Editor's note: Eric Spina is the president of the University of Dayton, in Ohio.
For many community college students, the path to a four-year education is riddled with questions: Which classes will count toward my degree? How much will it cost? Where can I go for good information? And just when they find their way on one campus, it's time to transfer to another.
Too many community college students, however, never step foot on a university campus and don't pursue a bachelor's degree. In fact, more than 50,000 students each year are "fully prepared to excel at a four-year university" but "fail to transfer," according to the American Talent Initiative (ATI).
Talk to them individually, and you get a clearer picture of their roadblocks. The Institute for Higher Education Policy documented stories of confusing and complicated financial aid processes that left students in the dark about how much grant support they would receive from one year to the next; unpredictable nontuition expenses that forced some to forgo important educational resources like textbooks; and stress about higher prices at four-year institutions compared to two-year schools.
Transfer students deserve a more holistic approach to their education — one that provides a seamless academic pathway with transparent costs, supports them and includes them on both campuses from day one.
Addressing the roadblocks
Understanding those barriers and addressing them are two different things, but a collaboration between the University of Dayton and Sinclair Community College is taking a holistic approach. It begins with telling students exactly what they'll pay upfront for the full four-year pathway and both degrees, even before they enroll.
Transparency and collaboration are the cornerstones of the UD Sinclair Academy — a partnership between U of Dayton, which is a private, Catholic research university, and Sinclair, which is one of the largest community colleges in Ohio. Our campuses are located about a mile apart in Dayton but even with articulation agreements in place for many years, some students couldn't see a clear path to a U of Dayton degree.
Now in its fourth year, the academy helps remove financial hurdles and eliminates surprises. When students apply for the academy, the university gives them a detailed, personalized financial aid letter that includes a net-tuition lock for four years. The university also eliminated fees and offers textbook and study-abroad scholarships. It's too early to tell what the impact on student borrowing is for academy graduates, but this price transparency has helped our four-year students graduate on time with less debt.
Another challenge for transfer students is that they sometimes feel they miss out on the chance to experience life on a university campus designed for four years of residential learning. The academy addresses this by giving students access to U of Dayton facilities and programs while they're taking classes at Sinclair. They can attend U of Dayton athletic events, join any of the university's more than 270 student organizations, visit the library and recreation facility, take advantage of peer mentoring, and even join the marching band and do undergraduate research. They also have academic advisors on both campuses.
Academy students can choose from about 60 pathways offered in every undergraduate academic division, ensuring they don't waste time (and money) with lost credits when they transfer.
While we are proud to serve as a model for this kind of public-private collaboration, we know we are not alone in working to innovate programs and partnerships to address the roadblocks facing transfer students.
ATI points to examples such as the Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The program identifies and supports transfer students, requiring them to commit to advising, peer mentoring and other activities so they're familiar with the university's culture and academics before they transfer. As a result, 84% of participants have graduated since the program's inception, according to a 2018 report from ATI.
Other examples include the University of Arkansas, which recently created a scholarship that keeps tuition the same for community college graduates after they transfer; the University of California, Los Angeles, which prioritizes transfer at the highest levels and celebrates it; and the University of Washington, which offers specialized transfer resources, including a separate orientation.
Together, these and other efforts could make an enormous impact given that each year more than 1 million students seek a degree or certificate at community colleges.
The time is now
It's important for colleges to begin working now to improve the transfer student experience. It takes commitment at the highest levels to design new programs and build strong partnerships between institutions that will truly make a difference.
Creating the UD Sinclair Academy required nearly two years of work involving dozens of people from both campuses — provosts, faculty, deans, registrars and staff from student development, admissions, financial aid and more. An ongoing joint articulation committee continues to add pathways and address issues.
The academy started with just a handful of students, but today 124 students are enrolled in the program and taking courses at Sinclair. In addition, 46 academy students have transferred and are taking classes at U of Dayton.
I've seen the difference it makes for each student. Even before he started classes at the university, Oscar Ntakontagize, one of the first students to enroll in the academy, was able to join our minority engineering program and complete a summer internship with an engineering professor working with advanced composite materials. And Maria Loyd, our first academy graduate — who never imagined herself a U of Dayton alumna but proudly crossed the stage to shake my hand at graduation this May — is now a math and science teacher at a local elementary school.
With a comprehensive approach, higher education can help more transfer students graduate on time, with transparent costs and a better and more engaged experience that will set them up for success.
Thousands of talented, motivated and capable students like Oscar and Maria are ready to thrive and succeed. Let's clear the roadblocks to help them do just that.