Our University – Reverse Transfer

Reverse transfer is the growing phenomenon of students leaving a four-year institution, like our university, and going to community colleges.  This is called reverse transfer because; when community colleges were initially established the purpose was for technical training, adult education, and preparation for universities, all at low cost and high efficiency.

It is called reverse transfer because it is backwards.

There are many factors that encourage reverse transfer and they are described in a new study by Sara Goldrick-Rab in the Sociology of Education.  I believe the study is reliable, well executed and applicable to circumstances around our university and the students who study here.

The primary causes of reverse transfer, according to experts and university leaders, are financial problems usually associated with students from low income families.

This study breaks that mold and even goes to a more fundamental issue than socio-economic status and lands in an odd place…the parents’ level of education and poor previous academic performance of the student.  And like it or not, the two are linked, not in particular by this study, but by common sense and experience.

Students are not likely to perform well, who have not proven themselves in high school, but somehow are enabled to attend a university through nearly open admissions, freely-flowing financial aid, a desire on the part of the university to increase enrollment, or any of a multitude of factors that do not lead to academic excellence or success.

Desire and commitment must come before university success.  This dynamic duo grows in families and life experiences where students are encouraged to work hard and be responsible for their own successes and failures.

These twins of motivation, coupled with a modest measure of ability, will almost always lead to success for the student.  In defense of our university and others like it that want to serve people in their lifetime goals, desire and commitment are nearly impossible to predict except from past performance.  Our compassion time and again encourages us to give someone a chance to prove the rules wrong, but it makes it that much more tragic when so many fail to make the transition to university life

We are not talking about rocket science or brain surgery, and I am not even sure either of those bastions of intelligence are all they are cracked up to be.

In the past I have heralded the value of the community college for providing students a chance to get started.  Some feel that universities are so much better to get started that they are willing to encourage attendance even when it is well known in advance that failure is likely.  Who is served?

This is not a cold or heartless perspective, but one fueled by a student’s past performance.

Rather it is the idea that a student who has not performed well is likely not to perform well in the future unless there is a change of heart about education, its opportunity and its purpose.

I would postulate that, all other things being equal, universities with high reverse transfer rates admit unprepared or unqualified students, a prognostication based on the facts of the Goldrick-Rab study.  Better to start at the community college, and make success a forward transfer.


Demosthenes said, “Small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises.”

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