LA VERNE, Calif. — Gage Ramirez was a year and a half into his studies toward a biology degree at a California public university when he came up against an unexpected roadblock: calculus.
Ramirez ultimately found himself changing majors and transferring to another California public institution. But little of the work he’d already put in came with him.
“As soon as I got there, it was like I was starting fresh. Even the high school credits I got didn’t mean anything,” he said. Before long, Ramirez said, “I was six years deep and still not done.”
It’s as common an experience for college and university students as it is frustrating, time consuming and expensive for them, their families and taxpayers: credits that won’t transfer, even among public institutions in the same states.
After decades of demands that this be fixed, a new report from the Government Accountability Office finds that students who transfer among colleges and universities still lose more than 40 percent of the credits they’ve already earned and paid for. Even some of the credits that are accepted don’t apply toward students’ majors.
This increases the amount of time it takes to get degrees, compounding costs and debt. Many students simply drop out. And instead of narrowing, the scale of the problem has widened. Thirty-seven percent of students today transfer at least once in their college careers, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which tracks this; of those, nearly half change schools more than once.
Now there are signs that colleges and universities are slowly lowering the barriers for transfer students, as much from their own self interest as the students’.
An enrollment slump is forcing private institutions to reconsider transfer students as a way to fill seats. So is new competition from community colleges in some states and regions that have been made tuition-free; those schools are seen as sources of potential transfer candidates for bachelor’s degrees.
More than two-thirds of four-year university and college admissions officers said in a survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling that transfer students had become “significantly important” in meeting enrollment goals.
Meanwhile, fed up with waiting, growing numbers of governors and legislators have ordered public colleges and universities to do a better job of helping transfer students, in some cases threatening their budgets if they don’t.
“Regardless of the institution where you work, if you’re a president or the dean of admissions, you’re very aware of these trends,” said Devorah Lieberman, president of the University of La Verne, near Los Angeles.
It was to La Verne that Ramirez eventually made his way, drawn by a transfer process that the university has made comparatively simple. He was able to transfer the maximum 80 credits, and finally got a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology after seven and a half years at three different colleges and $32,749 worth of student loans on top of what he paid from his earnings as a sales clerk at Forever 21, an EMT and a Zamboni driver at an ice rink.
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Other institutions he approached about transferring “didn’t seem all that interested in me,” Ramirez said. “I’d send emails and a couple weeks later I’d hear something like, ‘Well, you can come by if you want.’ Or when I needed to talk to a counselor, I’d finally meet with somebody and they’d say, ‘Sorry we were supposed to send you to somebody else.’”
At La Verne, by comparison, he said in a cafe in the student union, “There was one person in charge of everything [related to transfer], and she put me in touch with the people I needed to talk to by the next day.” He managed to finish the rest of his degree in three semesters.
La Verne takes more than 250 undergraduate transfer students per year and about 500 older-than-traditional-age adults who also cash in prior credits. That’s just under 10 percent of its enrollment. It has transfer agreement plans with 41 community colleges and on-the-spot admission for students from 17 of those, as long as they meet certain prerequisites. Faculty are redesigning majors so the course offerings match what prospective transfer students are likely to have already learned.
Its transfer-friendly strategy stems partly from the university’s history and culture; the stern, stiff-collared and mostly bearded countenances of its presidents staring down from portraits in the main administration building testify to its 1891 founding by a Christian denomination similar to the Quakers called the Church of the Brethren.
But there are also practical motivations. California Gov. Jerry Brown threatened to strip private colleges and universities of their eligibility for the Cal Grant state financial aid program unless they did a better job of admitting transfer students from community colleges. The member institutions of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, which Lieberman chairs, agreed to take 3,000 annually by the 2020-2021 academic year.
“The governor made it clear that if we’re going to all play in the same sandbox, we need to be able to be more collaborative,” said Lieberman, whose own education began at a community college before she transferred to a public university.
While 3,000 students is only a tiny fraction of the 2.1 million who attend California’s 114 community colleges, Brown’s hard bargain is symbolic of the political pressure being brought to bear by lawmakers impatient with the pace of change.
Connecticut lawmakers, for example, have imposed a requirement that public universities and colleges disclose in advance which transfer credits they will and won’t accept; this followed a finding that community college students who transferred to the University of Connecticut were losing a quarter of their credits.
The Texas legislature also has ordered improvements in the transfer process; two out of five students in Texas lose all their credits when they transfer, wasting $58 million a year on top of $57 million Texas taxpayers spend on excess credits, according to the Greater Texas Foundation.
And Minnesota’s legislature has ordered that the transfer process be made more efficient for the nearly 20,000 students who move among that state’s community colleges and public universities.
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In all, about three-quarters of states have adopted some sort of policy to make transfer easier among community colleges and public universities, with varying success, the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, found. (The Hechinger Report, which produced this story, is based at Teachers College.)
Still, those policies apply only within states or systems, while nearly one in five community-college and a quarter of public university students who transfer move across state lines, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
That complication has given rise to something called the Interstate Passport, which lets students who have mastered agreed-upon “learning outcomes” transfer among participating institutions in nine states — Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Idaho, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming — without having to re-take general-education courses.
It’s too early to know how many students will take up the offer, which was mostly pushed by community colleges, said Patricia Shea, who oversees it for the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. “They were talking about the frustration they were seeing when their students came back to campus and said they were having to repeat the same learning.”
Community college students are a huge potential market for bachelor’s degree-granting institutions struggling for applicants. Eighty-one percent of them say, when they begin school, that they hope to ultimately earn at least a bachelor’s degree, the U.S. Department of Education found. But only 13 percent do, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Among the reasons is what the Campaign for College Opportunity calls the “transfer maze” that forces community college students to waste time and money earning credits they can’t use. The advocacy group estimates that a California student starting at a community college who does manage to transfer to a four-year university and get a bachelor’s degree pays $38,000 more for it than a student who starts as a freshman at the four-year school, forced to take the same courses again and again.
“Students beat themselves up about this. They blame themselves. But this is not the students’ problem. This is the fault of institutions not being designed for students,” said John Fink, a research associate at the Community College Research Center.
“There are so many students at community colleges that never do enroll in a four-year college, and four-year colleges that are figuring this out can get ahead of this by trying to improve their transfer process,” Fink said.
Another college that has is Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, which has teamed up with five community colleges from which it recruits the cream of the crop, advising them about which courses to take, encouraging them to visit and stay overnight and matching them up with student mentors.
It’s a small start; some 33 students have gotten bachelor’s degrees from Dickinson this way since 2009. But in addition to helping with enrollment, the pipeline from community colleges contributes to the university’s socioeconomic and racial diversity, said Tara Fischer, who coordinates the program.
“It’s a very strategic investment,” Fischer said. “For us, having community college students as a part of our student body helps remind some of our other students about the luxury of a four-year college experience.”
His own experience at the University of La Verne has encouraged Ramirez to stay another two and a half years to get a master’s degree he needs to become an athletic trainer.
“When I finally graduated [with his bachelor’s degree] I didn’t think I’d feel a lot about it but I was actually kind of proud of it,” he said. He learned on his way to the stage that he had earned departmental honors and saw his relatives, who had come to surprise him, holding up letters that spelled out his name. “I was getting pretty emotional.”
Reaching that moment, Ramirez said, had been ” a grind. It was definitely a grind.”
He stuck with it. But many of the classmates who started with him ultimately gave up.
“I have a lot of friends,” Ramirez said, “who just dropped out.”