New study reveals how "reverse transfer" students fare at community colleges

The latest issue of The Review of Higher Education includes a notable paper from City University of New York (CUNY) researcher Vivian Yuen Ting Liu. Dr. Liu analyzed eight years of data about students who transferred to two-year colleges. The results could have an important impact on administrators and policy makers' decision making. We sat down with Dr. Liu to hear more about her study, "The Road Less Traveled: Degree Completion and Labor Market Impact of Reverse Transfer on Non-High-Achieving Students". 

Can you tell us a bit about your academic background, how you came to focus on higher education outcomes? 

I became deeply interested in higher education outcomes through a mixture of opportunity and personal interest. Two of my Ph.D. mentors at Columbia University (Thomas Bailey and Judith Scott-Clayton) are both well-known scholars in the field of higher education. Naturally, I have had more exposure in their area of research. At the time, I was also involved with research at the Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment, with a special focus on students enrolling in for-profit colleges. I came to understand that many for-profit colleges heavily target recruitment among community college students or students who are under-resourced. And yet for-profit students tend to have worse outcome academically and in the labor market relative to students in public or private non-profit colleges. It is then that I realized the many benefits of postsecondary education are not equally distributed. Students who are low-income and minority are often underrepresented in higher education and even if enrolled, they faced more obstacles financially, academically, socially, and emotionally than their peers in their college career. As such, I was interested in identifying and finding potential solutions to the inequitable and often unnoticed challenges faced predominantly by underrepresented students in higher education. 

What do you find most rewarding about your research? 
I see my research as a way to find truth. Most of my research started with some burning questions in my head, which I have a lot of. For example, are there alternative paths for students who drop out of their bachelor’s degree program, which is close to 40 percent of all first-time four-year beginners? Does dual enrollment benefit both high school participants and the college students that they share the same class with? Does the summer Pell program actually help students to maintain academic momentum and hence achieve better academic outcomes? 

The truth is not always pretty, especially since we live in an unequal society. But I enjoy pointing out gaps in the literature and policy and trust that there are audiences that care about--and hopefully can do something to improve--equity in postsecondary access and success.

Can you explain to our readers what a "reverse transfer" is? What are some reasons students would reverse transfer? 

In short, “reverse transfer” refers to students who attended a community college after first starting enrollment in a four-year institution. There are two main types of reverse transfer students. Permanent reverse transfer students intend to complete two-year credentials, while temporary reverse transfer students (also call supplementary transfer students) plan on temporary enrolling in two-year colleges and ultimately finishing their BA in a four-year institution. There are many reasons why four-year students may seek education at community colleges. For those who struggle academically or financially in finishing their four-year degree or would like to stay local, community colleges may make the most sense in terms of cost and the probability of eventually attaining a college degree. Furthermore, there are also students who strategically take summer courses or prerequisites that are difficult at the four-year institution as a way to speed up their education or prevent a drop in their grades.

Your research looked at eight years of data, and found that transfer students have a higher degree of completion rate than non-transfer students. You also note that there are "gains in the probability of employment for female transfer students". How can these findings be used by administrators and policy makers to create more opportunities for success for students? 
My research draws attention upon a large group of students that are largely unseen. About 40 percent of first-time four-year students never graduate from their institution. These findings are helpful in pointing at a potential solution – transfer to community colleges. My research looked specifically at students who are below 3.0 GPA in their freshmen year and for whom the bachelor’s degree completion rate is below 32 percent. The positive effects on college completion and employment are definitely pointing at the potential benefit of reverse transfer for students with below a 3.0 GPA in their first year.
However, for students to reap the most benefit from reverse transfer, administrators and policy makers need to prioritize certain policies. It is important to have early detection mechanisms to target interventions to students who may be struggling in four-year institutions. That way, academic advisors can identify and counsel students early on of what need to be done in their institution and alternative options to bachelor’s education. In addition, transparent credit transfer policy and statewide standard numbering systems can be extremely helpful to support efficient credit transfer to and from two- and four-year institutions. 

Public perception of 2-year and community colleges continues to change dramatically. Where do you see the 2-year and community college a decade from now? 

The mission of two-year and community colleges has indeed changed continuously, in response to the needs of society. While it has previously been perceived as a safety net or even a lesser option for students who chose not to pursue a bachelor’s degree, I see two-year colleges becoming more of an essential option for students and taking more of a center stage in postsecondary education. With the increasing concern of college cost, many students have pursued the 2+2 route for bachelor’s degree, where they transfer to a four-year after first enrolling in a two-year college. Other than cost, the flexibility and availability of course timing and locations have also been compelling to many students, who complement their bachelor’s education with two-year courses as shown by my supplementary transfer research and the literature of coenrollment. Finally, there is growing number of high-paying professions in health care, criminal justice, and engineering that only require an associate degree. For some, this can be an attractive option given the lower monetary and time cost to complete an associate degree relative to a bachelor’s degree. 

What's next for you, what are you currently researching / writing? 

Currently, my research focuses on dual enrollment. Dual enrollment has been a popular policy due to the growing concern of college readiness and higher education cost. By allowing high school students to take courses and earn credits toward their high school graduation requirement and college education, dual enrollment has the potential to lower the overall cost of postsecondary education and expose students to the college environment and learning norm. There has been some research on the college enrollment outcomes of dual enrollment students. But due to the limited availability of data linking high school and college outcome data, research on other aspects of dual enrollment has been limited. Recently, I published a paper that looks at the effect of having dual enrollment students in the same classroom on community college students. Currently, I am looking at how dual enrollment affects where students choose to apply and their admittance results. Furthermore, I am interested in seeing whether the effects differ by racial minority status.

Vivian Yuen Ting Liu is the associate director of the Office of Research, Evaluation, and Program Support at the City University of New York (CUNY). She conducts quantitative research on the academic and labor market outcomes to prominent higher education pathways and phenomena using state administrative datasets and restricted-use national datasets. Her research has implications for increasing students' likelihood of college completion, especially for low-income and marginalized students. Her research interests include transfer students, financial aid, community college credentials, summer enrollment, for-profit education, and the economic returns to higher education. Dr. Liu holds a PhD and an MA in economics and education from Teachers College, Columbia University and a BA with a double major in economics and education from Macalester College, Minnesota.