The Mixed Methods Blog

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Why the First Year Matters Most for Transfer

New students on campus

This post originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed's Beyond Transfer blog.

I wish I could go back and give my younger self the gift of everything I’ve learned about transfer after successfully transferring from community college, obtaining my bachelor’s and graduate degrees, and now doing research on community colleges.

When I started at community college, I felt lost. I didn’t know how to decide what classes to take. I wasn’t sure why or if I needed an associate degree to transfer. And I certainly had no idea what I wanted to do once I got my degree. I wanted—and needed—support to decide on my program, help figuring out what extracurriculars to get involved in and how much I could handle, information on what I could do with my degree, and ways to connect with peers to journey alongside. Unfortunately, all I had on my first day was a list of courses to pick from and ambivalence about the advisors who gave me conflicting suggestions each time I visited drop-in hours.

The fact is lots of students who start at a community college feel the same way. In interviews with entering students, the Community College Research Center (CCRC) has found that students want support to explore programs of study, potential majors, and careers and to connect to other people in their field of interest. They also want the chance to take courses that interest them in their first term and to develop a full educational plan. All of these activities are important not only for a student’s overall experience at community college but also for their ability to transfer. Approximately 40% of students nationwide fail to continue to their second year of community college, and outcomes are significantly worse for Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and low-income students. Right now, transfer is declining for students in all demographics. If students don’t continue, they can’t transfer: so making transfer more equitable across the board means investing in students’ first year at community college.

Based on research we are conducting on whole-college guided pathways reforms at over 100 community colleges nationally, CCRC developed the Ask-Connect-Inspire-Plan (ACIP) framework, which aims to ensure that students enter a program of study aligned with their interests and goals within the first year. ACIP helps students explore interests and options; connect with faculty, professionals, and other students with similar interests; take a course that lights their fire for learning in the first term; and build a full-program educational plan that shows their required courses and timeline for completion.

Successful transfer requires a strong start, and the ACIP framework aims to provide community colleges the tools for ensuring students have a strong start. By implementing ACIP practices, community colleges can invest in students’ first year, which may have an outsized effect on retention, completion, and transfer. This is because if students are helped to explore college pathways aligned with their interests and strengths, get excited about their courses, create an academic plan, and connect to folks in their field, they are that much more likely to continue on to their second year at the community college, rather than dropping out before the chance to apply to transfer even comes up.

The Ask-Connect-Inspire-Plan (ACIP) framework focuses on reimagining program onboarding in students’ first year:

  • Ask: Every student is engaged in an ongoing conversation about their interests, strengths, aspirations, and life circumstances with the aim of helping them explore programs of study and career paths aligned with their goals.
  • Connect: From the start, colleges organize opportunities for every student to meet with faculty, students, alumni, and employers in fields of interest to them and access college and community resources that can help support their needs.
  • Inspire: Every student takes at least one course in term 1 on topics of interest that light their fire for learning.
  • Plan: Every student is helped by the end of their first term to develop a full-program educational plan that shows them a path to their goals.

Community colleges cannot create an effective Ask-Connect-Inspire-Plan experience for students by themselves. Without the involvement of four-year partners, community colleges would not be able to tell students which courses to take to transfer successfully in a program of study or to connect them to communities that will remain relevant to them in their program at the four-year college. It is imperative that four-year institutions work with community colleges to ensure that they are (1) providing up-to-date information about what community college courses will transfer into a program so students can graduate without excess credits, and (2) creating opportunities to connect community college students to the university early on. This will improve students’ experiences in their first two years and ensure that, once they transfer, they are better equipped to adjust to their new campus. The four-year institution should be a part of each student’s experience long before they transfer.

All too often, the discussion of transfer stalls on the fact that many students want to transfer, but few do. The Ask-Connect-Inspire-Plan framework encourages practices that—particularly if implemented in partnership between two- and four-year colleges—can support more students in reaching their goal to transfer. More successful transfers are possible with key investments in students’ first year at community college.

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