Breaking Down Student Transfer Barriers

Breaking Down Student Transfer Barriers with Dr. Darla Cooper

While working in higher education, many of us are focused on our students and their journeys to succeed. One group of students that may not get enough attention are those intending to transfer, but don’t. 

These students put in a ton of work towards being able to transfer to a 4-year college or university, but run into challenges that prevent them from achieving their own educational goals. 

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These students are hard workers, risk takers, and trailblazers that come from many different backgrounds, but all have the same challenge: making it through the student transfer gate. 

One person dedicated to understanding the lives of these students is the executive director of The RP Group, Dr. Darla Cooper. The RP Group is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization dedicated to evidence-based decision making that promotes student success, increases equitable outcomes, improves college operations and informs policy makers in the State of California. 

In this week’s episode of The Higher Edge, we got the opportunity to speak with Dr. Cooper about her findings from the “Through the Gate” student transfer study, and how to positively influence the student transfer journey. 

Through the Gate

Since 2016, Dr. Cooper has been a driving force. Co-directing the “Through the Gate” student transfer study, which is a research initiative that involves more than two million students and focused on identifying ways to increase transfer rates of community college students who are close to transfer but have not yet made it to university. 

Entering the field of research after 10 years as a counselor in a variety of different formats at the University of Southern California (USC), Dr. Cooper has a different way of viewing the data than perhaps some of her colleagues. 

Her colleagues share that Dr. Cooper’s original background as a counselor makes sense because she brings a more “human aspect” to her research. 

“These numbers represent people who have full and complete lives and experiences,” Dr. Cooper said. 

“Many times when we look at data we’re just looking at numbers and statistics and never take the time to really see that these are people that have lives outside of the data we record.” 

When we have this mindset, it gives us a better understanding of what we are researching and who these numbers really represent. 

The Difficulty of Transferring

Transferring can be a very difficult time for students looking to claim a college degree. Not only are they transferring schools, but they are usually transferring alone. Which is a very different experience from being part of an incoming freshman class, experiencing everything as one big group. 

“Many of these students can’t go to a 4-year college right out of high school so they first go to community college,” Dr. Cooper said. “The majority of underrepresented groups who attend higher education start out in community college. It is their way into the university…Keep in mind that to transfer is not the goal. It is a goal, but not the end goal. It is the hurdle they must get over to get to those other goals.” 

For these students graduation sometimes seems like a mountain too far to reach and too tall to climb. Even after going through the work to transfer, Dr. Cooper noticed that some students just stopped and never continued their journey.

“We were getting a sense that there was a group of students who were doing all this work, taking the classes, paying the money, spending the time and energy, amassing a lot of units and, in some cases, significant debt, and then not going on to the university.”

Why would some transfer students take all the time and effort of going through the process just to stop there and not transfer?

Many of these students were categorized as “high-leverage” students in the study, meaning they had 60 or more transferable credits, at least a 2.0 GPA and have completed all English and math requirements. Some even have an associate degree for transfer (a degree specific to some community colleges in California that is supposed to guarantee admission to transfer to a state university).

“Why would somebody go through the effort of completing that degree, which literally has ‘transfer’ in the name, and then not transfer?” Dr. Cooper said. “We looked at the quantitative data in a variety of ways and then said, ‘Okay, that's great, but we also need to find these students and ask them, because you're not going to get the why from the data…You can get the who and some of the what, a little bit of the how, but not the why, and so that's really what our Through the Gate study was designed to do.’”

Data can help us develop patterns and understand those who are involved in these patterns and what is occurring, but to answer why these patterns occur, you need to get the perspectives of the people involved. 

“Students don't just transfer or not transfer, there's a whole journey that it takes a lot of time, energy, and effort to get there.”

Breaking Down Patterns In Gender, Race and Ethnicity

It’s easiest to understand the data when we break it down into small sections and view it separately. Even when we have these smaller sections, it’s sometimes good to try and break these down even further to understand more of what we’re seeing in our data. 

Two groups in the study stood out to Dr. Cooper and her colleagues for further study as to why they weren’t transferring. Students in both of these groups were “high-leverage,” meaning they were on the precipice of transferring but did not. 

The first were “near-the-gate” transfer students, meaning they had most but not all qualifications to transfer. The second were “at-the-gate” transfer students, meaning that they did have all of the requirements to transfer but also did not. 

Taking this a step further, Dr. Cooper wanted to add a third group of students that did transfer and compare these three groups to look at gender and race/ethnicity to try and find patterns in the data. 

“Of the entire population that we looked at, about two-thirds had transferred and the other third was split between the ‘at-the-gate’ and the ‘near-the-gate’ students,” Dr. Cooper Said. “Then we disaggregated that data to see what those numbers look like for each ethnic group, and we looked at gender - not as much of a difference there…The most striking finding in that case was with our African-American students, where they actually were the most likely to have transferred.”

According to the study, 66% of the students who did transfer. Of those, 75% were African-American students. 

“That said to us that you have to step back and look at transfer rates from the point of freshmen. African-Americans usually have among the lowest transfer rates when you look at it from that starting point.”

“But if you look at it from this point of [high-leverage students], it flips, and they go from being the least likely, to the most likely [to transfer].”

This finding spawned a new research project that was aimed at finding this tipping point where African American students went from the least likely to transfer to the most likely to transfer from community college. 

“Regarding our Latinx communities, we found that they were actually the group most likely to earn that associate degree for transfer, but they were the least likely to transfer.”

“With both of these studies, we want to find the places that don't fit the stereotype... that don't match the data. [Institutions] that are excelling at transferring African-American students and Latinx students. So that's kind of the direction that we're headed in right now.”

Understanding the Why

As Dr. Cooper mentioned, however, getting the why from data is nearly impossible. You have to survey people to understand why a pattern is occurring, because data by itself can’t answer that question. 

When interviewing students, Dr. Cooper found four main factors contributing to why some students didn’t transfer even when they had completed all of the requirements. 

1. University Affordability 

It’s hard to know if you can afford tuition when you have financial responsibilities and obligations outside of education.

Many students just look at tuition and don’t know enough about the financial aid opportunities that most colleges offer that can offset or mitigate that cost. 

“They don't know that the financial aid gates open up at the university. There's a bunch of financial aid that's only available to university students and not available to community college students. It's things like that that we need to do a better job of helping students understand and just see that it's possible.”

2. Pathway Navigation

“Students we talked to talked a lot about not taking the right classes at the right time or in the right order, not getting the information that they need to be making the right decisions, not knowing what their major is, and not really getting enough help to kind of figure out their path.”

It’s difficult to know where to go when students feel that they do not know what their path is. Many students might not know which classes they need to take at what times which can become stressful. Successfully connecting students with advising resources is one way to help in this area. 

3. School and Life Balance

It’s also difficult for students to understand how they can balance school with their responsibilities outside of class. 

“There's a lot going on in their lives and they struggle trying to see, ‘How am I going to be able to balance everything in my life with going to the university?’ A lot of these factors are the students’ inability to see what's possible. They don't know what kind of help is available for them.” In fact, many 4-year colleges and universities have a vast array of what are called, “wrap around” services dedicated to supporting these needs for students.

4. Support Network

College is a very difficult time where having a support network of family and friends is very beneficial. Students who didn’t have this support network struggled to see how they would succeed all by themselves. 

“Students who had that support network were much more optimistic about their chances of going on to transfer. The people who didn't have that were pessimistic; they weren't sure how they were going to do it.”

What Can Colleges Do?

While it can be commonly thought that improving transfer rates is solely a community college responsibility, more and more 4-year colleges and universities are realizing the role they play helping students navigate this  transfer process. 

It’s much easier for transfer students to understand they can make it at a 4-year institution when they can see how it is possible in a realistic way. Especially with everything else going on in their lives. 

Finding ways to get students the information they need and understanding what information specific students need at what time are crucial aspects to aiding the journeys of transfer students. 

Showing students how to make a support group if they don’t have one and aiding them in that process is extremely important so that they know they’re not going through this process alone.

The Higher Edge

To learn more about Dr. Darla Cooper and the work she does for higher education, check out the great work being done at The RP Group website.

To listen to the full episode, check out our interview with Dr. Darla Cooper on The Higher Edge podcast. Available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and our website.


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