Why Reverse Transfer?

Friday, April 17, 2009
Today's Inside Higher Ed covers an article I wrote with UW-Madison doctoral student Fabian Pfeffer on the topic of reverse transfer. The basic gist is this: reverse transfer may be more common now, but it's certainly not benign. Students who reverse transfer tend to have parents who aren't highly educated, and therefore not as informed about how to navigate the game of 4-year college life. And in turn, the degree completion rates of these students-- who move from a 4-year to a 2-year school, are correspondingly low.

The article responds to anecdotal evidence suggesting that a lack of money drives the decision to leave a 4-year college for a community college. While we're the first to admit that money matters-- probably a LOT (see my other investigation into this) our national data indicates that the underlying reason has to do with a lack of information (since the greatest SES disparities are based on parental education not family income).

To illustrate this point, here are some examples:

Despite reasonably strong academic preparation, Joe has a C average in the first year of college. He's working nights at the local grocery store, and falling asleep in class. He doesn't see a way out-- when he calls home, Dad says he hasn't gotten any money to help, and Joe keeps working. Eventually, lacking a better solution, he leaves and moves back home to attend community college.

Mary also feels she doesn't have enough money to persist in college. Her family financial situation has changed when her mom lost her job, but she doesn't know that her financial aid officer can help. Instead of submitting a new FAFSA (a complex process), she switches to the less-expensive local community college.

Suzanne did well in high school, and has enough financial aid to get by. But when her initial grades freshman year were low B's, her feelings were hurt and she didn't know what to do. Her parents didn't go far in college, and couldn't help her understand what might explain those grades (one possibility is grade deflation; another might be her writing abilities). Demoralized, she leaves to go to a school where she thinks she can do better.

In each case we might mistake the underlying reasons for the student's reverse transfer decision. In Joe's case and Mary's it looks like money. In Suzanne's, it looks like grades. But when we look at thousands of these students, and begin to look closely- comparing apples and apples-- a common theme emerges. The underlying issue is a lack of information.

What if an advisor or a professor helped Joe find a job that let him sleep at night? What if Mary's financial aid officer checked in with her, and explained there was more aid available? What if Suzanne's professor called her in to discuss her grade, and explain how she could improve?

In each case, the information provided by the 4-year college could help fill in information these students couldn't get from their parents. Note: I do NOT fault the parents for not having more education. Since we know many students in need do not access already available services for good reasons (e.g. they are working long hours, etc), we need a multi-pronged approach (involving both faculty and staff, for example) and likely a mandatory one. How about a required check-in every term, or twice a term-- during class time? It could help.