Community Colleges | Feature

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

Technology is helping ease the transfer process for students transitioning from two-year to four-year schools.

For years, transferring from a two-year to a four-year college has been something of a nightmare--a maze of course requirements, articulation agreements, and credit calculations. The problem has become even more pronounced in light of federal programs to increase college graduation rates, with community colleges identified as a gateway to higher education.

Increasingly, schools are turning to technology to streamline the transfer process and help students track their academic progress. Here, we look at two institutions that have tackled the transfer problem from either side of the issue: guiding two-year students to become four-year graduates, and helping incoming transfer students reach their academic goals.

Resources

AcademyOne
AcademyOne provides various academic solutions that help learners explore academic and career pathways. The company's baseline tool, Student Passport, allows students to collect their academic history, self-assess prior learning, and navigate learning opportunities.

CollegeSource
The company's suite of products includes TES (Transfer Evaluation System), a hosted solution for transfer-credit evaluations, and CollegeSource Online, an online database of more than 58,000 digital college catalogs, institution profiles, transcript keys, and other resources.

Conclusive Systems
This academic software company specializes in degree-audit reporting software and related tools. Its flagship Advisor product is a turnkey degree-audit solution comprising hardware, software, installation, and support services.

Decision Academic
Decision Academic is a provider of advising and curriculum management solutions. Its modular Navigator Suite centralizes data, automates workflow, and provides tools for managing tranfer and degree options.

RedLantern
RedLantern replaced DARS in 2008 and merged with CollegeSource in 2009. The company's offerings include u.direct (a web-based academic planning tool), u.select (a transfer portal), and u.achieve (degree-audit software).

SunGard Higher Education
SunGard HE's DegreeWorks provides a comprehensive set of web-based academic advising, degree audit, and transfer articulation tools to help students and their advisers negotiate curriculum requirements.

Answering the Call
In a perfect world, students using South Orange County Community College District's (CA) online credit transfer information system would have attended a single school, set their sights on a single major (and stuck with it), and picked courses that seamlessly transfer to any four-year university.

In fact, it's a rare student who has all three bases covered. Most of the individuals attending SOCCCD institutions have already earned credits at one or more two-year schools, changed majors several times, and aren't exactly sure where they'll wind up earning their bachelor's--let alone advanced--degrees.

This situation makes the transfer process difficult at best. "Handling that level of complexity definitely presents a challenge," says Jim Gaston, associate director for academic systems and special projects for the Mission Viejo, CA-based district.

In 2005, SOCCCD set its sights on technology to make the transfer process smoother for its students. After two years of development, My Academic Plan (MAP) was introduced in 2007. A renewed focus on the project came in 2009 when President Obama introduced the "American Graduation Initiative," calling for an additional 5 million US college graduates, 1 million of whom are expected to graduate in the state of California.

"There was a renewed focus on student success from the White House," recalls Robert Bramucci, vice chancellor of technology and learning services at SOCCCD. "MAP is part of an integrated effort to sign onto that initiative."

At the time, SOCCCD's counselors evaluated--and dismissed--the online academic-planning tools that were available. "They then approached us in IT and asked if we could build one for them," says Gaston, who believes that the major advantage of this approach was the ability to deliver a system custom tailored to the needs of both students and counselors.

Built by in-house and contract developers using Microsoft .NET technology and a SQL Server database, MAP is an online portal that students use to set up their individual educational goals, such as earning a certificate or degree, or transferring to a four-year institution. Based on these criteria, the MAP wizard helps students select a college and major, and produces a list of the required general education and major courses, as well as electives, available at the college selected. MAP then analyzes the student's current transcript, and shows which of the requirements have been met and which must still be completed. Students then choose the courses needed to achieve their educational goals.

According to Gaston, early work on the MAP project took about two years, and included gathering all information about "every transferable course at every single community college in the state," and enlisting student feedback on the online planning tool, which rolled out in 2007. Tight integration with the data from Project ASSIST, California's statewide intersegmental articulation database, allows SOCCCD to provide specific guidance to its students. Funded by the state legislature, ASSIST maintains the list of courses that are transferable between the state community college, California State University, and University of California systems.

"MAP provides an interface that allows the counselor to enter the courses a student took at another community college," explains Gaston. "Thanks to the ASSIST data, we know if that course has been certified for transfer to the CSU and/or UC system."

To date, about 80,000 academic plans have been fed through the system. Gaston says high participation levels can be attributed to the fact that students were able to contribute design ideas as the system was developed, and continue to give their "two cents" regarding ongoing revisions and tweaks. It doesn't hurt that guidance counselors--who continue to work one-on-one with all new students--were also involved in MAP's development and rollout.

"We've heard from other institutions that counselors view online portals and programs as threats," says Gaston. "We didn't run into that. Our counselors came to us."

Other key features of the program include a transcript evaluation, which occurs every time a student accesses MAP, and a check for course prerequisites and required core courses that's handled via the school's web registration system.

Entering its fourth year of use, MAP has proven valuable not only to the district's students, but also to its counselors and instructional deans. "Counselors have benefited because students who use MAP come to advisement sessions with more focused and relevant questions," says Gaston, "while deans can predict future demand, because now they know which students intend to take what courses each semester."

Quick Decisions
Technology is also playing a key role at the university level, where incoming transfer students benefit greatly when they can quickly ascertain which of their credits will transfer, and what courses they need to take to achieve their academic goals.

At the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system, Louise Hoxworth, director of transfer and collaboration, and her team rely on a two-pronged system when it comes to incoming transfer students. With 32 institutions on 54 campuses in 47 communities, the college system utilizes Degree Audit Reporting System (DARS) and u.select from CollegeSource.

DARS collects information from a student's record and processes it against a degree program, while u.select is an online tool that allows students to view participating institutions' automated degree-audit and transfer-articulation systems. Using u.select, students can see course equivalencies and program requirements, enter and store coursework, and request an evaluation of transfer work against a specific program.

Hoxworth, who for 15 years has been helping students transfer to four-year institutions, credits the combined system with streamlining the process. "I remember the days when a student would come into my office and hand me a transcript, which I then used to do an unofficial evaluation, followed by a registrar's official evaluation," she recalls. "It took a lot of time."

Since 2008, MnSCU has maintained a database of institutional course information for the state's participating schools, with a focus on those Minnesota institutions that have the highest transfer rates. "We can produce degree audits more quickly, and any student with a computer can see exactly where she stands toward completing a degree," says Hoxworth.

A student attending a two-year school who is interested in getting a bachelor's degree in biology from Metropolitan State University (MN), for example, can log into DARS and manually input her current and completed coursework. This information is shared with u.select, which will then show the student what courses she needs to take to prepare for the transfer. "The system tells her exactly where her classes fit into that future program at Metro State," says Hoxworth.

While technology has facilitated the transfer process, it hasn't replaced the need for a knowledgeable counselor or administrator. "There are still a lot of complexities within the transfer process, and just because a student is following a program doesn't mean she is taking the right courses for the targeted four-year program," says Hoxworth. "Advisers know more about the nuances of the process, and continue to play an important role in it."

Insider's View
By giving students a clear picture of where they stand, where they're going, and what they must to do get there, Hoxworth believes the Minnesota college system can more effectively manage the large number of students who transfer between the state's two- and four-year schools.

And such a system is becoming even more essential as the education environment becomes increasingly complex, with more students taking online courses and attending college well into adulthood. "Students are transferring in all directions," says Hoxworth. "Being able to assist them through technology definitely contributes to a student body that's more aware of where it stands, and a more educated workforce overall."

Because students are the ultimate beneficiaries of IT-enabled transfer systems, SOCCCD's Gaston says any institution looking to implement such programs should involve them early in the game. "Don't just make it lip service," he stresses. "Get students around a table and ask them where they want to go and what they need to get there--you'll end up with a student-centric system that does its job."

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