Editor's note: This is the eighth in a series of articles written by students who were enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's graduate class in student affairs administration at the University of South Carolina for the fall 2008 semester. As part of her course syllabus, Dr. Bloom required each student in her class to submit an article to The Mentor or other publications for consideration.
Many students choose to enroll at a community college fully intending to transfer and earn a bachelor's degree at a four-year institution. The reasons behind choosing to first matriculate at a community college include affordability, location, lack of academic preparation, complexity of college application process, parental influence, etc. (Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, 2006; Somers et al., 2006). Currently, 46 percent of all students in U.S. postsecondary education are attending a community college (American Association of Community Colleges, 2008). In this time of growing economic instability, we can anticipate more students will choose to begin their general education work at a community college.
Studies show, however, that students who start their college careers at a community college are less likely to persist toward completing their bachelor's degrees than those who go directly to a university after high school. One study showed as little as 26 percent of students who started at a community college and expressed interest in completing a baccalaureate degree did so within nine years (Long & Kurlaender, 2008). A recent report from the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance (2008) listed the barriers that prevent transfer students from attaining bachelor's degrees. The barriers can be divided into five categories: academic, social, informational, complexity, and financial. Although all five can be significant deterrents to completing a bachelor's degree, the purpose of this paper is to suggest that improved coordination between two- and four-year colleges can alleviate pressures in the academic, informational, and complexity categories. This improved coordination can therefore enhance the percentage of students able to successfully transition to four-year institutions and ultimately achieve their bachelor's degrees. The University Bridge Program at the University of South Carolina is presented below as an example of one school's attempt to improve coordination between advisers at two-year and four-year institutions. In this paper, the terms community college and technical college are used interchangeably to mean a school providing college-level course work that can be transferred to a four-year college for use toward completing the requirements for a bachelor's degree.
Description of the University Bridge Program at the University of South Carolina
Communication among faculty, advisers, and staff at community colleges and universities, where feeder relationships occur, is essential to students' academic success. A feeder relationship is defined as an association between two schools where a large percentage of one school's transfer population will ultimately attend the other college. Work is currently underway to improve transfer initiatives at the University of South Carolina (USC), a large public research university, through an ambitious bridge program involving the entire South Carolina technical college system. While admission to the University of South Carolina is not guaranteed for student participants in the University Bridge Program (UBP), the aim of the program is to extend some of USC's most successful student-oriented initiatives and programs to the technical-college level for students interested in transferring to USC's Columbia campus. The program was piloted in 2007 with USC's two biggest feeder technical colleges participating, but was recently extended to all sixteen technical colleges in the state. Campus partners at USC include Undergraduate Admissions, Student Financial Aid and Scholarships, University Housing, the Student Success Center, and the Career Center. These offices will visit the technical colleges at least once a year and invite UBP students to attend on-campus events, including Bridge Day (an open house for UBP students) and selected athletic and cultural events. Housing is available to students who would like to live in the bridge housing community upon acceptance to USC, and the Student Success Center works with this population after enrollment to ensure a smooth transition through social programming, supplemental academic assistance, and the use of transfer mentors. Students are invited to join the Bridge Program if they are denied admission to USC as first-year students or if they are referred by their academic advisers at the community college.
University Bridge Program Successes
Following the expansion of the Bridge Program between the University of South Carolina and the sixteen state technical colleges, enrollment in the program has grown significantly. Currently, approximately 250 students are part of the program at ten different technical colleges. The remaining six technical colleges transfer very few students to four-year colleges and do not currently have students interested in transferring to USC. Approximately 110 students accepted invitations to join after being denied admission to the first-year class, seventy joined after community-college staff members referred them, and seventy expressed interest by attending an information session on their campus or by contacting the USC admissions office.
Initial communication between USC and the UBP students is in the format of information sessions held at each technical college where students are currently enrolled. Representatives from USC's admissions office also hold separate information sessions for technical college advisers at four of the campuses. These information sessions take place in early fall, and topics in both the student and adviser sessions include the overall mission of the Bridge Program, general eligibility, yearly timeline, and the admissions process. Follow-up meetings are held in late fall, primarily through an interactive satellite presentation to all sixteen technical colleges. In addition to presenting general overview and admissions information, representatives from USC housing, financial aid, and the Student Success Center also covered applicable material. Although student attendance has been low, especially at those technical colleges included in the recent Bridge Program expansion, the information sessions for academic advisers have proven to be very successful. These adviser information sessions are especially useful at technical colleges where the advising process is decentralized. Dispersing the information directly to advising staff allows students to contact representatives on their own campuses and ask questions about the Bridge Program. It is anticipated that technical college advisers will prove to be instrumental in growing the program before extensive student-directed marketing begins. Most advisers are very passionate about helping students reach their ultimate goals and are hungry for information about the university transfer process. In a state like South Carolina, where there is no common course numbering system at the university level, advisers are extremely interested in learning which classes transfer to USC. In each meeting, technical college advisers appreciate the visit, are interested in continuing communication, and look forward to attending USC's on-campus Bridge Day event with their students.
As the University of South Carolina Bridge Program continues to grow, unexpected issues and challenges have developed. These challenges can be divided into three groups: credit transfer, defining coordinators and partners at each campus, and determining program benefits. Although some of the issues are unique to USC's organization or South Carolina's state-level transfer policies, valuable insights can be gained by examining these challenges.
In South Carolina, general articulation agreements exist among schools and are not state mandated. Most schools transfer individual classes rather than accept the entire associate degree. The program also has been impacted by curriculum and technology challenges. At USC, each department and major determines the transferability of courses, and university faculty are cautious about giving blanket approval of course equivalencies. Many departments have made the decision to produce a credit-transfer guide for students at the technical colleges, but progress still needs to be made. The completed technical-college transfer guides are invaluable to students; however, it is challenging to keep the guides up to date with curriculum changes. The published guides on course equivalencies quickly become outdated. Finally, technology also hinders the credit-transfer process at this time. USC is currently finalizing the purchase of new transfer-evaluation software, which leaves most offices, advisers, and staff hesitant to invest time and money in creating new applications (e.g., building a searchable course database on the admissions website) for old software that will soon be replaced. Until the switch to a new software system occurs, technological advances that would ease the process are on hold.
As USC's admissions office continues to build foundations to extend the Bridge Program to all sixteen South Carolina technical colleges, communication is proving to be vital. Defining who is involved at each community college has been difficult because of the differences in each college's organizational structure. The person identified as the chief transfer officer at the technical colleges might be a high-level vice president at some colleges and an entry-level student affairs coordinator at others. Another challenge is that the number of students transferring to four-year colleges varies tremendously by institution, as some schools successfully transfer as few as twenty students per year to four-year programs and larger technical colleges transfer more than 300 students (Trident Technical College, 2008; Williamsburg Technical College, 2008). Schools with larger associate of arts (AA) and associate of science (AS) programs use many faculty members across disciplines for academic advising. Schools with smaller transfer programs may have only one or two advisers who work with all students interested in completing bachelor's degree programs. Disseminating information to all advisers can be difficult at larger schools using a multitude of faculty advisers. Some schools have policies in place that prohibit mass e-mails to all AA and AS students to announce USC's visit, while other colleges are happy to send such e-mails. Differences in administrative organization, student population, and policies between technical colleges make communication and program standardization difficult.
In the current economy, financial commitment for the Bridge Program is also an issue. At USC, the student affairs division highlighted in its strategic plan the importance of admitting and retaining transfer students; however, implementing expensive programmatic initiatives is not possible at this time due to economic realities. Ideally, social transition issues could be reduced or eliminated by involving our UBP students in athletic events, club sports, and student activities and by giving them access to facilities, etc. In reality, USC does not have the resources to allow 250 students who are not paying tuition and fees to fully access some of its most coveted student activities (i.e., football tickets and gym access). As USC experiences reduced state assistance and continued budget restrictions, the possibility of expanding these pricier student services is bleak. Even if funds were available, the geographic locations of at least some of the technical colleges would make it prohibitive for students to attend such events at USC.
Future goals for the program include involving more USC faculty and academic advisers. Most of the programmatic decisions at this point have been made by student affairs personnel, and input from faculty and advisers would be most welcome and appreciated. Improved communication with UBP students and community college advisers is also a goal. An adviser listserv is currently in progress, and USC will continue to encourage technical college advisers to visit USC's campus for Bridge Day. Although work is underway to enhance access to information about the Bridge Program and put better marketing strategies in place, program administrators recognize there will never be a standard Bridge Program experience since each technical college customizes the program to fit the needs of its student population.
The University Bridge Program between the University of South Carolina and the South Carolina technical college system is an important initiative aimed at optimizing the transfer process for technical college students in the state of South Carolina. This article outlined some of the successes and challenges that the program has experienced since its inception in 2007. Despite the challenges that face the implementation of such a large-scale program, the ultimate goal is to ease student transition issues and to improve degree completion rates. While bridge programs, transfer articulations, and general cooperation between universities and technical colleges are all essential programmatic ways to help transfer students, we must not overlook the importance of time invested by advisers in individual students through both academic advising and the transfer admission process. Cooperation at the institutional level through programs like USC's University Bridge Program are opportunities for admissions officers and academic advisers to come together to better serve the needs of current and prospective students.