Think in Reverse

Students transfer in great numbers from community colleges to four-year institutions, and often, hard-earned credits get lost along the way. Some community college courses aren’t awarded credit at four-year colleges and universities, and many courses from the two-year school simply don’t count toward any of the requirements at the university. The result is that students take much longer than four years to finish their bachelor’s degrees. Students who transfer from a community college before completing their Associate’s degree often end up taking classes for five or six years — or even longer — from he time they started community college, with no degree to show for their work.

So here’s an idea that gives those students something to show for their efforts, a reason to keep moving toward that bachelor’s degree. Reverse-transfer programs allow students who transfer to a bachelor’s degree-granting institution before they finish their Associate’s degree to transfer courses from the four-year school back to the two-year school to earn a degree. The University of Massachusetts Boston and Massasoit Community College have recently established a reverse-transfer program that means that MCC students who transfer to UMass can finish up their Massasoit Associate’s degree while at UMass. The student who enrolled in UMass with only two history classes and a biology lab left to take at Massasoit to get the Associate’s degree can now take those three classes at UMass, transfer the credits back to MCC, and graduate after all.

It doesn’t take a lot of money to make a reverse-transfer program work. Advisers at the community colleges and the four-year colleges to which they send students have to talk to each other, share their degree requirements, and coordinate their efforts. Registrars need to send transcripts, electronically or otherwise, and someone has to make sure all the relevant requirements are met. But the programs have the potential to make a real difference for both kinds of institutions and, especially, for the students.

Graduation rates will go up at the community colleges. Retention rates will go up at the four-year colleges and universities, as students see themselves making progress toward degrees. The transfer students at the four-year colleges will be earning a valuable credential for the job market, and they will recognize their steps along the way to the Bachelor’s degree; it might not seem like such a long road once it’s marked with a solid halfway point — an Associate’s degree.

Paula M. Krebs is special assistant to the President for External Relations at Wheaton College. She spent the 2010-11 academic year as an American Council on Education ACE Fellow at the University of Massachusetts President’s Office and the University of Massachusetts Boston.