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Report: Policies that Help States Expand College Enrollment and Achievement

A recent report issued by Ithaka S+R has explored the challenge of how states can expand pathways for college enrollment and degree attainment, especially among non-typical students — such as those who start out at community college and working adults returning to school. The pathways take three broad directions: to simplify transfers, "reform" remediation and develop alternative credentials.

According to the education research firm, this year the United States is expected to have a shortfall of five million people with the level of postsecondary education needed to fill workforce needs. By developing policies that address those areas, the authors stated, states can "significantly improve access" to diverse college students.

On the transfer front, the report noted that fewer than a third of community college students shift to a four-year school within six years of their first enrollment. (In fact, just 13 percent of students who start at a community college earn their bachelor's degree within six years.) Among the policy areas worth considering to simplify transfer are two ideas.

  • First, using common course numbering to "ease the administrative burden" of meshing credit between schools and cut down on "credit loss." Currently, the report said that 17 states have some version of common course numbering; in Florida, common course numbering covers both public institutions and private colleges, including for-profits.
  • Second, setting up articulation agreements that increase "transparency." For example, "2+2" articulation agreements guarantee that people who earn an associate's degree from their state's community colleges "can transfer as juniors" to public four-year colleges and universities. The system in California, as an example, which works among the public schools, helps students to know ahead of time how their credits will transfer, and where the credits could have the greatest value as they decide which campuses to transfer to. In Illinois, the "Articulation Initiative" comes with a "package" of courses that the participating institutions agree will fulfill general education requirements. Students can fill out a worksheet that maps their courses to the requirements to know which ones are still needed, thereby avoiding the loss of credits that don't further their goals. However, articulation agreements are often too complex and students don't always understand them, the report pointed out. Therefore, "states and institutions have a responsibility to ensure students are able to access and use articulation documents."

In the area of transfer pathways, state policies need to ensure that all of the credits a student earns at a community college can transfer to the four-year school if the pathway is followed. The difference between this and an articulation agreement, the authors explained, is that the latter ensures that credits earned in the two-year school will be accepted by the four-year institution; but the former ensures that the credits count toward the intended major. "A well-designed transfer pathway can build upon an articulation agreement," the report said. Tennessee's transfer pathways accomplishes this; when a student finishes a specific list of coursework for a major, he or she can transfer those courses to any public two- or four-year school in the state "and they will count towards the completion of the major."

The use of "reverse transfers" is another way states can help students attain degrees. In this model, students can earn their associate degree by combining the credits from their two-year schools with additional credits later earned at their four-year schools. The impact can be substantial over the course of a lifetime, the report noted, citing an estimate from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, which found that students who have some college credit but no associate degree make almost $200,000 less over their lifetimes than those who hold associate degrees. Currently, the authors added, grant money to implement "Credit When It's Due" programs has been picked up by 15 states, including Hawaii, which saw an increase in associate degree attainment of 15.2 percent after adopting the program.

The topic of alternative credentials and pathways covered a lot of ground in the report, including the use of centralized admissions (to encourage more students to apply); dual enrollment (to bring high schoolers into college courses); degree "reclamation" (focused on adults with some college credit but no degree); prior learning assessment (that gives credit for work experience); the issuance of bachelor's degrees through community colleges; the use of online courses; and other options, such as non-credit certificates, licenses, badges and "nanodegrees."

What nobody has figured out yet, the report emphasized, is which options are the most effective. States need to turn to adult learners themselves and do more research on what works, the report suggested.

"We recommend that state policymakers rely on currently available evidence to develop a comprehensive plan to address the needs of all students," the report's authors concluded. "Through state policy, the structures around accessing and the tools for succeeding in higher education can be transformed from a system rooted in ideas that the traditional college student is still the typical student."

The full report, "Expanding Pathways to College Enrollment and Degree Attainment," is openly available on the Ithaka S+R website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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