Valencia Haley graduated from Houston Community College with 60 credit hours, and the University of Houston accepted just 38 of them.
Twenty-two hours will go to waste, and Haley will now have to spend more time than she planned to get her bachelor’s degree. The 45-year-old U.S. veteran isn’t too upset — her school is paid for — but she knows not every student has that luxury.
“You think that you’re going to do your two years there and do two straight years here,” Haley said. “Sometimes your degrees don’t correlate. Mine didn’t.”
Houston’s community colleges and universities are working to make sure fewer students have that problem. Part of an ongoing partnership called Houston Guided Pathways to Success, or Houston GPS, local two- and four-year institutions are trying to coordinate their degree plans so students know exactly what courses transfer, reducing wasted time and money.
While the program has helped local colleges and universities improve their transfer numbers and graduation rates since its inception in 2012, far too many students still lose credit hours when making the leap from two- to four-year institutions, administrators say.
“We still have not reached the golden mark,” said University of Houston-Downtown President Loren Blanchard, who chairs the program’s governing council. “We have a lot of room to grow in terms of higher percentages of students that are completing these pathways.”
The problem is consistent around the country: Community college graduates take more credit hours than they need, according to researchers in the field, and not enough people enrolled in community college transfer programs make it to universities at all. About 31 percent of Texas community college students transfer out within six years, and 42 percent of those who transferred earned their bachelor’s degree in six years, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
Community college transfers also take longer to earn bachelor’s degrees — 7.6 years, compared to 5.5 years for people who begin at four-year institutions. The issue quickly becomes a financial one, with community college students already more likely to belong to groups with lower socioeconomic status.
Students struggle with transfers because the onus has traditionally fallen on them to research their course plans, said Davis Jenkins, senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center. Transfers don’t know that they usually waste credits when they change majors, and they sometimes wrongly assume that their courses apply at both their current and target schools.
Houston is especially complicated with many large two-year institutions feeding into universities, all of which have different majors and course requirements, Jenkins said.
“Transfer can be a very good deal, but of course if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s a nightmare,” he said. “Two-year and four-year institutions — not out of malice — have not served students well.”
Houston’s Guided Pathways to Success launched a decade ago as one of many programs across the country that sprang from Jenkins’ and his colleagues’ work identifying inefficiencies in the transfer process.
Guided Pathways provides communication channels for schools to align course mapping between associate’s and bachelor’s degree plans — and those have gotten more specific over time. Laurel Williamson, deputy chancellor at San Jacinto College, said the maps are constantly reworked to help students better navigate from a specific program at one college to a specific program at a university, including making sure community college courses meet the curriculum requirements at four-year institutions.
Colleges also rely on “intrusive” counseling, checking in with students at various points so they don’t fall off track. Not every student is expected to transfer once they receive an associate’s degree, Blanchard said, but the hope is to get the people who enroll in community college with the intent to transfer to follow through.
Over the past 10 years, the program recorded a 2 percent drop in the number of credit hours — from 149 hours to 146 hours — that transfer students took to graduate with a four-year degree at seven partner institutions. (For reference, it takes 120 hours minimum to graduate from the University of Houston.)
An increase in the six-year graduation rate for transfers is even more significant — a 21 percent jump from 59 percent to 71 percent graduating within that time frame.
The University of Houston, University of Houston-Clear Lake, University of Houston-Downtown, Houston Community College, Lone Star College, San Jacinto College and Wharton County Junior College were involved at the start of Houston GPS. Alvin Community College, College of the Mainland, Galveston College, Prairie View A&M University, Texas Southern University and University of Houston-Victoria have since joined.
Williamson, of San Jacinto College, said a new state funding model that rewards outcomes such as transfer rates will further incentivize community colleges to improve their processes.
Many of them already appeared to improve over the past few years — at Lone Star College, data shows that yearly transfers increased from 14,169 students in 2017 to 16,123 in 2022, despite headcounts dropping over the same period.
Enrollment also declined at Houston Community College, but transfers increased from 4,880 students in 2019 to 5,092 students in 2022, according to school data.
At the four-year level, institutions measure success with a bachelor’s degree. About 62 percent of UH transfer students who entered with 60 hours or more in 2019 graduated in three years, up from 53 percent a few years before.
Many transfer students attending a UH orientation on Tuesday said they encountered few problems in making the jump from community college, perhaps signaling the increasing success of the program.
Vincent Fortune said he struggled getting consistent answers from advisers at Houston Community College, but he still transferred to UH without losing any credits.
“It was a bit more work,” the 20-year-old said. “I had to get on multiple calls and multiple academic advisers.”
Alondra Salazar, 23, said she noticed similarities between her San Jacinto College program’s course plan and her new program’s course plan at UH.
“It was very smooth,” she said. “They lay out their guide, each class you have to take.”