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Perspective | Strengthening transfer together: Who do we need at the table?

Over the past six weeks, we’ve made the case for community college transfer. We’ve identified the talent that we need to connect to postsecondary opportunities, and we’ve outlined two key strategies to get it done.

For transfer to work as intended, postsecondary, K-12, and business leaders all need to be at the table. Students from all corners of the state need to see higher education as an attainable option. Community colleges and 4-year institutions must work together to provide an affordable, seamless pathway to a bachelor’s degree. And employers can embed applied, hands-on learning opportunities in those pathways.

In the final installment of our series, we share how to strengthen transfer together.

Community college transfer is not only a talent development strategy. What’s good for students is good for business. Six out of the 10 highest-wage fields in the state now prefer bachelor’s degrees for entry-level roles. 

However, the community college pipeline continues to shrink. The latest legislative report on the Comprehensive Articulation Agreement (CAA) shows that fewer North Carolina community college students are transferring to a University of North Carolina institution.

We need to ensure more students with associate degrees transfer, and we need to provide them with academic, social-emotional, and basic needs supports to ensure they thrive. If we do this right, they’ll outperform their peers who started as freshmen. That’s how North Carolina will remain a business leader.

But it takes a village of partners to ensure students take this leap in their postsecondary journeys. 

Local industry partners can provide students with targeted training and skills development opportunities.

Individuals are more likely to complete their associate’s and bachelor’s degrees when they access internships, apprenticeships, and research experiences. When employers open these opportunities, they access this otherwise untapped pool of talent.

When Wolfspeed and North Carolina A&T State University developed their semiconducting hub, they were searching for talent to enter one of the fastest-growing fields in the country. Who better to launch this new enterprise than community college students? With the right academic and skills-based experiences, they’re poised to meet the demand.

Meanwhile, Johnston Community College saw the opportunity to meet growing demand in biotech as early as high school, and offered a biotechnology certification to all Johnston County public high school students — ensuring they have a critical steppingstone to a biotech pathway in community college. Major employers in the Triangle region like Novo Nordisk and Grifols are searching for the next wave of workers. Now, students are even better prepared to meet the call for talent. 

K-12 systems and community colleges must deepen their collaboration.

The North Carolina Career and College Promise is a big step in that direction. Public high school students can take community college courses for free through dual enrollment, meaning that they can shorten their time to degree and become more likely to earn a postsecondary credential.

Durham Technical Community College and Durham Public Schools are showing us what this looks like in practice. They are among the first to set a specific goal: a quarter of high school students will graduate with a college credential, including an associate degree. And they’re aiming to achieve it with programs beyond dual enrollment. Durham Tech instructors are advising students on the pathways they can take to workforce credentials and college degrees. 

Community college and 4-year partnerships need to expand.

This could take the form of joint pathways beyond one or two disciplines. Or it could look like a 4-year institution expanding its network of community college partners. Either move will ensure more community college students see transfer as a realistic option. 

The University of North Carolina-Wilmington (UNCW) is laying the groundwork with their newly minted PathWays initiative. Eligible students from North Carolina’s Great 58 — whether they’re pursuing an AA, AS, AE, AATP, ASTP, or AFA — will have a clear pathway to UNCW. This means that they can apply for guaranteed transfer admission, receive support from a transfer student success coordinator, and earn additional scholarship opportunities and fee waivers.

This is collaboration at scale.

So are initiatives like last month’s statewide application week. More than 40 4-year colleges and universities and all 58 community colleges teamed up to offer application fee waivers, removing a critical barrier to the admissions process.

For this transfer ecosystem to work, we need to expand support for collaborative entities like the Transfer Advisory Committee (TAC). This joint North Carolina Community College System and UNC System group, representing key public postsecondary stakeholders, can promote more intentional collaboration — especially through more seamless data sharing. 

What if we had a better handle on the students not transferring — and when they began to struggle? What if 4-year institutions had easy access to students’ transcripts and could provide more real-time advising to ensure they select the right courses? Imagine if students could go on a website and identify the courses at their community college that are eligible for credit at any 4-year institution in the state.

The TAC can help make a statewide, tech-focused transfer platform a reality. They can draw on the expertise of external partners like myFutureNC, North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities, and others to strengthen advisor professional development and identify fields ripe for transfer pathways that lead to high-demand careers.

These are attainable solutions. And they can open the doors to 4-year campuses for transfer students across the state.

By accelerating our commitment to transfer, we can strengthen North Carolina’s families, businesses, and communities. But we can only do this work together.

Audrey J. Jaeger

Audrey J. Jaeger, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research.