Notes from the President

Chris Gray, Ph.D. | Founding President, Erie County Community College of Pennsylvania

One of the strongest selling points of community colleges for students looking to complete a bachelor’s degree is their potential cost savings when compared with four-year institutions. Recall that community colleges offer coursework that prepares students either to enter the workforce through their applied programs or to transfer to a four-year institution to complete a baccalaureate degree through their transfer programs. For purposes of this discussion, we are going to be looking at the latter path.

For students looking to complete a baccalaureate degree, approximately one-third of the degree credits will come from general education requirements, or “gen eds.” As I explained in a previous blog, the remaining two-thirds of the credits come from major coursework and exploratory coursework. Under most articulation/transfer agreements, students can bring in approximately half of their credits – about sixty hours – of community college coursework when they transfer to a baccalaureate program. That’s a gross oversimplification that absolutely varies based on the institutions and programs of study involved; however, it’s a handy guide, and it’s sufficient to think about credit transfers this way for the purposes of my discussion today.

For this whole process to work, though, the community colleges and universities need to forge transfer agreements such that undergraduate credits taken at community colleges transfer to and work to satisfy graduation credit requirements for the destination institution. So students wanting to transfer from Community College A to Four-Year College B should work with an academic advisor to ensure that credits taken at A transfer to and satisfy requirements for the degree sought at B. Simple, right? Theoretically, sure. In practice, though, that is not how it has played out historically.

For one, remember that some think that community colleges and four-year institutions are competitors in their 100- and 200-level course offerings. If the courses cover the same content and satisfy the same requirements, why would a student want to pay more to take the same course at a four-year institution? There are lots of reasons: the student may want the “traditional” college experience of moving away from home to live in a dorm; the student may receive scholarships or other financial incentives to go straight to the four-year school; parents may push the student to the four-year school based on history, legacy, or bias against community-college education; and the list goes on. And yes, I’m going to acknowledge that prejudices are still alive and well in the world of academia; the fact is that community colleges still face a discernible stigma in some circles. Nevertheless, students may opt for a community college because they are unable to afford the tuition at a four-year school because they have family and/or financial obligations and responsibilities because they underperformed during high school, or because they simply prefer to commute; again, the reasons are varied. Because community colleges are open-access institutions, the admissions policy differs from that which you’d see at most four-year schools. At EC3PA, for example, our policy is to allow anyone who wants to attend our college to attend. The four-year college model is generally built on the competition for a set number of seats. Our goals about whom we serve are different, in other words.

And yet, both the four-year school and the community college are looking to attract and retain those freshmen and sophomore students. For this reason, they have historically acted as competitors trying to reach the same student market, but last August, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) announced that the Pennsylvania State System Board of Governors “approved a policy change [in support of its integration efforts] that allows for a general degree transfer from community colleges to state-owned schools. The change also permits students who graduate with an associate degree to proceed into a specific program [at a four-year school] as long as there’s room. Academic officers at State System schools will work with their counterparts at community colleges to implement the policy change; the State System will oversee enforcement across the universities.” This helps to clear the path for students looking to complete their four-year degree after taking gen ed and other prerequisite courses at a community college while ensuring that both types of institutions work together to help students move forward to degree completion.

Additionally, for the past five years, PASSHE has upheld a reverse transfer agreement that “provides an opportunity for students who have transferred from a community college in Pennsylvania to a State System university to receive an associate’s degree once they earn a total of at least 60 credits.” This agreement allows these students to obtain an associate degree and thus increase their earning potential while still working toward the four-year degree. It’s the kind of cooperation between two- and four-year schools that needs to increase.

Without effective transfer agreements in place, students often end up spinning their wheels by taking extra classes that they don’t need and that don’t help satisfy degree requirements, which costs them both time and money. Some states have developed “excess credit hour” policies that impose punitive sanctions on students when they don’t complete their degrees quickly enough. Under policies like this, students whose credit hour totals exceed a certain threshold end up paying a surcharge on their remaining credits needed to graduate. Yes, you read that right. Students who take too many classes will have to pay MORE – sometimes even double – the cost for the classes they need to complete their degrees. The result, as I’m sure you can imagine, is that it becomes that much harder for students to take the steps needed to finish. It increases student debt and slows the time to degree completion that much more. If this punitive approach feels counterintuitive to you, then you’re not alone. There has to be a better way.

This brings me back to the focus of this post: the best way to serve our students is to have clear transfer and articulation agreements such that students know upfront what courses they need to take at the community college to satisfy the requirements for their baccalaureate institution. Better and clearer transfer equivalency guides and clear course selection pathways serve to facilitate this end. Students still have the opportunity to take classes that interest them (remember the exploration component of the baccalaureate degree), but they know upfront what courses they need to take to reach their chosen educational goal. We owe this to our students, and I’m thrilled that EC3PA will be a full partner in this endeavor.