Universal Mentors Association

Identifying systemic barriers for community college transfer students


Although 80 percent of entering community college students express a desire to earn a bachelor’s degree, only about 30 percent transfer to a four-year institution, and even fewer complete a bachelor’s degree within six years. To identify systemic barriers, institutions—both sending community colleges and receiving four-year institutions—should look inward at their policies and practices that support or inhibit transfer. The Loss/Momentum Framework (LMF) is designed to assist in identifying interactions between an institution and its students that can either propel (momentum points) or impede (loss points) progress toward degree completion. The LMF has served as a useful tool for community colleges and state systems seeking to improve degree completion and vertical transfer outcomes.

Changing the Conversation From Outcome Data to Student Pathways

Using a qualitative research design, we conducted focus groups and interviews with 33 pre- and posttransfer students from a sending community college and a receiving four-year university in Ohio utilizing the LMF to understand the loss and momentum points commonly encountered by students at various phases of their vertical transfer journeys.

By highlighting how these interactions shape the student experience, the LMF changes the conversation about student success from a narrow focus on outcome data—which offers limited insight into students’ experiences along their degree and transfer journeys—to understanding “specific elements of students’ paths from enrollment to graduation [that] made the difference between their success and failure.” These specific elements are captured by the framework’s key concepts of loss points and momentum points. Loss points are “junctures at which students often delay or decide not to continue with postsecondary education,” while momentum points are “interactions with the institution that facilitate and encourage the completion of programs, achievement of credentials and transfer to four-year institutions.”

While recognizing that each student’s journey to and through postsecondary education is unique, the LMF guides institutions in identifying common loss and momentum points so they can make changes to their policies, practices, programs and processes that enhance all students’ success in attaining a desired credential.

Momentum Points: Helping and Supporting Vertical Transfer

Within the 70 excerpts coded as momentum points, participants identified specific practices, programs and processes they perceived as helpful in facilitating their transfer to a four-year institution and progress toward completing a bachelor’s degree. These included the practices of academic advising and faculty interactions, programs that provided academic or financial support, and institutional processes designed to facilitate the transfer process.

  • Academic advising practices: The most frequent momentum points, mentioned by 18 of the 33 participants, were academic advising practices at both the community college and four-year institution. Participants discussed various ways in which advising proved helpful. Most commonly, advisers provided timely information about required courses, scheduling and degree pathways to ensure participants stayed on the right track to successfully transfer without losing credit for classes taken at the community college or having to retake classes at the university, which in turn provided momentum toward bachelor’s degree completion.
  • Faculty interaction practices: A few participants discussed interactions with faculty at various points along their journeys that encouraged them to transfer to a four-year institution and complete their bachelor’s degrees. While academic advisers primarily provided momentum by helping students navigate the logistical and bureaucratic complexities of transfer and degree completion, these interactions with faculty provided momentum in ways that were more inspirational than instrumental.
  • Institutional programs: One of the four P’s within the LMF is programs for support. Participants discussed three programs that provided such support, fostering their transfer momentum. These included dedicated transfer scholarships, orientation programming and academic support programs.
  • Institutional processes: During the focus groups and interviews, 10 of the 33 participants mentioned various institutional processes that they found helpful along their transfer journeys.

Loss Points: Hindering Vertical Transfer

Although our participants had not experienced any loss points that caused them to pause or end their postsecondary education at the time of their participation, they discussed several institutional barriers and challenges that could reasonably create a loss point for other students. We coded 51 excerpts from the focus group and interview transcripts as loss points. These included academic advising processes and practices, processes and policies that affect curriculum and subsequent transfer credit acceptance and applicability and financial aid practices. Taken together, these loss points suggest areas in which the receiving university can improve its transfer receptivity.

  • Academic advising processes: Approximately one-third of participants discussed ineffective academic advising that served as a loss point. Experiences with academic advising varied widely among participants, and in some instances, a single participant experienced advising practices at the same institution that both boosted and hindered their momentum toward degree completion.
  • Lack of transparency by the receiving university: Participants experienced challenges when the receiving institution’s policies and practices regarding vertical transfer were not transparent or clearly communicated. Multiple participants shared frustration about the lack of transparency regarding whether their community college classes would transfer to the university.

Transfer student journeys are individual and unique; however, by employing the LMF as a research lens, we have uncovered collective loss and momentum points experienced by vertical transfer students at a sending community college and receiving four-year university. Our findings highlight the need for sending and receiving institutions to explore the institutional obstacles and supports they are creating and co-creating for students at various phases of their journeys from community college to transfer and bachelor’s degree completion.

Given the wide variety of experiences our participants had with academic advising, it is clear there remains a ripe opportunity for institutions to transform advising practice into a consistent source of momentum for transfer students:

  • Reducing advisers’ caseloads,
  • Strengthening advisers’ professional development,
  • Hiring dedicated transfer advisers at partner institutions who collaborate as a team to support vertical transfer students,
  • Integrating student support with instruction,
  • Transfer orientation,
  • Transfer-specific scholarships, and
  • Support services for minoritized students

Ultimately, our findings highlight the need for institutions to provide timely and accurate information to transfer students. Institutions that communicate, create programs that anticipate questions or problems before they arise, and leverage influential institutional relationships are well on their way to removing barriers and structuring momentum that leads to degree completion.

Read the full research report, “Applying the Loss/Momentum Framework to Identify Systemic Barriers for Community College Transfer Students,” here.


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