12/15/2014 02:28 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2015

Moving Community College Graduates Toward a Four-Year Degree

There is growing consensus that more attention must be paid to increasing the number of two-year graduates who go on to complete a four-year degree. While over 80 percent of first year community college students state completion of a four-year degree as their intention, less than 12 percent of them accomplish their goal.

This dismal statistic reinforces a growing workforce problem, most notably identified by Tony Carnevale, among others. There will be millions of jobs in the new economy that will need a college degree as a prerequisite that may remain unfilled unless production of completed college degrees increases. While we can argue whether a college degree is a qualifying assumption or an actual need, the facts remain.

Perhaps this growing gap in workforce preparation is why the Obama Administration, major foundations and global corporations have emphasized workforce preparation through enhancing community college participation. If the federal budget is a rationing tool that also promotes a policy agenda, the implications are clear.

For four-year colleges and universities, the stakes are high given the uncertainty as Congressional committee leadership passes to the Republicans. But basic priorities remain. At the top of the list is how can America best develop an educated work force that serves the needs of all economic sectors and that maintains the principles that guided the formation of programs like the Pell grant and the GI Bill?

Much of the concentration has been at the state level. Community colleges and four-year undergraduate programs at baccalaureate, graduate and professional schools rely heavily on articulation agreements, designed essentially to create a pathway through which to move students to four-year degrees. Imbedded in articulation discussions are policy parameters on transfer policy, course credits and overall course loads, for example, to shape the pathway.

The goal is am ambitious one - effectively, to legislate a solution, often through a series of innovative state approaches. Much credit is due to the legislators, foundation leaders and others who are trying to imagine an innovative solution, particularly when the solution is devoid of partisan politics.

There is a fundamental question when any solution emerges from a bureaucratic response to a social and political problem. Is the strategy too complex and does the "surround" effectively and efficiently advise and inform community college transfers? Put in other terms, does the solution discourage precisely those whom it was intended to help?

Among independent colleges and universities, the problem may be just the reverse of their public sector colleagues. In a national study to be released this spring by the Edvance Foundation, the diverse and underutilized transfer agreements identified by the over 400 colleges who participated fully in this national survey suggests that decentralization through localized transfer arrangements and policies has minimized student transfers.

Whatever the reasons for obstacles in the student transfer pathway, there is a central question to address. In the discussions on how to improve community college participation and transfer, what is best for the students who seek to transfer?

Put another way, what if the focus was less on the process? What if the focus was on the students?

One especially innovative approach may be to save students "one soul at a time." We know that students want to transfer but it will be critical for institutions to welcome them as a fundamental admissions building block. We are also confident that with the right conditions, transfer students will persist at rates equal to or greater than their cohort group, based upon a five-year pilot project tested at Bucknell University.

So, what then are the keys to unlock a four-year degree for two-year graduates seeking one? It may not be enough to smooth over the obstacles in the transfer pathway. At least two conditions come into play.

The first is taken largely from practices at private colleges with high persistence rates. Transfer students need advocates - or, more specifically, mentors who walk with them along the transfer pathway. These mentors must not replace overworked community college counselors but add value to their efforts. Mentors bridge the gap between community college counseling and the safety net that good colleges and universities must provide transfers, whether in public or private settings.

These mentors need tools. And this is where the ed tech community can step in, backed by federal, state, corporate and foundation support. It's the same question just redefined with a student focus.

The technology must enforce academic rigor, including "soft" skill preparation.

On the academic side, mentors must work with community college curricula to improve "soft" skills, the kind best defined at four-year colleges as core liberal arts credentials. They include good study habits, reading comprehension, improved writing capability, the use and understanding of quantitative methods, and the ability to work with technology and in collaborative settings. The "hard" skills are much more obvious - the capacity to test well to the satisfaction of four-year faculty in discipline-based early stage college-level learning.

On the administrative side, mentors must embrace new technology to identify a four-year fit, application transfer, transfer expectations, and assessment metrics to determine success.

It may turn out that the solution has been in front of our eyes. What if we walked with students down the four-year pathway, listening to their needs and meeting them?