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Using Data to Help Two-Year College Transfer Students Succeed

By Michelle Hodara and Erich Stiefvater | November 25, 2021

Michelle Hodara
Michelle Hodara leads research and evaluation projects on programs, policies and practices that improve students' college access and success.

Two-year institutions such as community and junior colleges help many Americans—including working adults, first-generation college students, and students of color—access higher education in pursuit of personal and professional goals.1 Many two-year college students intend to transfer to another institution to earn a four-year degree.2 However, transfer can be complicated, and transferring coursework between colleges and universities can be particularly arduous for even the most motivated and organized students.3 Almost half of community college transfer students lose some credits in the process, setting them back several steps on their path to a bachelor's degree and wasting their time and resources.4

Both two-year and four-year institutions can help transfer students succeed by using data to get an accurate picture of which two-year college students pursue transfer, what barriers they encounter, and what outcomes they do or do not achieve.5 While postsecondary institutions can do this work on their own, external partners can help build stakeholder capacity to develop and use tools and processes to share, link, analyze, and interpret data.

Erich Stiefvater
Erich Stiefvater is an adult learning specialist at Education Northwest. He leads training and technical assistance projects.

REL Northwest partnered with two institutions in Montana to help them link and analyze data to support transfer students. We helped Stone Child College (a Tribal college) and the Montana University System (MUS) set up a data-sharing agreement, link their data, and calculate trends in rates of transfer among Stone Child students. The College was then able to calculate bachelor's degree completion, credit mobility, and fields of study among Stone Child students who transferred to an MUS institution.

Based on this work, we designed and delivered two trainings to support other Tribal colleges in Montana in replicating Stone Child's data-linking and analysis procedure to evaluate their own students' transfer pathways and outcomes. As the colleges' institutional research staff currently have access to and use Microsoft Excel rather than statistical software such as Stata, we helped set up Excel workbooks the staff can use to manipulate and analyze transfer data.

Our partners shared that our coaching and training support helped them take steps to better assist transfer students. "Prior to the project, we weren't really tracking in a consistent way what was happening to students when they left the College," said Jessie Demontiney, human resources director and former institutional researcher at Stone Child College. "We really need to know what happens to them when they leave here, not only to serve them better but also if something good is happening [for a student], we want to be able to share that."

Angela McLean, Director of American Indian and Minority Achievement and K–12 Partnerships at MUS' Office of the Commission of Higher Education (OCHE), shared that this work helped support MUS's tracking of postsecondary outcomes for American Indian students by catalyzing or sustaining policy and planning discussions between Tribal colleges and OCHE on the topics of sharing data, transfer agreements, and student success initiatives.

Our partners in Montana showed that by collaborating within and across systems, institutions can make data-informed decisions to improve transfer processes and help students succeed. Other two- and four-year institutions can apply the process and use the REL materials to calculate transfer student outcomes when making their own decisions about policies and practices that most effectively facilitate transfer student success.

Learn more about REL Northwest's work on College and Career Readiness on our publications page.

1 Cohen, A. M., Brawer, F. B., & Kisker, C. B. (2014). The American community college (6th ed.). Jossey-Bass.
2 According to the Beginning Postsecondary Student (BPS) study, which has been surveying first-time undergraduates since 1989, over 70 percent of first-time community college students expect to earn at least a bachelor’s degree. Based on Horn, L., & Skomsvold, P. (2011). Web tables: Community college student outcomes: 1994–2009 (NCES 2012-253). Retrieved from U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics website:
3 Hodara, M., Martinez-Wenzl, M., Stevens, D., & Mazzeo, C. (2017). Exploring credit mobility and major-specific pathways: A policy analysis and student perspective on community college to university transfer. Community College Review, 45(4), 331‒349.
4 Monaghan, D. B., & Attewell, P. (2015). The community college route to the bachelor’s degree. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 37(1), 70–91.
5 Wyner, J., Deane, K. C., Davis, J., & Fink, J. (2016). The transfer playbook: Essential practices for two- and four-year colleges. Columbia University, Teachers College, Community College Research Center.