One Transfer Student’s Experience

The transfer experience of a recent college graduate named Ben illustrates well some of the points made about college credit transfer and the experiences of transfer students in my new book, Pathways to Reform:  Credits and Conflict at The City University of New York.

After graduating from a good private high school in Brooklyn, New York, Ben first attended Berklee College of Music in Boston to study jazz guitar performance.  However, soon after beginning college there, he left Berklee with a low GPA.

After working for a few years, Ben knew he wanted to obtain a bachelor’s degree, but his Berklee GPA wasn’t high enough for him to gain admission to a selective bachelor’s-degree college.  Cost was also a consideration in his continuing his education.

Ben had heard from a friend who was attending Borough of Manhattan Community College of The City University of New York (BMCC of CUNY) that the classes there were good.  BMCC is an open admissions institution.  In addition, the cost of attending BMCC is relatively low, and the location was convenient for Ben (he worked in Manhattan and lived in Brooklyn).  Therefore Ben decided to try a couple of (nonmatriculated) classes there.  The courses went well, so the next semester he matriculated. He was interested in research psychology that could help to improve people’s lives, but BMCC did not have a psychology major, so he matriculated as a liberal arts major. BMCC provided Ben with a second chance at postsecondary education.

From the beginning of his time at BMCC, Ben was thinking about his transfer goal, and was worried about whether or not his credits would transfer.  He was concerned that some colleges might not take his community college credits.  He went to see a BMCC advisor about this.  She pulled out a sheet showing which BMCC courses would transfer to which CUNY senior (bachelor’s-degree) colleges, and advised him to take courses on the sheet (e.g., social psychology) that would transfer for his intended bachelor’s degree in psychology.  This was useful information, but it was limited information, was not personalized to Ben’s situation, and did not help him to think about all of the possibilities open to him.  For more information, the advisor advised Ben to contact the colleges to which he was interested in applying, a time-consuming and potentially complex and frustrating task that Ben was not inclined to do.

From exposure to people with bachelor’s degrees, Ben knew that many people did not value associate-degree courses (such as are offered at BMCC) as much as bachelor’s-degree courses. Given his ultimate goal of a bachelor’s degree, Ben prioritized taking courses that he thought would transfer to a bachelor’s-degree program over courses that would obtain him the BMCC liberal arts associate’s degree.  So, for example, he did not take a required speech course at BMCC, because he was worried it would not transfer.

Nevertheless, Ben enjoyed his BMCC classes and thought that the professors were good.  His professor for a writing class, in which Ben was doing well, took him aside and asked “What are you doing here?”  Ben told the professor that his goal was to transfer and receive a bachelor’s degree.  The professor told him that some of his previous students had transferred to Columbia, and reminded Ben of BMCC’s motto (which is: “Start here.  Go anywhere.”).

Ben was interested in transferring to Queens College of CUNY (where his parents attended college) or Stony Brook University (of the State University of New York).  But, because of his professor’s advice, he also applied to Columbia University’s College of General Studies (GS, a division of Columbia for students who have had at least a one-year break in their college educations).  He was accepted to Columbia’s GS and so decided to attend there.  GS students have the same course requirements as students who begin at Columbia as freshmen.

A recent study by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that, on average, students lose 43% of their credits when they transfer.  However, there is a great deal of variation. As described in my new book, around the time that Ben transferred from BMCC to GS, CUNY had just been through a contentious period establishing a set of policies (called Pathways) that would guarantee course credit transfer, including for general education and some major courses, among the 19 undergraduate colleges of CUNY.  Until then, for example, some courses taken as general education (core) courses at one CUNY college would count only as electives at another CUNY college.

In contrast, when Ben transferred to GS at Columbia University, of the credits that he had accumulated at Berklee and BMCC, Columbia took the maximum that their policies allowed:  60 of the 124 required for receipt of a Columbia bachelor’s degree.  In addition, many of these credits were taken by Columbia in fulfillment of its general education and psychology major requirements. So at the same time that students were having trouble transferring courses from one college to another within CUNY, which is a single university according to New York State Education Law, Ben had no difficulty transferring his credits from BMCC to Columbia, an apparent bolstering of the anecdotal evidence described in my new book that, prior to Pathways, it was easier to transfer outside of CUNY than within CUNY.

Unlike transfer students at many colleges, upon transferring to Columbia, Ben was required to attend orientation.  He started at GS in the spring, and was in a cohort of a couple hundred new GS students, which he felt added significantly to his making a positive transition to Columbia.  There were many other supports available to him at Columbia (e.g. tutoring).

While working expeditiously on obtaining his Columbia bachelor’s degree, Ben, with his interest in research psychology, looked at the Columbia website for good research opportunities.  There he came across the Community College Research Center, which is based at Columbia’s Teachers College.  CCRC particularly intrigued Ben because of his experience at BMCC.  He reached out to CCRC and subsequently began working there part-time while still in college.

Now, after starting his postsecondary experience at Berklee College of Music and BMCC, Ben is the recipient of a Columbia University bachelor’s degree (for which he spent far less money than had he started there as a freshman).  And he is working full-time for a nonprofit organization helping to conduct research on increasing postsecondary students’ success.

As Ben made his way along the path from first entry to college to college graduation, he received advice from the several institutions that he attended.  However, he cannot imagine having navigated that path successfully if he had not had parents who were college graduates.  Students who are the first in their families to attend college have even more challenges to overcome in reaching graduation than did Ben.

In summary, among other lessons, Ben’s experience shows that: (1) some students can make excellent use of a second chance in college, which can involve transferring to a different institution, (2) sometimes credits transfer more easily to more selective, private colleges than to less selective, public colleges (even ones within the same university system), and (3) advice and support can be critical to a student’s success, including a transfer student’s success.

The higher education community is fortunate that Ben made his way through the transfer student maze and is now contributing to the success of other college students through his research.

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