The typical path to a college degree in Iowa increasingly is branching off, taking detours and merging with others as public universities, community colleges and private schools find more ways to collaborate and cooperate in their degree and transfer options.
Of course, articulation agreements — which help community college students transfer credits to a four-year college or university — are nothing new. But some freshly paved degree paths are, including 3+1 or 3+3 or 2+2 agreements that let students at private, public and community colleges cut their time to a degree — and their expenses — by completing years of a program at one school and the remainder at another.
Some of the newer routes benefit students who want to home in early on a specific program and more narrowly tailor their course load. Others help students expand their resume and portfolios and capitalize on all the credits they’ve earned — regardless of where — at a time of low unemployment in Iowa, where demand is increasing for workers with postsecondary education.
That’s where the state’s benefits come in. Helping students of all socio-economic and demographic backgrounds find a path to post-high school education helps keep residents from leaving the state, which has been a problem. The efforts also increases student interest and thus enrollment in an uber-competitive landscape. And they move Iowa toward its goal, called Future Ready Iowa, of getting 70 percent of workers some form of higher education or training by 2025.
“The portability of credits is very important to students, as the ways in which people and students are building educational pathways are so unique,” Rachel Boon, chief academic officer for the Iowa Board of Regents, told The Gazette.
That higher-education creativity is “not going away,” Boon said.
“So I think we want to be a part of a solution, to make sure the quality of the education is very high,” she said.
The Board of Regents since 1981 has held an associate of arts degree articulation agreement enabling the “seamless transfer of academic credits” toward a bachelor’s degree from community colleges to regent universities. The most recent reaffirmation of that deal came in April 2018, when the board similarly re-upped its associate of science degree articulation agreement.
In March 2018, the state announced an effort to issue more associate degrees through the transfer process as well. A reverse credit transfer initiative helps students who move from any of Iowa’s 15 community colleges to any of its public universities — before they complete an associate degree or certificate — to still get that associate degree through their work toward a four-year degree.
To participate, transfer students agree to send their university transcripts back to their former community college, which then determines whether those students’ university credits have fulfilled associate degree or certificate requirements.
University students who participate and earn an associate degree through the reverse transfer program are ensured they’ll leave with something — should they withdraw before completing a bachelor’s degree. And associate degrees increase worker employability — with research showing those who earn them are more likely to finish a four-year degree.
Between October 2017 and September 2018 — after the Iowa Department of Education, Board of Regents, and community colleges signed memorandums of understanding to facilitate the data exchange — more than 7,300 unique visitors went to a new TransferInIowa.org website.
A University of Iowa transfer degree audit system had 3,037 unique visitors during that time; Iowa State University’s articulation planning website had 18,630 unique visitors; and the University of Northern Iowa’s site recorded 15,277.
Still, just as Iowa’s public universities have seen overall dips in enrollment of late, they’ve reported similar drops in transfer students — recording an 11 percent decrease in transfer students from fall 2017 to fall 2018.
Those coming to a regent institution from an Iowa community college, the majority of public university transfers, dropped 12 percent over the same period.
Thus, with tuition rising and Iowa demographics projecting increases in minority and first-generation high school graduates, the Board of Regents is prioritizing transfer ease.
“There are families for whom this absolutely is the best option for their way to control the cost of college, and we want to support them in that,” Boon said. “We want to be responsive to the needs of those families.
“Transfer is something we have to be attentive to.”
Encouraging transfer and cooperation among Iowa’s higher education entities are degree programs that pair two to three years at one school with two to three years at another — the number of years vary by program.
The University of Iowa, for example, offers a “2 plus 2 plan” for students wanting at the outset to earn an associate degree at a community college before transferring and spending two more years earning a bachelor’s from the UI.
Dozens of majors are available for 2+2 students, from accounting and economics to criminology or English or political science.
The university also holds more specific degree-cooperation agreements, such as its 3+3 College of Law program. That allows eligible undergraduates at partner institutions to apply to the UI law school in their junior year and — if admitted — complete their senior year through their first year of law school.
The deal enables students to earn both a bachelor’s degree and a law degree in six years. Partner institutions include private colleges — such as Coe College, Mount Mercy University and Cornell College — and public universities, including Iowa State.
The UI College of Nursing likewise has entered new agreements with several community colleges to allow their nursing graduates with associate degrees to seamlessly transfer to finish their bachelor’s degree of nursing in one year through a “RN to BSN 3+1.”
‘It’s super affordable’
That’s the program Michaela Kennedy, 20, and Jaicey Bowers, 21, plan to tap after they graduate from Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids with an associate degree in nursing this spring.
Both already have landed jobs in the UI Hospitals and Clinics and recently applied to the online program that will get them a bachelor’s degree.
“It’s super affordable that you can go here and then a four-year college,” Kennedy said.
After graduating from Linn-Mar High School in 2016, both Kennedy and Bowers considered heading straight to the UI but met with a counselor who suggested the most cost-efficient route probably would start at Kirkwood.
“When we were both trying to decide whether we wanted to start at the University of Iowa or Kirkwood, (the counselor) was like, ‘Kirkwood is where you’re going to get the most bang for your buck,’” Bowers recalled.
So both took the advice, moving through their general education requirements and basic nursing training at a lesser cost.
“You save thousands of dollars,” Bowers said.
Neither Bowers nor Kennedy plan to stop at their bachelor’s degree, as both want to continue at the UI and become nurse practitioners. And both are thankful for the abbreviated paths they’ve found en route to that end goal.
“Continuing education is important, and the fact that you can access that so easily — going from a community college to this huge university with all these resources and a hospital,” Bowers said.
Jon Buse, vice president of student services at Kirkwood, said the increase in collaboration between public, private and community colleges has helped students such as Bowers and Kennedy think ahead and plan better. Kirkwood students these days have greater access to advisers from the universities and private schools.
“The thing that has changed the most is the amount of time that four-year colleges and universities spend at Kirkwood networking and advising our students,” Buse said. “The universities all have office hours here. Most of the private schools do the same kind of thing.”
University counselor visits used to be a one-off event, according to Buse.
“The four years have greatly increased the amount of time they spend here on campus with students, and that is helpful for our students to be prepared,” he said.
With tuition going up and schools across the board striving to improve retention and graduation numbers, Buse said he doesn’t see the cooperation slowing.
“The reality is that more and more are choosing to start their careers at a community college,” he said. “And I think (the public universities) want students to succeed as much as we do. There is the growing realization that the more contact we have with students early on, the more likely they are to succeed.”
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