Interview with the Community College Research Center’s John Fink

John Fink

John Fink is a senior research associate with the Community College Research Center at Columbia’s Teachers College, where he studies ways to make transfer more efficient and equitable for students across the country. Fink was named a Transfer Champion by the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students, which organizes National Transfer Student Week. He discusses what he’s learned about how colleges are working to improve transfer.

There’s been a lot of work by researchers, advocates, college systems and others to improve transfer in recent years. What does the landscape of transfer look like now?

While progress has been made, the community college transfer pathway is still underperforming and inequitable. When we first started tracking national and state-by-state transfer outcomes in 2016, only about a third of new community college students ever transferred (despite other research finding that 80% of them intend to earn a bachelor’s or higher), and fewer than 1 in 5 completed a bachelor’s in six years of starting at a community college. And the system, underperforming as it is, worked twice as well for white students as it did for Black and Latinx students, and twice as well for higher-income students as for lower-income students. Five years later and nationally these figures have barely budged, and since 2011 there has also been a steadily declining number of new community college students. So even holding steady on the already low transfer rates results in fewer students transferring and completing a bachelor’s because there are fewer students who are entering community colleges in the first place.

Despite the stubbornly low and inequitable performance of our transfer system, many educators, policymakers, and researchers continue to champion reform to improve transfer – prioritizing removing barriers and other obstacles created by institutions and policy by asking not whether students are ready for transfer, but whether colleges are ready for transfer students. Colleges and university partners have shown that it is possible to improve transfer outcomes. Reformers are working in new and promising ways to improve transfer at scale, including creating more structured, field-aligned transfer associate degrees, scaling joint-admissions programs, prioritizing equity-minded and race-conscious approaches to reform, and integrating dual enrollment and transfer strategy to create on-ramps to bachelor’s degree pathways starting in high school.

Do community colleges prepare transfer students well for four-year colleges?

Absolutely, yes! Community college transfer students typically do very well at the four-year institution after they arrive. Many researchers have taken up this question and overwhelmingly the answer is yes. I was a part of a team that studied this in Virginia, where we asked, “Are transfer students a good bet?” Yes, they are.

To answer this question we used a series of methods to match similar students who started at a community college to those who started at a four-year institution and we found that transfer students were as academically strong as non-transfers. In the paper we also found the idea of “transfer shock” (initially popularized in the 1960s) to be a bit of a myth. When we compared the GPAs of students who transferred to matched groups of non-transfer students, we found that, although transfer student GPAs dropped slightly after they arrived at the university, the drop put them closer to their matched, non-transfer peers. And, after about one to two terms, the GPAs rebounded and the students outperformed their matched non-transfer student peers. Since that study was released, another national study found that community college transfer students do just as well as their non-transfer student peers even at the country’s most selective universities.

What do we know about what assets transfer students bring to their four-year colleges? What might they bring to Columbia?

Transfer students bring with them a wealth of individual and collective assets that enhance the educational experience on college campuses. Transfer students are experts at transitions, and life is full of transitions! Community colleges, which enroll nearly half of all undergraduates nationally, serve large numbers of first-generation college students, older adult students, student-parents, students who have immigrated from outside of the country, and students from racial and ethnic groups underrepresented at many selective four-year institutions. The quality of the undergraduate experience relies on a diversity of ideas and perspectives, and transfer students contribute to the richness of experience among the campus community.

What are some of the different paths transfer students take to a bachelor’s degree?

A major misconception of the community college transfer pathway is that there is one well-trodden transfer pathway, like the 2+2 pathway (two years at the community college, two years at the four-year). Among a national cohort of community college students who transferred and completed a bachelor’s degree in a six-year period of time, only 8% followed the 2+2 pathway. More common was the 2+3, 3+3, and 2+4 sequences – but each of these still only captured a fraction of all successful transfer students. One in every five successful transfer students took a break out of higher education for a year and still finished their bachelor’s degree within six years. Although the 2+2 pathway might be the basis for an idealized transfer map, colleges and universities should be prepared for the fact that there is not singular transfer pathway. Instead, community colleges and their university partners need to better help students explore and build an individualized plan for transfer as soon as possible.

What can other colleges learn from the School of General Studies and other universities with a long track record of serving transfer students?

In research with the Aspen Institute, we visited sets of community college–university transfer partnerships across the country which demonstrated strong transfer student outcomes. Overall, we found that the partnerships prioritized transfer students, created (and maintained) clearly articulated transfer pathways, and provided tailored transfer student support. For four-year institutions, prioritizing and valuing transfer students is fundamental. Unfortunately, at too many four-year institutions, transfer students encounter unreceptive campus cultures, with unsupportive campus policies, norms and faculty/staff misperceptions often rooted in community college stigmatization. But progress is being made, and events to showcase transfer students like National Transfer Student Week make a difference. Universities that are stepping up to prioritize transfer students are ensuring that transfers have the same access to all the university provides to non-transfers – be that institutional financial aid, ‘impacted’ bachelor’s degree majors, or high-impact educational experiences like undergraduate research and other co-curricular opportunities.