UCLA Community College Review: Reverse Transfer and Multiple Missions of Community Colleges

By Yang, Po | Community College Review, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

UCLA Community College Review: Reverse Transfer and Multiple Missions of Community Colleges


Yang, Po, Community College Review


A growing number of students, called reverse transfer students, attend community colleges at the same time they are enrolled at a four-year institution or after they earn a bachelor's degree. This article explains the motivations and effects of reverse transfer on both students and institutions, and it discusses the potentially positive consequences of reverse transfer in relation to community colleges' multiple missions. Future empirical analyses of the efficiency and equity effects of reverse transfer are critical for developing effective institutional interventions and helping state policymakers to design more coordinated higher education systems that enhance student and institutional performance.

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Community colleges enroll many different types of non-traditional students; one such group consists of reverse transfer students. Reverse transfer refers to a particular college attendance pattern "whereby students matriculate at a four-year college and transfer to a two-year school" (Townsend, 1999, p. 1). Given that a significant proportion of undergraduate students move back and forth between four- and two-year institutions, it is useful to investigate the origin and social impact of this trend. One issue is that reverse transfer creates an effect in which more educationally privileged students crowd out those for whom the community college is the only option (Winter & Harris, 2000). Such an effect could increase the inequality in resource allocation within community colleges and threaten these institutions' "democratic mission" to serve the most disadvantaged populations (Brint & Karabel, 1989).

Do reverse transfers crowd out the less-qualified potential students? A few studies of this effect have been conducted at the institutional level (Winter & Harris, 2000; McHugh, 2003). However, Phelan (1999) notices that most states lack "a complete and clear understanding of the nature, behaviors, and motivations of reverse transfer students" (p. 79), which would greatly impact our understanding of the effects of reverse transfer on other college students. This lack of knowledge is not surprising because researchers have not yet built a satisfactory analytical framework to understand reverse transfer that links institutional change with student interest.

This article applies organizational theory about the multiple missions of community colleges to explain the occurrence and effects of reverse transfer on both students and institutions and to offer a counter perspective to more or less negative interpretations of the phenomenon. Here, organizational theory is useful in two respects. First, it hypothesizes a correlation between the mission expansion of two-year colleges and reverse transfer. Studying reverse transfer from the perspective of organizational theory thus provides an opportunity to understand the effects of the dynamic evolution of two-year college missions on students and institutions (Bailey & Averianova, 1998). Second, organizational theory enables us to pinpoint potentially positive consequences of reverse transfer in relation to community colleges' multiple missions. With such knowledge, policymakers and college administrators can improve the way they recruit and retain transfer students, align two-year and four-year college curricula and pedagogy, and adjust performance measures for public two-year institutions (Phelan, 1999; Townsend & Dever, 1999; Townsend, 2001b). Overall, both positive and negative potential effects of reverse transfer have to be studied in order to understand the complexity of this phenomenon.

Definition and Scope of Reverse Transfer

A growing number of students attend community colleges at the same time they are enrolled at a four-year institution or after they earn a bachelor's degree. Following Townsend and Dever's (1999) terminology, these students are commonly referred to as undergraduate or temporary reverse transfer students and post-baccalaureate reverse transfer students, respectively. …

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