College affordability discussions continue to be at the forefront of the national discourse, and the nation’s pressing need to make college more affordable and accessible is more critical than ever. Due to the physical, financial, emotional and social disruptions caused by COVID-19, undergraduate student enrollments are 6.5 percent lower than they were two years ago, and barriers to enrollment for historically minoritized students—particularly Black and Indigenous students—have only increased since the onset of COVID-19. Amid vast changes in workforce needs and the educational impacts of the pandemic, particularly learning loss, one fact remains unchanged: postsecondary education is worth it for today’s students. Return on investment data leave no doubt that earning a quality degree or credential is worth students’ time, money and effort.
To ensure students can access and succeed in affordable postsecondary pathways that lead to high-wage, high-demand jobs, our two organizations—HCM Strategists and the Institute for Higher Education Policy, with support from ECMC Foundation—are building a new concept we’ve dubbed a Transfer Affordability Guarantee (TAG), beginning with state and institutional partners in Arizona, Illinois and Virginia. Studies have found that for every 100 students who enroll in community colleges, 31 students transfer to a four-year institution. Of those, only 14 complete a bachelor’s degree within six years. We know that no one starts college intending to stop out, and we are designing TAGs so that the other 86 out of 100 students who start at a community college have greater opportunity to make it across the bachelor’s-degree finish line.
Based on our prior fieldwork and research, including initiatives such as IHEP’s Degrees When Due and HCM’s Tackling Transfer and the insights and recommendations of the Tackling Transfer Policy Advisory Board, we know current transfer pathways do not provide the holistic supports transfer students need to reach their personal or postsecondary goals.
In contrast, TAGs ensure students who start at a community college can complete a bachelor’s degree in a timely manner by guaranteeing that all credits apply to completion and ensuring clear communication to the student of the cost and time to degree. The four key elements of a TAG are:
- Seamless credit transfer and applicability. Nationwide, 43 percent of credits are lost through the transfer process. A TAG ensures that credits are seamlessly transferred from a two-year to a four-year institution and apply to completion of a bachelor’s degree.
- Provide set cost. Loss of transfer credits means taking more classes—often repeating coursework—which creates financial burden for students, including the increasing nontuition costs associated with a postsecondary credential. A TAG provides a set cost agreement that will not change over the course of the student’s path toward a degree.
- Clear time to a degree. Institutions offering TAGs provide wraparound student supports to ensure students complete their degree in a more time-efficient manner.
- Direct communication to students. Clear information can go a long way toward keeping students on the path to completion. To ensure students, particularly historically marginalized students, enjoy the benefits a TAG can provide, institutions that offer TAGs will develop clear, consistent and direct messaging to connect with students and ensure both awareness of and participation in a degree pathway.
We know that a program is only as good as its implementation, so we’re starting with data, being intentional about outcomes and accounting for policies that will ensure TAGs are sustainable. When examining baseline data, we worked with our state and institutional partners to disaggregate by key characteristics such as Pell eligibility, race and ethnicity, and age, to set goals for increased postsecondary attainment through TAGs. To ensure the TAGs provide students—and their communities—a return in the workforce, current efforts focus on high-wage, high-demand pathways. To promote long-term sustainability and scale, we are calling on state leaders to prioritize data transparency, make data-informed decisions and partner with trusted community organizations to find additional avenues to effectively communicate the value to students, particularly students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.
Arizona, Illinois and Virginia began this challenging but rewarding effort in spring 2021, and they are making progress every day toward implementing TAGs for their students. Though each state has a different landscape, different challenges and a different mix of participating institutions, the overarching goal remains the same: create student-centered pathways with a commitment to equity, set costs and time to degree.
As we support each state in building TAGs, we will continue to engage the field and share key lessons learned. We have no doubt that this work will spur innovation in the transfer space and more states will raise their hand to be “it.”