A Tale of Interpretations: Transfer Velocity

April
2010
Richard Mahon, Executive Committee

It’s no secret to faculty that a wide range of critics have labeled the transfer function in the California community colleges “broken,” and faculty who attended the fall plenary session will recall breakouts and debate about AB 440 (reborn this year as SB 1440), the legislation that would prohibit colleges from including local course requirements should they choose to develop “for transfer” degrees as desired by the Campaign for College Opportunity.

Can research shed light on this situation? Is there any evidence that a streamlined transfer degree would “fix” the transfer function? It just so happens that a major study of transfer—the Transfer Velocity Project (or TVP)—has recently concluded. It is one of the most comprehensive studies of transfer to date. The TVP was a large-scale investigation of student transfer in California community colleges including both quantitative and qualitative components. A Research and Planning (RP) Group team composed of institutional researchers, administrators, counselors and articulation staff from community colleges across the state conducted the study. The RP Group collaborated closely with the California community college (CCC) Chancellor’s Office to define and generate data on the students and colleges considered in this research.

Rather than focusing solely on “transfer rates” which are static in time, the TVP looked at students’ “transfer velocity.” The study considered factors impacting students’ dynamic movement toward a transfer goal—investigating student behaviors and characteristics that influence their speed and path toward transfer, and college-level factors that promote students’ achievement of this transition.

One of the key findings from the TVP is that students who complete associate degrees within six years of CCC entry are found to transfer in higher numbers than those who do not complete associate degrees. A summary of the project noted that, “Attainment of an associate’s degree shows a strong positive impact on students’ likelihood for transfer” (Transfer Velocity Project: Key Findings on Student Transfer in California Community Colleges, http://www.rpgroup.org/documents/TVPBrief.pdf, accessed on 3/3/10).

In January of this year, RP Group Board member Craig Hayward joined Nancy Shulock from the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy and Mary Gill from the Campaign for College Opportunity for a discussion of the project with policymakers and legislators in Sacramento. The January issue of the RP publication Perspectives noted that “The group was particularly interested in the finding that attaining an associate degree can double or triple a student's odds of transfer, particularly for African-American and Latino students” (http://www.rpgroup.org/documents/January2010RPPerspectives.pdf, accessed on 3/3/10).

How should readers interpret this claim? “…attaining an associate degree can double or triple a student's odds of transfer”! It seems clear that the Campaign for College Opportunity believes that streamlining the pathway to associate degree attainment by stripping out local requirements would make it easier for students to earn degrees and transfer—in spite of the countervailing force of plummeting capacity, especially in the CSU system. Thus, it is argued, if the Academic Senate would only stop being obstructionist and support SB 1440, students would finally be successful. One might think that it is the faculty commitment to local degree requirements that causes students all their problems.

But is that the only possible interpretation of this Associate degree finding? Other interpretations that are less supportive of the goals of SB 1440 may be more on point. Perhaps it is not the fact of degree attainment that made students more likely to transfer. Rather, students who take the time to become aware of degree requirements and plan to meet them are the kinds of students who are also likely to educate themselves about the process of applying to transfer and to see that process through to a successful conclusion. Researchers would call this a “third variable” explanation. In other words there is another factor or variable (i.e., student motivation) that explains both degree attainment and transfer success.

Craig Hayward, one of the TVP authors, offers another potential explanation of the finding. The observed tendency for those who attain Associate’s degrees to transfer in higher numbers than those who might not be explained by the structure that is created by the Associate degree requirements. That is, the course-taking sequence that leads to an Associate’s degree might build the “transfer velocity” of the would-be transfer student. That is why Associate’s degree attainment appears to be much more predictive of transfer among those students who are most likely to be first generation college students and to be from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The Associate’s degree structure promotes the development of a transfer-facilitating transcript by requiring those courses that are also required for transfer. The most commonly awarded Associate’s degrees in the state fall into the category of Liberal Arts and Sciences. This category of degrees represented almost 60% of the Associate of Art degrees awarded in 2008-2009. These degrees are, by design, degrees for the transfer-oriented student (https://misweb.cccco.edu/mis/onlinestat/awards_rpt.cfm).

Either of these alternative interpretations would suggest that there is no need to mandate yet another statewide transfer Associate’s degree because the current Associate degrees already promote transfer.

There is no direct evidence that local degree requirements hinder student transfer. Virtually all local degree requirements are transferable and count toward the elective credit students need to reach the 60 unit threshold for junior status. Many colleges have also developed online sections of the courses that satisfy these requirements to better meet students’ scheduling challenges. It is quite possible, then, that eliminating requirements for community college degrees is likely to have no significant effect on either Associate degree completion or successful transfer and might even have the opposite effect.

It should not surprise any reader that the same research findings can result in a wide variety of plausible interpretations. In this case, both interpretations are made by groups who want to see California’s community college students achieve greater success in Associate degree attainment and transfer. It’s unfortunate that groups like the Campaign for College Opportunity have chosen to try to work around the Academic Senate and to bypass the California Community College System itself by seeing its ideas enshrined in legislation.

The research team that was involved with the TVP is currently planning a follow-up study that would explore the experiences of students who both did and did not successfully transfer. This proposed study would provide additional insight into the reasons why there is a large group of students who come so very close to transferring but ultimately do not. It will also provide insight into additional factors and information beyond what is available in the statewide databases. Moreover, the RP Group is seeking to release the results of the TVP as a toolkit which will help faculty and staff at individual campuses explore and improve their own students’ transfer velocity. Keep an eye out for updates and new releases over the coming year.

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