating was the possibility he would pay for community college courses only to find that not all the credit would transfer to a four-year university ‒ a waste of time and finite federal grant money.
"I met with (community college) advisors a couple times,” Wilson said. “They were going to have me take classes I didn't think I really needed - (such as) Intro to film."
It’s a danger faced by many students like him. Nationally, only 58 percent of community college students seeking to transfer were able to retain 90 percent or more of their credits at a four-year institution, a 2014 study from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York found. Students who lose significant amounts of credit in the transition are less likely to ultimately graduate from a university.
That’s a scenario Michigan lawmakers are trying to change through a program to improve the prospect that community college credits are accepted at four-year universities.
Wilson managed to avoid this pitfall ‒ making the leap from Macomb Community College to Wayne State University in 2013, and taking 31 credits with him. His MCC credits cost about $80 per credit hour, versus the $300 to $400 per credit hour that coursework would have cost at Wayne State, so Wilson said he saved thousands by taking his general education classes at the community college.
While most community college students say they want to get a bachelor’s degree or higher, nationally only 42 percent eventually do transfer, the CUNY study found.
The prospects are worse in Michigan ‒ in the 2012-13 school year, Michigan had 100,000 students in community college programs that could be transferable to a four-year college (as opposed to vocational programs not applicable to college degrees.) But only 17,000 made the jump from the two-year programs to four-year colleges, according to Christopher Baldwin, executive director of Michigan Center for Student Success established by the Michigan Community College Association.
Those numbers could soon improve.
This school year is the first time community colleges and universities in the state have participated in the Michigan Transfer Network, a voluntary agreement between Michigan’s community colleges and universities to provide better information to students on credits that will transfer for four-year degrees at specific schools.
The network sprung from the state legislature’s 2012 directive to Michigan’s colleges and universities to work more cooperatively to save students money and increase the number of bachelor’s degree recipients.
The state’s public universities agreed to accept at least 30 credits in approved general education courses from community college transfers, the equivalent of a year’s work at a university. The MTA replaced the prior program, Michigan Association of Collegiate Registrars & Admissions Officers (MACRAO) agreement, which some colleges had not participated in.
While the new agreement has the potential to help more students get bachelor’s degrees, it has some holes: It does not address how much credit universities are required to accept for more specialized coursework at community colleges. It also does not guarantee that the two years community college students put in for an associate’s degree will yield two years of university credit.
“There’s not a statewide standard for this,” said Baldwin, executive director of Michigan Center for Student Success. “We need to be looking very closely at what universities are going to accept, which means the universities have to to be very clear. Those conversations are not happening enough and it’s certainly not clear to the students,”
The hope of transferring to a college for a bachelor’s degree is a constant on community college campuses. But the dream remains mostly unfulfilled in Michigan.
Using the Michigan Transfer Network, students can log in to learn if their classes are accepted for credit at specific four-year colleges. In a state where all public colleges have autonomy, standards for accepting community college credits can vary from one university to another. So while a math class at a community college may translate into credit at one institution, it may not lead to credit at another institution.
Michigan education officials say they do not keep statewide statistics on the amount of course credit or money that students save by starting at a two-year college, or the amount they lose by taking classes that don’t transfer to a four-year school.
But they agree that state community colleges and universities have to work together to vet classes and better advise students on the path from community college to a university.
That means college officials need to consistently analyze thousands of ever-changing courses and figure out what to do to make the credits acceptable.
It took two and a half years to develop guidelines and standards for the Michigan Transfer Agreement. It’s going to take much more time to figure out how to vet and create transfer agreements for more credits or associate’s degrees to be accepted by four-year institutions, said Baldwin.
For their part, four-year colleges in Michigan point out that there are multiple reasons some credits don’t transfer.
Four-year universities typically do not award credit for the passage of remedial courses ‒ and 60 percent of community college students required remedial courses in math and reading in 2012-13, according to the State of Michigan education dashboard. Four-year schools may also refuse to give credit for community college classes if a student gets a low grade, said Patricia Farrell-Cole, Director of the University Outreach & Policy Research Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan, which represents the state’s 15 public universities.
To ensure that students are given clarity on at least basic credit transfers as they plan their path through community college, the legislature tied its directive to the state’s higher education funding bill.
That got the universities’ attention.
“I would say that with the pressures from the state and legislators, foundations, federal government, and citizens that institutions are looking at better ways to help students with transferring,” Farrell-Cole said. “We do want to conduct studies in this area.”
Increasing the number of students who transfer from community college to a university has the potential to boost enrollment, said Ahmad Ezzeddine, associate vice president for educational outreach and international programs at Wayne State University in Detroit. The more credits a student can transfer, the better chances are they will graduate and not drop out. So if that student is successful in both settings, it’s a win-win for both institutions, he said.
"We can have a bigger pie - enrollment - if we work together rather than compete for the same" students, he said.
For poor students, the savings can be enormous.
In a study of 203,000 students who began at community colleges during the 2003-04 academic year and then transferred to a four-year university, students saved $943 million in tuition (about $4,645 per student), according to a 2012 study cited by the American Association of Community Colleges.
More recently, Michigan had 250,610 community college students enrolled in 2013-14, state data shows, spending about $3,000 on tuition each year. Compare that to more than $12,000 per year for tuition at a four-year public university.
Finding an affordable path to a degree is increasingly important in Michigan where college costs more than in most states, as Bridge has noted. The average Michigan college student who takes out student loans graduates with $29,583 in student loan debt - the eighth highest in the nation.
The state Center for Educational Performance and Information, or CEPI,within the state budget office, started collecting data in recent years on college student enrollment and transfers going back to the class of 2008.
“In 2012-13, we know from CEPI data about 17,000 people transferred from community college to a four-year university,” said Baldwin. “We don’t know much more. We need better data in Michigan.”
Transfer students earn degrees
In addition to saving money, students who successfully transfer to a four-year university are more than likely to graduate, and perform as well as students who began their studies at a four-year university.
Among the 25 percent of community college students in the U.S. who transfer within five years, 62 percent go on to earn a bachelor’s degree, according to a study released last month, “What We Know about Transfer,” from researchers at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. The study hailed community colleges as a key to upward mobility, especially for low-income students who are overrepresented at community colleges. But the loss of transfer credits is a key impediment, the study said.
Increasing the transfer rate from 25 percent to 30 percent could add 46,000 bachelor’s degrees nationally, according to the Columbia researchers.
Michigan is among 30 states that have adopted statewide policies to promote transfer of credits from community colleges to public universities.
The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center in 2012 reported that 45 percent of all bachelor’s degrees are awarded to students who have transferred from a community college. Moreover, community college students who transfer to four-year institutions are just as likely to complete a baccalaureate as similar students who initially enrolled at four-year schools.
The national results hold true at Wayne State University, where the freshman class is comparable in size to the number of students transferring in each year from community colleges ‒ about 2,000. Wayne State has increased the number of classes offered on sites near community colleges and the school’s Transfer Student Success Center helps ease the move from two-year colleges.
“Our data shows that students who transfer in to WSU higher than freshman status have a six-year graduation rate (that is) higher than the six-year graduation year rate of native students (currently at 34 percent),” said Ezzeddine.
Make the match
Renee Wilson (no relation to Jake) is set to graduate from Wayne State in December. She works in the Transfer Student Success Center and said she sees the disappointment and frustration when community college students realize they spent time and money on classes that won't transfer to Wayne, calling the setback “one of the hardest things to deal with.”
Wilson started her college career at Henry Ford Community College in 2010 right after high school. She picked an associate’s degree program - pre-secondary education ‒ that would coincide with what WSU could offer and took classes every semester for two years to receive her associate’s degree. She transferred 61 credits (two full years) to Wayne State and is now studying psychology and business administration.
By starting at Henry Ford, she estimates she saved between $14,000 and $16,000.
"I believe that the transfer process could be easier for students if advisors at community colleges would guide their students to make sure that all of their classes they take at the community college will indeed transfer to the university they are hoping to attend,” she said.