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North Carolina Independent Colleges & Universities
Private Higher Education
Date Approved

When Americans think about higher education their first thought tends to be about college and university campuses with picturesque foliage that offer four-year bachelor’s degrees. But this focus ignores the 41% of undergraduates who are enrolled in the nearly 1,500 community colleges across the U.S. While many community college students enroll only to earn a two-year degree, 80% of community college students indicate their desire to earn a bachelor’s degree. Unfortunately, only 31% of students actually transfer to a four-year institution within six years and, even more troubling, less than 15% of community college students who set out to earn a four-year degree do so within six years. Students who succeed in transferring risk losing, on average, 43% of their earned credits or roughly an entire semester’s worth of college credits.  And the cost of making up that lost credit can exceed $34,000.

In 2020 the Teagle Foundation and AVDF partnered to address some of the underlying causes of credit loss and degree completion failure for community college students transferring to independent four-year institutions. This initiative provided grant funding to consortia and/or private four-year liberal arts colleges across 19 states. These efforts have focused on creating curricular frameworks and articulation agreements between community colleges and independent institutions in those states to facilitate more efficient credit transfer which in turn allows students from any community college to transfer to any independent college in the target states. Teagle and AVDF staff describe this work as solving the “paperwork problem.”

As a result of these efforts, students can transfer their associate’s degree credits with a guarantee that general education credits at the receiving institution are satisfied. In addition, the state networks involved in the project have created a series of “major pathways” that allow community college graduates to plot their coursework so that they can complete the four-year degree in two years post transfer.

However, solving the paperwork problem does not solve all of the problems. Even after the frameworks are created and the agreements signed, it can be extremely challenging for potential transfer students to determine how their current and future credits will transfer to various four-year institutions in ways that allow them to earn the four-year degree in their chosen major.

To navigate this challenge, students need an online tool that allows them to input their educational objectives, along with their actual and potential course credits, and from this determine the optimal path to degree completion. Such an online tool would be analogous to the many online travel tools that are currently available, like Expedia or Travelocity. These tools allow travelers to input days and times for their travel, intended destinations, local transportation needs, lodging, and dining requirements, and more, and then summarizes their travel options and costs. Transfer students need something analogous—an “Expedia for transfer.”

The challenges to creating an educational technology tool of this sort are numerous. Multiple institutions maintain student records with different content management systems, course equivalencies are often unclear or indeterminate, and the technology required to navigate these challenges requires complex code.

In 2024 a coalition of funders led by Teagle and AVDF launched a pilot effort in North Carolina that aims to overcome these challenges. Working with the educational technology provider Acadeum, the North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities (NCICU) will build and launch an “Expedia for transfer” platform for community college students in North Carolina who are exploring transfer to independent colleges in the state. Because of their market penetration (in North Carolina and other states) Acadeum is well positioned to add transfer technology capability to a platform that its clients already use. This makes it much more likely that the pilot project can be scaled quickly to clients in other states, and even opens the prospect of creating transfer capabilities across state lines.

In 2023, Acadeum undertook a market and customer discovery research initiative with NCICU and the Ohio Foundation of Independent Colleges (another Teagle-AVDF grantee) to refine their understanding of what participating schools, students, and state association partners need and desire when it comes to technology to power the transfer initiatives and curricular frameworks that Teagle and AVDF are creating. That process confirmed that institutions are eager to have a student-facing tool of this sort that will (a) allow students to create a “digital wallet” with all of their academic credentials, (b) allow students to engage in prospective degree planning, (c) allow receiving institutions to automate the process of granting course credit, and (d) allow four-year institutions to monitor course credit completion in ways that allow community colleges to offer “reverse transfer” degrees to students who complete associate’s degree requirements after transferring.

In addition to Teagle and AVDF, the $1.3 million project is supported by the ECMC Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Belk Foundation. In addition, the Lumina Foundation has agreed to provide funding to NCICU to cover their administrative costs for the project.

“We are fortunate in North Carolina to have both a comprehensive articulation agreement for students to be able to transfer the first two years of college courses and we also have discipline-specific agreements for those students who know the major they wish to pursue,” said Dr. Hope Williams, the president of NCICU. “We are grateful to the funders of this project for helping us use world-class technology to streamline the transfer process with our partners from the North Carolina community college system.”

“Continuing to enhance transfer opportunities for North Carolina’s community college students is critical to helping them continue their education and improve their social and economic mobility,” said Dr. Jeff Cox, president of the North Carolina Community College System. “We are proud to partner with NCICU to strengthen the transfer process to help our students achieve both associate and baccalaureate degrees.”

The transfer tool should be available for student use by the end of the 2024-2025 academic year for students to begin the transfer process as early as 2025.