Factors, Practices, and Policies Influencing Students' Upward Transfer to Baccalaureate-Degree Programs and Institutions: A Mixed-Methods Analysis
LaSota, Robin Rae
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My dissertation utilizes an explanatory, sequential mixed-methods research design to assess factors influencing community college students' transfer probability to baccalaureate-granting institutions and to present promising practices in colleges and states directed at improving upward transfer, particularly for low-income and first-generation college students. First, the dissertation features multi-level random-effects model analyses to better understand how factors such as students' academic and social integration, community college characteristics and expenditures, and state transfer policy components influence community college students' 2/4 transfer probability over a recent six-year period (utilizing the Beginning Postsecondary Study 2003-2009). Second, comparative case studies of six community colleges in three states (Florida, Georgia, and Washington) report about how community colleges and state policy leaders currently engage in experimentation and innovation in seeking to improve students' 2/4 transfer, and how they use data to inform decision-making on this issue. The case studies consider ways in which community college and state policy leaders make decisions regarding improving students' transfer prospects, the types of promising initiatives being implemented, and what is being learned from them. The case study design used above-average compared to average performers to illustrate field implementation dynamics that may influence student transfer outcomes, and provide deeper examination of issues affecting community college students as they are making the decision to transfer to a four-year institution, with the goal of improving policies and practices. Similar to other researchers' findings, I found that most state policy variables designed to affect transfer demonstrated little or no statistical association with the probability of transfer, after controlling for state wealth (gross state product per capita (GSP), shown to be associated with the historic rise of state cooperative agreements facilitating transfer in the 1980s and 1990s). Gross state product per capita is also highly positively correlated with the percentage of the state's population with bachelor's degrees, also significantly associated with increased upward transfer probability. The close correlation between state wealth and the proportion of state residents with a bachelor's degree education are likely proxies for a state's social capital and stronger demand for affordable access to college education by state residents, which may be accomplished through 2/4 transfer educational options in the state's public higher education sector. Even though state transfer policy components did not show significant overall effects in the multi-level regression, the presence of common course numbering was associated with increased transfer probability among first generation students (to earn a bachelor's degree), compared with non-first generation students. Findings from the case studies center on four main areas: 1) the role of academic and transfer advising, 2) data use for decision support with respect to improving students' progress toward transfer, 3) leadership strategies for developing and assessing interventions to increase transfer, and 4) the role of state policies in framing and supporting colleges to improve students' upward transfer rates. This dissertation identifies some promising strategies, interventions, and practices among colleges with above-average transfer rates compared with colleges with average transfer rates. While colleges have implemented a range of interventions to improve supports for upward transfer, such as mandatory student advising, transfer fairs and transfer advising programs, there is still considerable room for improvement. Even among the better-performing colleges, too many students, particularly those most at risk of not transferring, may not have sufficient, coordinated supports to successfully complete transfer from their lower-division courses to upper-division coursework leading to a bachelor's degree.  "2/4 transfer" is an abbreviated term for upward transfer by community college or lower-division students to a bachelor's degree program or baccalaureate-granting institution. Institutions that primarily award associate's degrees are generally two-year institutions, based on the model of completion of an associate's degree program in two years. Baccalaureate-granting institutions and programs are generally modeled to be completed in four years, and may be called four-year institutions.  Georgia does not have community colleges. Rather, the University System of Georgia has 15 "access institutions" called state colleges that are primarily associates' degree granting institutions, and most offer limited baccalaureate degrees. My case study institutions include two of these access institutions. Most of Florida's community colleges have their own baccalaureate degree programs in specialized occupational fields, including one of the case study colleges selected in that state. For simplicity, I refer to colleges as community colleges throughout the paper, though different institutions may offer some range of baccalaureate programs or be in the process of obtaining approval for a bachelor's degree program(s).  "Experimentation" may take the form of a grant-supported new initiative with an evaluation component that includes quasi-experimental design, or it may be more loosely structured as a new initiative or policy change designed to improve student success outcomes associated with transfer, accompanied by documentation and evaluation of the results. Research on innovation has emphasized how organizational teaming structures can support creative decision-making and the generation of new knowledge guiding change in values, beliefs, and behaviors in the organization (Nilsson, 2003).  College upward transfer rate for the fall 2006 first-time-in-college cohort was used as a basis for analysis finding outliers (+2 standard deviations), using state-level data (Florida and Washington used three year transfer rates, and Georgia used four-year transfer rates for the fall 2006 cohort). While the average-performing colleges selected in Florida and Washington were average performers according to state-level data on upward transfer rates, there is also evidence from the IPEDS data on transfer-out rates for first-time, full-time students that three-year transfer rates were rising from 2008-2011.  State articulation and transfer policies include several components, as catalogued by the Education Commission of the States (ECS) in 2001 and 2010 (imputed here for 2005-06, two years after BPS 2003 students' postsecondary entry). ECS transfer policy components are: presence of articulation and transfer legislation; cooperative agreements between institutions and/or departments at 2- and 4-year institutions; transfer data reporting to state higher education commissions, departments, and authorities; transfer incentives and rewards (such as priority admission and scholarships); presence of a statewide course articulation guide; statewide common core or general transferable curriculum; and common course numbering (across two and four-year institutions).
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