Rebecca Larsen knows first hand the pitfalls involved in transferring to Washington State University. The senior sociology major, who transferred from Olympic Community College in Bremerton two years ago, now works in the WSU Transfer Center, where she confronts similar problems among students on a daily basis.
Like many transfer students, Larsen arrived at WSU only to discover she was sadly lacking in university requirements necessary to enter a specific degree program. Yet, the students had been told they were fulfilling those requirements while attending community college.
“There is a definite lack of communication and advising knowledge in many of the community colleges,” said Larsen. “For many students, especially those in science- and math-based curricula, they may as well not have earned an associate’s degree. If I would have known, I could have taken many courses that would have helped me when I came to WSU.”
According to Janet Danley, interim executive director of enrollment services , the passage of the Community College Act of 1967 resulted in the establishment of an unusually high number of community colleges in Washington. Today there are 34 colleges in the state community college system.
Creating a clear pathway
Through the facilitation of the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board (HECB), these colleges are working with four-year institutions to fulfill new state legislation passed last spring. House Bill 2382 requires 4- and 2-year schools to collaborate in producing associate’s degree “pathways,” said Danley. The pathways essentially allow a student to begin a community college degree program that can easily be integrated with and completed at a 4-year institution with few, if any, transfer “hiccups.”
Key representatives in initiating the pathways program at WSU are Jane Sherman, associate vice provost for academic affairs in Olympia, and Susan Poch, director of the Student Advising and Learning Center.
Initially, “pilot” pathways in nursing, elementary education and engineering are being developed with the stipulation that three or more additional programs will be developed each year. The goal is to have a corresponding associate’s degree for each available undergraduate degree by 2008.
“One of the main issues being targeted in the pathways program is to evaluate the ‘readiness’ factor of transfer students versus just looking at credit hours,” said Danley. “Four-year faculty members are working with 2-year faculty statewide to create rigorous curricula so that students will be well prepared to handle the 4-year program course content when they transfer to finish their degree.”
Indeed, Danley said, research has shown that, on average, it takes a transfer student from one semester to one or two years longer to complete a degree than a student who entered as a freshman. “Overall,” said Danley, “transfer students may have a struggle the first semester, but most regain their momentum and GPA soon after that.”
As for GPA, some may wonder why the average incoming transfer GPA, at 3.06, is lower than that for incoming freshmen, at 3.46. “Though GPA is one way to help identify transfer students who would most likely benefit from and complete WSU degree programs,” said Danley, “it’s really not relevant to compare high school and college course work and grades. It’s like comparing apples and oranges — very different situations.”
As reported for 2003 on the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges website (http://www.sbctc.ctc.edu), transfer students statewide (including WSU), attained nearly the same graduating GPA as students who entered as freshmen (transfer 2.94; direct entry 2.98). Transfer students also are well represented in high demand fields such as education, business, engineering, nursing and other health related sciences.
The number and proportion of transfer students at WSU has remained relatively stable over the past decade. Pullman enrollment for fall 2004 includes 1,490 transfer students — roughly half the number of incoming freshmen at 3,108. In accordance with agreements set in the state 1994 Accessibility Act, WSU is required to take at least one-third of its new incoming students from Washington community colleges. This fall, there were 1,013 new Pullman transfers from Washington community and technical colleges.
“We know many community college students will be looking for 4-year schools in the near future,” said Danley. “Yet unless our state funding increases, I don’t foresee a lot of growth in the number of transfers at WSU. With funding, we would hope to increase the total number of new incoming students by 200–300 students per year, which would include some transfers.”
Larsen also anticipates a boom in community college enrollments that coincides with rising costs of education and basic living expenses, as well as an increase in the number of nontraditional students going back to school. Her experiences and those of others have inspired her to do her part. She hopes to become a transfer adviser at a community college when she graduates — helping to ease the path for other students.