An interview with community college student transfer research expert Debra Bragg

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Interstate Passport Briefing
This is one of 6 articles in the September 2019 newsletter.
Debra Bragg Headshot
Debra Bragg, director of Community College Research Initiatives at the University of Washington in Seattle

Mike Hillman, co-chair of the Passport Review Board, recently interviewed  Debra Bragg is director of Community College Research Initiatives at the University of Washington in Seattle, and also the founding director of the Office of Community College Research and Leadership (OCCRL) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she is an endowed university professor. Dr. Bragg’s research focuses on transitions and transfer from K-12 education to community colleges and universities as well as to employment. In recent years Dr. Bragg led the Credit When It’s Due effort to assess changes in transfer policy to confer associate degrees through reverse transfer. In April 2015, Dr. Bragg was recognized as a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). She received the Distinguished Career Award from the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) in 2016, and this year she received the Bonita C. Jacobs Transfer Champion award from the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students (NISTS).

Passport Q1: What led to your interest in creating two research centers to study community colleges?

When I completed my doctoral dissertation, community college enrollments were growing. I was interested in the success of non-traditional students and students of color—work has been of great interest to me throughout my career. In 1989 I was hired at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to start the Office of Community College Research and Leadership (OCCRL) because faculty had an interest in creating a center that, at the time, was pretty revolutionary. I ended up spending most of my career there until I had another unique opportunity to come out to the University of Washington to further my interest in community college research in another state that has a really strong community and technical college system but had not developed a strong community college research presence. It was both a challenge and an opportunity in a dynamic higher education system but with a void on the research side. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to study community colleges at two of the country’s best research universities, University of Illinois and University of Washington.

In general, I have observed that higher education institutions don’t do a very good job of studying higher education in general or community colleges specifically, so I’ve been lucky to have had the support of these two research universities to study community college education. It has been very important to my career as this is what I trained and prepared to do in my doctoral program, at a time when community colleges weren’t on the radar of most higher education researchers. Since that time, some universities have come to see community colleges as competitors and overlook their importance to the overall higher education landscape. In my experience, however, once campus leadership and faculty deepen their understanding of community college student needs and the opportunities they have to help these students succeed, they become much more respectful and supportive of community colleges.

Passport Q2: As you study community colleges and transfer, what data should policymakers find compelling in informing their decisions?

I do think that important advancements are being made in research on transfer, and there has been a lot of change just over the last 5 five to 10 years in how we think about what transfer is and how to broaden the ways we conceptualize transfer. An example is the work I did with Credit When It’s Due, the national initiative on reverse credit transfer. That research looked at students who transferred before receiving an associate degree and then transferred university credit back to the community college so they could be awarded their associate degrees. That way of thinking about transfer didn’t even exist a decade ago. There are so many developments in transfer research that are leading to new breakthroughs in how we think about transfer. I would encourage policymakers to deepen and expand their understanding of transfer and support data systems that will enable us to capture much more of the student behavior around transfer then we have done in the past. We did a state-level study using a large dataset of transfer students in some of the “credit when it’s due” states and as many as half of the students who are in those data files had attended two or three institutions. These students are also called “swirlers”—sometimes we don’t call them transfer students—but they are students who are earning and moving credits from one institution or another. We have very little data on students who swirl even though they may make up half of the total number of students in state-level data files on transfer. Thousands of these students may be tossed out of transfer studies so we are missing a big portion of the students, and this phenomenon appears to be growing. How can you formulate policy when your definitions are eliminating half of the students and you don’t even know who they are or what they are doing? This is one problem with how we have traditionally thought about transfer, and why we get results we can’t interpret but have a hunch that they don’t accurately represent what’s going on. As higher education professionals we need to create improved data systems that describe to policymakers exactly what mobile students are doing moving from institution to institution.

Passport Q3: The National Student Clearinghouse reports that of students starting at a community college only, 5.6 percent transfer after receiving a degree or credential. Why are pre-transfer completions so low?

Students are going to community college to get what they need en route to the bachelor’s degree. Their goal is to get enough of an education to confirm that they can do college and move on to the baccalaureate. When they complete enough of their program and determine they’re ready to move on, they do so. Their goal is the baccalaureate so they are not attending the community college primarily to get an associate degree. I think they probably don’t understand what the value of an associate degree might be for them. The credentialing we’ve created doesn’t always match student motivation, goals and aspirations. Institutions want students to get an associate degree with performance measures that expect students to complete an associate degree but that isn’t necessarily what the students want. In addition, some academic majors offer advantages to students that transfer early. For example, it can benefit students in some STEM fields to complete one year at a community college and three years at the university, particularly in majors requiring a very sequential curriculum in advanced math and science. I understand it’s not a popular thing for higher education professionals who advocate for 2+2 articulation to hear but sometimes a community college doesn’t offer exactly what a student needs beyond a certain level. So some students who go into STEM fields get a good start at the community college and transfer when they feel they’re ready. Staying at the community college and completing an associate degree may actually delay the completion of their baccalaureate STEM degree. Without detailed advanced planning there can be a mismatch between an associate degree and what students need for a bachelor’s degree, particularly in STEM fields. Students need do what works for them academically and financially.

Because I stated that sometimes community colleges don’t offer exactly what students need to be able to transfer and complete the baccalaureate on time, I also want to point out that sometimes community colleges offer exactly what students need to not only get their associate degrees but also their baccalaureate. I have been researching community college baccalaureate degrees for over a decade now, and I am amazed by what we are seeing. Just in the past year five states granted community college systems or community college institutions the authority to confer baccalaureate degrees. Across the country, from South Carolina to Missouri to Wyoming to Idaho to Oregon, we’ve seen states make major changes in degree-granting authority of community colleges. Now these states are joining others to total 25 states that allow community college baccalaureate conferral. This structural change has major implications for addressing gaps in baccalaureate attainment for students of color, low-income, first-generation and other students historically underrepresented at the baccalaureate level. Much more research is needed and more is being done, with the support of major foundations such as Joyce and Lumina. Through a partnership with New America, CCRI is on the cutting-edge of some very exciting developments that can change the higher education landscape for decades to come.

This might be an interesting place to note that I transferred after one year of college to another institution. I was a 1+3 student, not in STEM or community college because I transferred from one university to another in an education program of study (I was preparing to be a teacher) but the 1+3 transfer served me very well. I’m very glad I did this and this experience may influence why I have always looked at transfer a little bit more through a student lens rather than system lens.

Passport Q4: We are hearing more and more about alternative transcripts, badges and microcredentials. Interstate Passport is based on learning outcomes in the lower-division general education block. What role could the Interstate Passport play as a transferable credential?

I am still learning about the Interstate Passport but I can say that there is labor market value, personal value and transfer value in credentials that codify attainment of learning outcomes. There is definitely value to credentials that can document when important learning outcomes are achieved. A lot of work will have to be done to help universities understand what credentials from community colleges signify but I do believe credentials can play an important role in college and career progression. However, transfer is ingrained with so many layers of complexity, bureaucracy and tradition that it makes change difficult. This again underscores the importance of having relevant data systems and the ability to track and report student progress and success.

Passport Q5: Your research has highlighted the importance of state and local policies to improve transfer productivity and student completions. Is there a role for a national transfer framework like the Interstate Passport given the increasing mobility of students?

There is definitely a great need for a lot of innovative and entrepreneurial thinking about transfer. The Interstate Passport challenges states and institutions to think about how they are going to approach transfer across state boundaries, recognizing increasing student mobility. The Interstate Passport is innovative, and it reminds us that the way we have historically built these systems with rules within states is not serving students well, including some of the students who stay within the state. When you look at the increasing mobility of students and the growth of online education, we have to find ways to support students throughout their entire higher education experience. I also value that the Interstate Passport work is emerging out of faculty discussions. I’m not an especially big fan of a federal structure because I fear that it would layer bureaucracy on top of bureaucracy, which would be problematic for everyone in higher education—students, faculty and administration. I think forward-thinking, grassroots, student-focused solutions should be incentivized because they have the potential to make the most impact on student success. I think we need more ways in which we bring transfer closer to the student and help students understand that we really do supports them personally, as individuals. It is so important to help students transfer more easily and help them feel valued in the transfer process.

Passport Q6: What role can the Interstate Passport play in increasing completion rates for underserved students?

Disproportionally large numbers of underserved students are transfer students. A very large proportion of students of color, low-income students, first-generation students, students who are immigrants, undocumented students, and students with disabilities are transfer students. I have no doubt that whatever solutions we can create to improve transfer can help to improve baccalaureate attainment for underserved populations. We have no choice. Transfer must improve and the more that can be done to think innovatively the better.

Passport Q7: Is there a particular statistic or set of statistics that got your attention throughout your career that helped you focus on student success?

Absolutely! The compelling concept that has driven our work is the notion of the racial transfer gap identified by Gloria Crisp, Oregon State University and Anne-Marie Nunez, University of Texas-San Antonio.* The racial transfer gap refers to the approximately 10 to 20 percent gap in baccalaureate degree completion between racially minority students (African American, Hispanic and Native American) and white students who transfer. This gap in degree completion for these underserved students and white students who transfer is consistent across many research studies, suggesting the gap is persistent and structural. Knowing this phenomenon is so pervasive that the fact that researchers can name it says a lot. It is disturbing that so little attention is paid to this concern in higher education, with so few demanding that more be done to close this gap. We feel compelled to do our part to continue our research and find ways to improve policy and practice. Better understanding of the gap and determining what factors cause it and how it can be reduced is a huge motivation for our work on addressing in the transfer process so that more students can obtain the baccalaureate degree they seek to achieve.

*See, “Understanding the Racial Transfer Gap: Modeling Underrepresented Minority and Nonminority Students’ Pathways from Two- to Four-year Institutions” by Gloria Crisp and Anne-Marie Nunez (2014), in The Review of Higher Education, 37 (3), pp. 291–320. (https://www.csuchico.edu/ourdemocracy/_assets/documents/teaching/crisp_nunez_2014—understanding-the-racial-transfer-gap.pdf)

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