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College Transfer Initiative Drives Higher Degree Completion Across Illinois

Higher education remains crucial for long-term financial gain, job stability, career satisfaction and success outside of the workplace. With more occupations requiring advanced skills and critical thinking, a college degree is largely viewed as a must-have for success in today's workforce.

However, not every student has the financial means, career certainty or other capability to immediately attend a four-year institution. Where community colleges used to have a reputation for being the only option for young adults who couldn’t “cut it” at a four-year school, these valuable institutions are now being seen as a smart and strategic option for many students at all stages of their transformational education journey.

Tracking Transfer Trends

It is not surprising that students switch between two-year and four-year schools for a variety of academic and financial reasons. This kind of academic “swirl” means that students have collected credits from multiple schools before matriculation to the institution that will ultimately confer the student’s credential. Degree attainment has become less linear, and the transfer of credits among institutions needs to be just as fluid.

Here in Illinois, we have addressed the issues surrounding collegiate student transfers with innovative legislation, technology and initiatives designed to ease the transfer process and ultimately help more students attain their degrees.

Illinois has a rich and diverse environment of higher education institutions. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Illinois’ public institutions include 12 four-year and 48 two-year schools, and there are more than 80 private non-profit four-year colleges and universities.

Streamlining General Education Credit Transfer

Illinois’ driving initiative around student transfer is the Illinois Articulation Initiative (IAI). IAI was originally launched in the 1990s as a voluntary program among the participating institutions. In recent years, IAI was protected by enacting legislation to secure ongoing participation (IL Public Act 099-0636). The IAI was created as a model state system that includes 110 participating public and private institutions, and serves 45,000 to 50,000 transfer students annually. Specifically, it assists students who may not have a major in mind at the outset of their studies by ensuring that courses meeting a general education core curriculum (GECC) are fully transferable — as well as applicable — for full credit across all state institutions. While it is common for students in other states across the country to discover that certain courses only apply as elective credit at their new institution, our streamlined approach to not just the transferability but applicability of GECC courses has been pivotal in helping students reliably earn foundational credits across various institutions statewide, regardless of where they end up transferring for degree completion.

Illinois has passed other important legislation in support of transfer students, including the Student Transfer Achievement Reform (STAR) Act, effective 2016, which was recently reviewed for progress toward its goals. The STAR Act ensures that students who transfer with an associate’s degree from a community college do not have to complete more than 60 additional hours to complete a related bachelor’s degree.

The state also invests in technology to help students determine course articulation, beyond and including IAI coursework, along with information on inter-institutional agreements. We designed MyCreditsTransfer as a statewide initiative to facilitate the use of an online transfer advising tool, which is free to students. Illinois maintains a statewide license for use of the software tool, Transferology by CollegeSource. Students use Transferology to find and confirm the courses that transfer credit between institutions, degree requirements their courses satisfy and different majors that institutions offer. Transferology also helps returning veterans determine how their military experience translates into course credit.

As all parties can now see how credits are weighted and applied, students and advisors can quickly understand which courses will apply during transfer and which ones may still be required for degree attainment. It also gives students choices around obtaining those credits at the school that makes the most sense – geographically, financially or otherwise.

Voluntary Collaboration Statewide Among Institutions

One of the hallmarks of the IAI is the high degree of participation by its member institutions. Faculty representatives voluntarily serve on discipline-specific panels that meet regularly to discuss the courses that have been submitted for inclusion in the GECC or as recommended coursework for specific majors. The faculty panels evaluate multiple criteria for each course, such as learning outcomes, rigor, the syllabus and educational resources. Courses that meet panel standards are IAI approved. Students can be assured participating schools will accept those successfully completed classes to fulfill general education requirements. The IAI Director and Coordinator work closely with Illinois’ higher education coordinating bodies — the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) and the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB). This level of predictability around credit transferability has instilled a strong sense of trust and confidence in the overall higher education student population across our state.

Additionally, this voluntary, collaborative approach among Illinois’ institutions ensures that student transfer needs are being met, even during times of reduced funding for higher education. The panels have democratized the articulation process between the two-year and four-year schools. So, it’s not just “receiving” schools making the decisions; all the institutions are equal partners.

Illinois primarily relies on five pillars to support effective transfer. The first three have already been mentioned: the IAI (GECC and major course recommendations), MyCreditsTransfer (facilitating the use of Transferology), and legislative initiatives. The fourth pillar is the Illinois Transfer Coordinator group. This statewide group was established in the 1970s and has served as a key resource in addressing all aspects of transfer.

Ultimately, course articulation is a relationship among institutions. The fifth pillar supporting Illinois transfer is the strength of our institutional partnerships and collaborations. We make it possible for the institutions to retain their own focus, values and degree requirements, while still participating in a process that benefits students across the board. With IAI ensuring a portable package of general education coursework, our institutions can focus on programmatic transfer agreements and partnerships that most greatly benefit students. These institutional agreements can also be published through Transferology.

Leading Bachelor’s Degree Completion Rates for Community College Transfers

The efforts in Illinois have paid off. Illinois achieved No. 1 ranking in the United States for the bachelor degree completion rate of community college students who transferred to a four-year institution (National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report - Tracking Transfer, 2017). The bachelor completion rate among these community college students was 53.8 percent (33,267 students), compared to the national average of 42.2 percent.

Illinois has taken a proactive approach to increasing its students’ degree attainment rate — an approach that will surely pay off in a workforce that is prepared for today’s workplace challenges.

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