How colleges can support students transferring to 4-year programs

Dr. Hal Higdon
Dr. Hal Higdon

Dr. Hal Higdon is chancellor of the Ozarks Technical Community College System and the OTC Springfield Campus president.Before OTC, Dr. Higdon worked in the administration at Mississippi Gulf Coast College and Faulkner State Community College. Dr. Higdon holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Alabama and graduate degrees from the University of Southern Mississippi.

How colleges can support students transferring to 4-year programs

Help transfer students clearly define their long-term plan

Assist students in outlining their academic plan from the beginning of their education program

Alert transfer students to financial resources

Give transfer students a go-to person

Although nearly half of all undergraduate students start at a community college, the likelihood of this group successfully transitioning from community college to a 4-year institution is low. Recent studies show, only 15% of community college students who intend to transfer on to a 4-year institution actually earn their bachelor’s degree within 6 years. That gap means more students are lost in the systems and structures of higher education, more students are burdened with student loan debt, and, ultimately, more students fail to attain their postsecondary goal.

Often for community college transfer students, key processes and important next steps are difficult to navigate. Moreover, the processes at times seem not even designed to support them. As we look to the future, it is the responsibility of higher education institutions, 2- and 4-year alike, to provide accessible supports and structures to ensure transfer student success.

By helping students define their goals you give them a vision for graduation and beyond, and by connecting them with their transfer institution early, you help them integrate and identify resources that will keep them enrolled.

At Ozarks Technical Community College (OTC) we currently exceed the national transfer student success rate. Through intentional student supports as well as strategic regional partnerships, we are ensuring students succeed at OTC and beyond. OTC and our nearby public university, and largest transfer destination, Missouri State University (MSU) have worked together to create a supportive structure to help more transfer students complete their educational goals. As a part of this work, OTC has spent the last 4 years redesigning our systems to better support students. From our experience, there are 4 important steps to ensure transfer student success.

  1. Help transfer students clearly define their long-term plan. While some students have dreamed of attending a specific institution since they were young children, many other students do not have a specific path in mind. For all students to be successful, it is essential to help them establish a clear vision for how they can define and achieve their life, career, and educational goals. Higher education institutions must proactively reach out to their students and connect them to the people and resources available to help them define and plan their goals. By helping students define their goals you give them a vision for graduation and beyond, and by connecting them with their transfer institution early, you help them integrate and identify resources that will keep them enrolled.
  2. Assist students in outlining their academic plan from the beginning of their education program. Research shows that institutions who help students chart their course to graduation achieve higher rates of student success. Using institutional degree audit and planning software, or even the tried-and-true method of pen and paper, all students should have a course plan leading them to graduation. Early and often, institutions should help students plan out which classes they will take each semester. This advising should make sure to account for prerequisites, the timing of course offerings, and include students’ preferred electives as much as possible. To help students understand the best path for their transfer goal, OTC and MSU have worked together to keep updated transfer plans for all degrees. These tools show students not only degree requirements but also suggest electives that can be taken at OTC to fulfill their MSU bachelor’s requirements. This saves them time and money when they move on to their 4-year institution.
  3. Alert transfer students to financial resources, including transfer scholarships and scholarships based on program, degree, or college. Incoming community college students may not understand all the free financial resources that are available to them at 4-year colleges or universities. The number one barrier most transfer students face to achieving their education is financial. When “life gets in the way” via unexpected expenses, loss of income, or variable family support, education is often the only expense students feel like they can cut. We have found that students succeed when we proactively reach out to make them aware, and better yet, help them complete applications for scholarships and financial assistance. Doing so helps them persist at your institution.
  4. Give transfer students a go-to person, someone who will walk with them through each step of the admissions, financial aid, and academic planning steps specific to transfer students. At both sending community colleges and partner transfer institutions, a go-to person is critical. Making early connections to the right person on campus creates a proactive approach to transfer student support. Research shows students with at least one on-campus supportive connection are the ones most likely to succeed. Institutions should provide that connection for students at the outset. At OTC, students are assigned a representative at admission. This single point of contact helps them through each step of the process. Having a go-to person can also connect students to needed resources for success, including academic support and tutoring, counseling, and the many other support services available. Institutions that have prioritized one point of contact for their students have noticed dramatic increases in student success and retention, so much so that this single approach might be the main difference institutions can make in helping their students succeed.

As higher education looks to the future, transfer student supports will be key to improved retention and success outcomes for institutions nationwide. Currently, there are over 600,000 community college transfer students. They are a dedicated population in need of new proactive strategies and success interventions. If institutions only make one change to better serve transfer students, the shift to proactive support is essential.


Ozarks Technical Community College (OTC) has committed our resources to ensure that students reach their educational goals. With only 15% of community college students who plan to transfer to a 4-year institution successfully completing their bachelor’s degree goal, this should be a priority of every institution. To improve the practices of our institutions, we recommend the following critical steps:

Make college transfer easy: 7 simple steps for transfer students

Clearly define your long-term plan: Why are you transferring? What career or life goals are you hoping to fulfill with your 4-year degree? With your end goal in mind, the path to transfer and achieving your end goal becomes clear.

Decide which bachelor’s or master’s degree to pursue based on your long-term plan. With your end goal in mind, pick the degree that will help you get there. If your desired career needs a specific bachelor’s degree or higher, you should consider institutions that offer those degrees. This leads to the next point…

Identify which college or university you will transfer to by making a list of your top picks for colleges and universities that offer the degree you need to execute your long-term plan. Apply to these institutions and hopefully receive acceptance letters. Now you have a short list of schools that offer exactly the degree you need and align with your long-term goals.

Contact your transfer school’s admissions department, or better yet, contact the specific department you will transfer into. No one can help you make better transfer plans than your next school’s specific department where you will transfer to. They will ask questions about your long-term goals, ask you to submit your academic transcripts, and give you a better understanding of the program you are planning to enroll in. When they have this information, they can often advise you about how your credits can transfer and even which community college classes you could still take to help your transfer process be smoother. Sometimes, they can even help you pick classes at your community college that can give you a jump start in your transfer program.

Transfer your FAFSA and seek out scholarships. Don’t forget to log in to the FAFSA website and send your financial aid application to your next school. While you’re at it, see if your transfer school offers scholarships for transfer students or people seeking your degree. You may be eligible for thousands of dollars, just for filling out a few applications.

Start early. The above steps should ideally be done at least one year before you plan to transfer. Even better, complete all of the steps above before starting at your community college. Doing so can help ensure you are taking the best classes to reach your long-term goal, with no time or money wasted.

Seek academic advising. Your community college and your transfer institution have teams of people ready to help you with all of the above steps. Sometimes they are called admissions representatives, academic advisors, transfer specialists, or college navigators, but regardless of their title, they all specialize in helping students like you take the right steps to reach their long-term goals. Whether you are not sure what your long-term goal is, or you have your plan in place, academic advising is designed to support students every single step of their journey, including transferring. Stay in frequent contact with your advisor at each school, at least once per semester, to make sure you are on track. Advisors, of all kinds, are experts in what they do and love helping students reach their goals. Use them as a resource and support system, that is what they are there for.

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