Tennessee college students to benefit from 'transfer down' plan

photo Chattanooga State Community College instructor Chris Willis, left, works on a media production editing assignment with students.
photo Drew Fry, a senior at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, leads a group of upcoming high school seniors and their parents through the Stophel apartment complex on a tour of UTC student housing facilities in this file photo.

Students who transfer into a four-year college from a community college will have a fail-safe in their back pocket, thanks to a new "reverse transfer" program.

The effort will help about 1,300 students each year who have completed at least 45 of the 60 credit hours required for most associate's degrees.

The program is designed to boost college attainment rates -- the primary goal of Gov. Bill Haslam's Drive to 55 effort that is aimed at boosting college completion from 32 percent to 55 percent of Tennessee's adults by 2025. The reverse transfer program will go after the low-hanging fruit of people already well on their way to earning some type of degree.

Here's how it works: A student who transfers 45 credit hours from Chattanooga State Community College to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga could receive his associate's degree from Chattanooga State while still working toward a UTC bachelor's degree. Technically, credits from the four-year college would transfer back to the community college -- thus the reversal.

Aside from boosting the state's grad stats, officials see two practical benefits for students.

"This is something that will give them motivation to keep going," said Fannie Hewlett, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Chattanooga State. "And it also gives them a credential that they can really go out in the marketplace and use."

Today, officials will announce a grant of about $400,000 from the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation to help pay for a software system that will automatically review transfer students' college credit and notify them if and when they complete requirements for the associate's degree.

The state has already committed $300,000 for the program's start-up costs. Lumina, a private national foundation that works to increase college attainment, is pushing reverse transfer programs across the country through its "Credit When It's Due" effort. In addition to its grant to the University of Tennessee System, Lumina has made grants to more than a dozen other recipients.

The fail-safe benefit of the program is obvious: If students drop out or don't finish their four-year degree after transferring, they'll at least have the associate's degree in hand. But officials think the reverse transfers will motivate some students to complete work on their four-year degrees.

"If you get this credential, this is the first sheepskin so to speak," said UT System President Joe DiPietro. "It makes you feel like you've accomplished something. And you have. But it also gives you lift to say, let's get that baccalaureate degree."

In Tennessee, nine public universities, 13 community colleges and eight private institutions from within the University of Tennessee System, the Tennessee Board of Regents and the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association will participate, with another dozen private schools expected to join later.

The new program could also boost graduation rates at community colleges, said Katie High, UT's vice president for academic affairs and student success.

"The community colleges will be able to count those students in their graduation statistics," High said. "Right now, they can't do that."

And that's key in a state where higher-ed funding is tied to outcomes like graduation rates.

High said the results of reverse-transfer programs in other states are promising. Some have seen 10 percent improvements in the graduation rates of transfers.

But these programs are still very new. And it's not clear that the addition of reverse transfer programs is necessarily the cause of the graduation boosts, said Jason Taylor, a postdoctoral research associate at the Office of Community College Research and Leadership in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"I think that's sort of the unanswered question right now: What is the relative value of these programs. We don't really know," said Taylor, who is researching the impact of such programs in several states.

He said critics may see reverse transfer as just handing out credentials or even as an incentive to quit working toward a bachelor's once the associate's degree is in hand since it can have value in the labor market. But there does appear to be a need for such work with transfer students.

In a study last year, the Office of Community College Research and Leadership examined a group of transfers in 12 states. Only about half of those transferring from a community college completed their bachelor's within four years of transferring, though two-thirds entered the university with 45 or more college credits already completed.

"That study identifies a clear need or problem," Taylor said. "We're seeing transfer students not making it to the bachelor's degree yet many have lots of credit hours."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.