The University of Illinois has launched a statewide initiative aimed at helping students transfer to and ultimately graduate from the university.
With a $900,000 grant from the Lumina Foundation of Indianapolis, the university plans to partner with community colleges around the state, boost its recruiting of transfer students and beef up support to transfer students once they arrive on campus.
"The wonderful thing about community college is it's a way for students to access (the University of) Illinois even if they're not able to come here as freshmen or didn't choose us as freshmen," said UI Vice Provost Ruth Watkins, who is directing the initiative.
As the cost of attending a four-year university climbs, community colleges are becoming a more favored route out of high school, she said. The university, however, has traditionally aimed most of its recruitment efforts and outreach activities on high schools.
"We're such a freshman-focused institution," Watkins said.
To really ramp up and do new things, institutional changes will need to occur, she said.
One of the goals of the initiative is for the UI to form stronger relationships with eight to 10 community colleges in the state. The list has not been determined yet.
Around the country, individual community colleges are partnering with individual four-year institutions and creating transfer agreements, said Suzanne Walsh, a program director with the Lumina Foundation.
"The fact that a large state system like Illinois is willing to take on this issue in a big way is what excited us," Walsh said.
"What everybody – the Illinois Community College Board, Illinois Board of Higher Education, University of Illinois – shares is the goal of promoting the baccalaureate-degree completion program. Everyone wants to see students achieve," Watkins said.
The university does not have a set number of transfer students it would like to accept, but it would like to increase the number of them, she said.
The number of transfer students enrolled in the UI varies annually. In recent years, the number has declined from 1,277 in 2000 to 866 this fall.
Reasons for the drop could vary, such as the university's recruitment efforts or the high number of credit hours required for students to transfer, said Keith Marshall, UI associate provost for enrollment management, which oversees the offices of admissions and records and financial aid.
"We'll try to remove those barriers," Marshall said.
Typically, students who transfer to the UI have junior status because of the UI's 60-credit-hour requirement. Most state schools require 24 to 30 credit hours to transfer, Marshall said. This past summer the UI's Council of Deans, made up of the heads of the various units on campus, agreed to reduce the 60-credit hour requirement when possible, beginning next fall.
In the case of Bryan Vuong, who transferred to the UI three years ago with 80 credits, he found he had a lot of credits he ended up not needing. The Chicago resident had lived at home and taken classes at UI-Chicago and at Truman College, a community college in Chicago, before deciding to transfer to the UI College of Business. Early in his college career, he sometimes took classes for the sake of taking classes. That cost him a lot of money.
He's also realized not all community college and university college courses in the state are made equal. Vuong learned that when he arrived on campus that first semester and enrolled in a Chinese language class that seemed like the next logical step after the course he'd taken at UIC. But the UIC class was four credit hours, compared with five credit hours on the Urbana campus. The Chinese class he enrolled in at Urbana ended up being too advanced for him.
"As a transfer student you're essentially a freshmen," he said, referring to how much information transfer students come armed with. Treat transfers as freshmen, he said. "Give us a lot more information" early on.
With the Lumina Foundation grant, which will fund two staff positions, the university will be visiting community colleges more, printing more informational items about, for example, what students would need to transfer to the Urbana campus. They may also do such things as bring speakers to the colleges who will talk about the UI educational experience.
They also hope to establish an adviser program, where students can access an academic adviser before transferring to the UI, Watkins said. The adviser would provide information on coursework that would "bridge" the student from the community college to the university.
"Transfers have a mindset of wanting to get it (their education) done as soon as possible. They're more driven," said Vuong, now a UI graduate student in accounting.
But one thing many lack is a busy social calendar, he said.
Vuong had friends who started at the UI as freshmen and were a part of the Greek system on campus, but he had no intention of pledging a fraternity as a junior.
That led him to organize Transfers United, a social and service organization for transfer students.
In addition to the group he established, another transfer student organization, Transfer Mentors, sprang up while he has been a student here.
The UI also intends to establish a trained "cadre" of former transfer students who would act as mentors, Watkins said.
"They could provide assistance before students come and once they get here," she said.
Some of the UI's work will also entail expanding financial aid to transfer students and raising money to do that but also helping the students navigate the financial aid process.
Recently Watkins and Marshall have visited colleges around the state and talked with administrators there about their interest in partnering with several community colleges. Often, "the first thing that comes up is financial aid," Watkins said.
"It isn't just aid, but assistance," she said, such as making sure the students are aware of what paperwork needs to be filled out, what are their options for funding their education and how to balance loans with scholarships.