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Bill Tierney

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Examining Transfer Rates and Determining Success

Nancy Shulock’s Institute on Higher Education Leadership and Policy at Sacramento State is one of the better policy-oriented think tanks around. They consistently produce thoughtful and persuasive documents about a range of critical issues. They recently produced a document about effective state coordination and provided a case study of Washington’s State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

The case study is well done, and offers lots of useful recommendations about how other states can mimic what Washington has done. The monograph is useful because Washington has a reputation for doing things better than other states. I don’t doubt what the report says and a lot of the recommendations are the sorts of things I have written about other state boards in the past. But the report gave me pause.

How do we measure success? I’m particularly confused about how we measure success when we peg numbers as indices of success. “Two out of three times he strikes out when he come up to the plate,” sounds like cause for alarm, whereas “He hits a home run once every three times he comes to the plate,” would be amazing—and the guy would have a batting average that would get him into the Hall of Fame. Of course, those two statements could be made of the same guy—so which is it? Do we send him to the minors or Cooperstown?

Closer to home, if I told my dean “About 50% of my students learn something in my classes,” I’m betting she’d be worried. If an assistant professor told me, “I’ve had one article published in the last three years,” I’d be worried.

But what about if my dean said, “That’s not good Bill. I want you to do better. Here’s what Professor Smith does.” And she tells me, as best practice, how Professor Smith gets 55% of his students to learn something in her classes. What If I told the assistant professor, “That’s not good. You have to do better if you want tenure. Here’s what Professor Jones does.” And I tell the assistant professor, as best practice, how Professor Jones publishes two articles in three years.

I don’t think either my dean or I would be giving good advice. We don’t want students learning to hover around 50%. Someone who publishes two articles in three years won’t get tenure.

Here’s a table we’ve put together on graduation and transfer rates:


Graduation Rates*

Transfer Rates**


Not reported

Not reported







New York

Not reported

Not reported

North Carolina


















We can see that Texas’s community college system graduation rate is pretty darn low at 11%. Kentucky’s transfer rate of less than 9% would be laughable if it were not lamentable. But look at Washington in context and out of context. 31% graduate. 18% transfer. Compared to Texas and Kentucky those numbers are good.

Are they good enough to emulate or are they more like Professors Smith and Jones? If I told you that your son or daughter had about a 30% chance of graduating from a community college would you be comfortable? How about if you told me you wanted to get a BA, but you wanted to save money and go to the local community college first and then transfer, and I said that was a great idea. You then found out that one out of five students transfers. Would you come back to me for advice?

I know on other indicators Washington is a model for reform. But at a time when graduation and transfer is so critically important, shouldn’t we emulate states and policies that actually attain in a manner that we can be proud of rather than that they are simply a touch better than the other guy?

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