How VCU became a leader in helping transfer students succeed

Nearly 40% of students who graduate from the university arrived as transfer students. “Our transfer students are a big part of making us who we are.”

A person leaning on a rail.
Tan Pham, a 2018 VCU graduate. (Impact magazine)

When Tan Pham immigrated to the United States and settled in Virginia in 2014, the Vietnam native knew two things for certain. The first was that he wanted to go to college to prepare for a successful future in his new country. The second was that he would not be able to afford tuition at a four-year university right away. As a new U.S. citizen, Pham would have to establish residency in Virginia for 12 months before he was eligible for in-state tuition.

Unwilling to compromise on his goal, Pham found a more affordable option. He enrolled in a two-year associate degree program at Reynolds Community College. There, he focused on a career in business and worked on campus as an accounting tutor. He transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University in 2016 to earn a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the School of Business.

“VCU was my goal from the beginning, but I had to do what was best for me financially,” Pham said.

Pham graduated debt-free in May 2019 with a double major in accounting and real estate. Now he owns and operates his own real estate company in addition to working full time as a tax associate in the Richmond office of Chicago-based accounting firm BDO.

“Reynolds and VCU both provided me with valuable real-world experiences,” he said, “and those experiences really made me feel prepared to succeed.”

Research shows that, nationally, nearly 2 million students enter higher education through community colleges each year. Eighty percent know from the beginning, like Pham, that their ultimate goal is to earn a bachelor’s degree. But not every transfer student’s story ends as successfully as Pham’s.

Navigating hardships

The highest degree offered by community colleges is an associate degree. Most students who attend community college do so as a steppingstone to earning a higher degree, said Seth Sykes, Ph.D., associate vice provost for transfer initiatives and programs at VCU.

“The top reason these students go to community college in the first place is to save money, because community college is much cheaper,” Sykes said.

Transitioning from community college to a four-year university can be a difficult process to navigate. The first challenge most students face is understanding the details of the admissions agreements their community college has with the universities they are considering. All Virginia public universities have guaranteed admission agreements with Virginia’s community colleges, but the requirements vary in each agreement. Deciding which university to attend and reviewing its agreement as early as possible ensures that students know what they need to accomplish and which classes they need to take to transfer successfully.

Once they arrive on their new campus, transfer students have to adjust to academic differences, such as larger class sizes and faster-paced courses, and figure out how to afford the higher cost of tuition.

“These hardships have consequences,” Sykes said. “There has been research showing that students who transfer from community colleges have lower success rates than students who start at four-year universities. A desire to improve those rates has led to a renewed focus on making sure institutions support transfer students the way they should be supported so that they can be more successful.”

The transfer experience is common to a significant portion of VCU’s student body. Nearly 40% of students who graduate from VCU come to the university as transfer students, Sykes said.

“Our transfer students are a big part of making us who we are,” he said. “They bring unique perspectives relative to their individual backgrounds. They come from different ethnic, racial, religious and socioeconomic upbringings. Many are pursuing their second or third careers. Some have raised families and are now pursuing the degrees they never got when they were younger. Having their perspectives on campus makes us better. Without them, we wouldn’t be VCU.”

Meaningful partnerships

Philanthropic partnerships have helped VCU stand out as a leader among Virginia public universities in launching initiatives to help transfer students succeed. In 2018, VCU received multiple grants to streamline the transfer pipeline for students coming from Virginia community colleges.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded $868,000 to VCU and $1.48 million to the Virginia Community College System in 2018 to strengthen collaborations among faculty at VCU and Richmond-area community colleges Reynolds and John Tyler. The grants help the partnering institutions improve academic advising services for students transferring to pursue degrees in the arts and humanities and develop guided pathways that provide those students with recommendations for curricular, cocurricular and experiential learning opportunities.

Additionally, in 2018, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute selected VCU as one of 57 schools in the U.S. to receive $1 million in grant support over five years as part of its Inclusive Excellence initiative. VCU is using the grant to work with Reynolds and John Tyler to develop an inclusive approach to advising and teaching that helps transfer students from underrepresented groups succeed in science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses.

“What these grants have in common is that they aim to unite university and community college faculty for a common goal,” Sykes said. “This funding is making it possible for us to transform the ways we support transfer students in and outside of the classroom.”

A helping hand

Although grant funding has helped VCU enhance its support services for transfer students, funding is still needed in some areas to ensure their success, Sykes said.

“Affordability is the primary reason that students choose to start out at community college instead of at a four-year university, so it’s not surprising that one of the most common questions we get from transfer students is about the scholarships VCU has available specifically for transfer students,” he said. “Unfortunately, the answer is that there aren’t many yet.”

The state offers grants for qualifying students transferring from the Virginia Community College System to a public university in Virginia, and VCU has allocated some institutional funds to offer a limited number of VCCS Transfer Scholarships each year.

Many students seek out privately funded scholarships to supplement those awards and offset the higher cost of tuition, Sykes said.

The Katherine Gomez Nelson Endowed Scholarship in the VCU School of Business is explicitly for transfer students. Established in 2017 with a $100,000 pledge from Katherine G. Nelson and her husband, John R. Nelson Jr., Ph.D., an emeritus member of the VCU School of Business Foundation board, the fund provides four scholarships annually to students who transfer to the VCU School of Business from community college and who demonstrate financial need.

The motivation to support transfer students at VCU came from a place of understanding, Katherine Nelson said. When she transferred to VCU from Reynolds in 1991, the process was confusing, and she remembers feeling like it was up to her to navigate the challenges on her own.

“Transferring was intimidating,” she said. “I want the students who receive our scholarship to know that someone else has been in their position and wants to help them feel supported in finding pathways to accomplish their goals.”

For Pham, graduating debt-free was a feat that would not have been possible without receiving the Katherine Gomez Nelson Endowed Scholarship in 2018. When he transferred to VCU, adjusting to the increased cost of tuition was one of his biggest challenges.

“I worked multiple part-time jobs for almost 40 hours a week while also going to school, so my campus life was pretty boring,” he said. “I went to work every day as soon as classes were over and did homework on my day off. I felt lonely sometimes, like no one was going to notice how much work I was putting in. Getting a scholarship made me feel like someone was there to congratulate me and help me along the way.”

It means more, Pham said, that Nelson was a transfer student.

“She knows the struggle,” he said. “I really appreciate that people like her understand our situation and want to do their part to help people like me have a chance at success.”

This story originally appeared in Impact magazine under the headline “Pathways to Prosper.”

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