While in school at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College in hopes of becoming a high school guidance counselor, Wendy Culp juggled a full-time course load with night shifts at Carolina Healthcare System and raising two young daughters.
When she transferred to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in the spring of 2014 one credit short of her associate degree, she learned about a new opportunity called “reverse transfer,” which would enable her to send credits from the university back to Rowan-Cabarrus, thereby earning her community-college credential.
She agreed to participate.
“I worked really hard for a really long time, and up until then, I had nothing to show for it,” Culp said. “I had no degree to say, ‘Look, kids — this is why you’ve sacrificed a bit of mommy time.’ It’s nice to show them an accomplishment. I have an 11-year-old,” she added, "and she’s pretty proud of me.”
Supported by a Credit When it’s Due grant from USA Funds, in collaboration with the Lumina Foundation, Kresge Foundation, Helios Education Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the University of North Carolina and the North Carolina Community Colleges systems launched the reverse-transfer pilot project in February 2013, with eight universities and 15 community colleges taking part.
This summer, the program hit a major milestone when the 1,000th North Carolina community college transfer student earned an associate degree through the program. Currently, all 58 community colleges are participating, and by the end of the fall semester, all 16 UNC campuses will be participating, as well.
“Scaling the program to the 74 public institutions in the state has been no small undertaking,” said Kate Henz, Associate Vice President for Academic Policy, Planning & Analysis and co-principal investigator of the grant. “We couldn’t have done it without the hard work of each of the institutions, particularly our lead community college, Central Piedmont, the program and IT staff at the system offices, and the support and vision of UNC President Tom Ross and former NCCCS President Scott Ralls.”
“I think it’s really terrific that we hit the 1,000-student milestone this past summer,” said Michelle Blackwell, director of reverse transfer for the UNC system. “As the program continues to grow, we expect to have more and more students earning degrees, and currently we are over 1,400 students with credentials.”
For community college transfer students, the reverse-transfer process unfolds almost effortlessly: If they have at least 16 college-level credits at a single institution when they begin the transfer process, their online student services account gives them the option to participate in the reverse-transfer program. If they elect to do so, the university sends their records back to the community college where they started. Once they have earned 60 total credit hours, the community college reviews the transcript and requirements of the degree, and if the student meets those requirements, the student receives his or her associate degree.
“It was a very simple process,” Culp said. “I checked ‘Yes, I’d like to do it,’ and signed my name, and six months later, they sent me an email saying, ‘Congratulations, it’s gone through.'"
Culp remembers feeling accomplished when she received her degree.
“There’s something about seeing that certificate,” she said.
University Transfer Department Chair Pat Baldwin (standing) and students (left to right) Derrick Chesson, Leah Edgar and Brenda Diaz at Pitt Community College's Student Success Center. Video: Students talk about the benefits of the Reverse Transfer Program.
Taste of Success
In addition to ensuring that more students earn their associate degrees, the reverse transfer program is intended to increase the number of North Carolinians with bachelor’s degrees.
In its current five-year strategic plan, Our Time, Our Future: the UNC Compact with North Carolina, the UNC system states its goal to increase the portion of North Carolinians with at least bachelor’s degrees from the current 26 percent to 32 percent by 2018. By 2025, the University hopes to elevate that share even further, to 37 percent, which would position North Carolina among the top ten most educated states.
“We know, because of all the data we have seen, that students who complete the associate degree are more likely to complete the baccalaureate degree,” said Tom Gould, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Pitt Community College in Greenville. “They’ve got a taste of success.”
Because many community college transfer students are working part-time and/or supporting families, many are not able to attend the university full-time and may take five, six or seven years to earn their bachelor’s degrees, Gould said. “Having the associate degree along the way gives them a boost in motivation as they work toward the bachelor’s degree.”
Wesley Beddard, Associate Vice President of Programs of the NC Community Colleges, pointed out that if “life happens” — if health or family or finances prevent transfer students from finishing their bachelor’s degrees — the reverse transfer program enables them to walk away with at least an associate’s.
“Our primary goal is to get students credentialed,” Beddard said. “It helps students be more marketable.”
At Pitt Community College, which boasts one of the most successful reverse transfer programs thus far, 158 students have retroactively earned their associate’s degrees, Gould said, and almost 150 more are in the pipeline.
“It’s a pretty significant number,” Gould said. “It’s increasing each semester as more students are becoming aware of it, as the university is getting us student information.”
Gould attributes the success of the program overall to the cooperation between the Community College and University systems in North Carolina. In addition to collaborating on the reverse-transfer initiative, the two systems have recently revised the Comprehensive Articulation Agreement, a statewide agreement governing the transfer of credits from community colleges to universities. The new agreement makes the transfer path more uniform, transparent and clearly defined.
“The partnership between the two systems has never been stronger,” Gould said. “You talk to higher-ed professionals in other states, and they’re jealous of what North Carolina has. The two systems working in such close concert to offer that completion goal is pretty unique across the country.”
Looking to the Future
After years of working dead-end jobs at fast food joints, Robert Pope decided to pursue higher education at Central Piedmont Community College. Like Culp, Pope transferred to UNCC several years in and earned his associate degree through the reverse-transfer program.
When Pope graduated from UNC Charlotte in December 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, he became the first member of his family to hold bachelor’s degree.
Still, as someone who struggled with health issues including ADHD, he was especially proud of his associate degree.
“The associate degree was for me,” Pope said. “With ADHD comes not finishing things I start. I wanted to break that; I wanted to finish what I started. I started at community college, and I wanted an associate degree.”
Plus, he said, “My Dad was a degreed alumni of Central Piedmont, and I wanted to be one too.”
Pope sees the reverse-transfer program as hugely beneficial for nontraditional students like himself — and “people who, for whatever reason, didn’t start out on the right path but are trying to get there.”
Because the reverse-transfer program is still so new, researchers are still investigating its impact on baccalaureate degree completion, but administrators and students are hopeful.
For her part, Wendy Culp is optimistic. Bolstered by her associate degree, she plans to complete her bachelor’s in elementary education from UNCC and then pursue a master’s in guidance counseling.
One day, she hopes to be in the position to offer young students advice, so they know their options better than she did when she was graduating from high school.
“I didn’t have people reaching out to me and saying, ‘You can go to college. These are your options…,” she said. “I want to help students see their potential and know what is available to them.”
Written by Christina Cooke, Freelance Writer
Homepage photo: Graduate from Pitt County Community College
Posted October 6, 2015