Administrators have long suspected that most students who "reverse transfer" from four-year institutions to community colleges — given that they are typically from low-income families — do so for financial reasons. A new report, however, argues that parents’ level of education has a bigger impact than does income, and that academic difficulty in the first years of college is more likely to be the reason behind reverse transfer.
This month’s issue of Sociology of Education — a journal of the American Sociological Association – features a report that attempts to explain the socioeconomic differences among college transfer students. The research of Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of education policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is based on the latest numbers from the National Educational Longitudinal Study. These numbers come from students who graduated from high school in 1992, and follow them through 2000.
Goldrick-Rab used a sample group of students who started their postsecondary education at a four-year institution. In this group, 33 percent transferred at least once within eight years of graduating from high school. Nearly 20 percent transferred “laterally,” from one four-year institution to another, and 15 percent transferred in “reverse” to a community college.
Lateral transfers were significantly more likely than reverse transfers to complete a bachelor’s degree – 69 percent compared to 22 percent. Both figures are still lower than the 79 percent graduation rate of those who did not transfer at all. Among those who reverse transferred and eventually made it back to a four-year institution, however, the graduation rate was 49 percent.
This, Goldrick-Rab noted, gives these reverse transfers a greater chance of earning a bachelor’s degree than students who start at a community college and then transfer upward to a four-year institution. She argued, however, that this is not an “effective pathway” for students to take, given the decreased likelihood that they will attain a four-year degree once they have transferred to a community college.
Transfer direction (lateral or reverse) was significantly affected by the student’s socioeconomic background. Students with families from the lowest income bracket were not quite half as likely as students with families from the highest income bracket to transfer between four-year institutions. They were three times more likely, however, to transfer to a community college.
The strongest indicator of transfer status, however, even considering income levels, was level of parental education. Students whose parents had more than a bachelor’s degree were some of the least likely to reverse transfer. At the opposite end, nearly 25 percent of those students whose parents had not completed high school reverse transferred.
The report attempts to account for the motivations behind the demographic differences made clear between these two types of transfers.
“Lateral transfer students appear to be a relatively elite set, since their levels of household income and parental occupational status are higher than average,” the report reads. “Their motivations for changing colleges may be based on expressions of personal preference, possibly striving to move to a ‘better’ school, but are clearly not connected to inadequate academic preparation in high school or poor performance in college.”
Though the rationale for reverse transfer might seem apparent, given the lower socioeconomic status of these students, Goldrick-Rab noted she was surprised to find that money was not the key issue for this cohort.
“The levels of academic preparation, informational and financial resources, and educational expectations found among the children of less-educated parents do not explain these students’ tendency to reverse transfer,” the report reads. “Instead, the analyses clearly showed that students who are equally well prepared for college but come from less-educated families show a higher propensity to leave the four-year college track because they struggle academically in their first year of college. This finding is consistent with other research that has identified significant challenges for first-generation students, particularly during their first year of college.”
Although this data was taken from college students during the mid- to late 1990s, Goldrick-Rab believes the rationale for reverse transfer is still less about money, even with the economy forcing some to reconsider their college selection. As more data become available about today’s students, she expects to see a further increase in the number of students who chose to reverse transfer.
From a policy standpoint, Goldrick-Rab believes that four-year institutions should bear most of the burden when it comes to stemming the tide of reverse transfers. She said that four-year institutions should adopt mandatory advising programs to help students “resolve their academic challenges” and stay at a four-year school. Ideally, she added, these programs should cater to students whose parents did not attend graduate school — the most crucial population in the report.
“The function of community colleges shouldn’t be to do the job that a four-year school should have done,” Goldrick-Rab said. “Four-year schools need to not think about losing some of these students to community colleges as inevitable. It’s been their problem all along. There has to be something to catch these students on the other end.”
She recommends that four-year institutions promote advising resources to students who are considering transferring — such as a sign that says "Thinking of leaving? Feel like you can’t make it here? Talk to us." She said that these students, and sometimes their parents, often do not understand that reverse transferring to a community college lowers their chances to earn a four-year degree, as the data show.
“A lot of people don’t have a lot of information on hand when things don’t go well at a four-year school,” Goldrick-Rab said. “They’re not savvy about things and will think it fine to just go home and attend their local community college. That’s fine, but the chances of getting a bachelor’s degree are drastically diminished. They’re derailing their stated ambition of getting the degree they wanted. I don’t think a lot of them realize the consequences, and I think [reverse transferring] can be prevented.”
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