The COVID-19 pandemic has created uncertainty about what will happen next. Experts say colleges need to improve transfer relationships now to stay afloat in this crisis.

Colleges were placing more emphasis on transfer partnerships long before the COVID-19 pandemic began this past spring.

The high school population is decreasing in most parts of the country, leaving many four-year institutions with gaps in enrollment. Some experts say those colleges need transfer students from two-year colleges to survive. Community colleges, in turn, need to work with four-year colleges to prevent poaching of their students and to help students achieve their goals. Eighty percent of community college students intend to earn a bachelor’s degree, but only about 17 percent do so within six years, according to data from the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

The pandemic and ensuing recession leave higher education with more questions than answers on the transfer front. On the one hand, experts say, colleges need to work together to survive. On the other hand, some smaller four-year colleges are just struggling to survive, which could breed more competition than collaboration.

‘A Heightened Concern’

This also is not a great time to stand up new programs. Many states have severely cut higher education budgets, and these partnerships take both time and resources to build.

Delaware County Community College in Pennsylvania has been building its transfer partnerships since 2006. The result proves it was worth it; the college has partnerships with the state’s public universities, as well as most of the private universities within a 40-minute drive from the college, said Nora Manz, director of advising, transfer and articulations.

The college has seamless transfer with state colleges and guaranteed admission programs with several four-year colleges. It also has guides that explain for students how things articulate from the community college program to the four-year college program, Manz said.

When Manz started at Delaware in 2006, the college didn’t have a separate transfer office. She wanted to grow its relationships with other colleges to give students more options for transfer.

“One of the keys to student success is fit,” she said. “What I was looking to do was provide opportunities to students across a variety of different types of schools.”

Most of the work was networking. Manz attended workshops and conferences and started a committee to build bridges with local colleges. Over time, she built trust with other colleges — trust that the community college was preparing students to transfer, and trust that the four-year colleges wouldn’t poach students before they earned their associate degrees. Only 38 percent of transfer students earned a degree before they transferred, according to CCRC data.

It’s unknown what will happen with transfer students in the next year or so, she said. But Manz isn’t worried about increased competition from local partners for first-time students. There’s even a slight advantage. With virtual admissions and enrollment events, Manz and her team can keep an eye out for what colleges are telling students. Delaware can touch base with colleges if they don’t hear them encouraging their agreements.

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