Aspen Institute lauds CSU success initiatives for community college transfers

Colorado State University students have remarkable success — even when they start at another campus, according to The Aspen Institute.

When the subject is access to higher education, the discussion often turns to the role played by community colleges. They can be good places for both traditional and non-traditional students to get their foot on the first rung of a college education.

AspenLogoWhiteOnBlue_640x480Unfortunately, the percentage of students who start at a community college, transfer to a four-year college or university, and complete a baccalaureate degree is much lower than many people think. Nationally, 80 percent of students who begin in a community college aim to earn a bachelor’s degree; only about 14 percent achieve that goal within six years. CSU has been highlighted by The Aspen Institute as a place where productive partnerships improve the outcomes for students who transfer from two-year and four-year schools.

Graduation rates

At CSU, the graduation rate for students who transfer from two-year colleges is 69 percent, slightly exceeding the university’s six-year graduation rate of 68 percent for students who enter as first-time, full-time freshmen.

That success rate is why CSU is featured as one of the universities nationwide that have addressed “the broken transfer system” in “The Transfer Playbook: Essential Practices for Two- and Four-Year Colleges,” released earlier this month by the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program and the Community College Research Center at Columbia University.

The report looked at six pairs of highly effective community college and university partnerships and found that some of the most successful programs for transfer students occur when leaders at both levels work to align academics and expectations. CSU was paired with Front Range Community College, and as FRCC President Andrew Dorsey says in the report, “We’re not going to offer courses that don’t transfer.”

“It is in the best interest of the University for all of our students to be successful,” said CSU Provost and Executive Vice President Rick Miranda. “We know from our data that our student success initiatives have been helping more students, no matter how they come to CSU, complete their degrees in a timely manner, but to receive national recognition and validation for our work from the Aspen Institute and the Community College Research Center at Columbia University is extremely gratifying.”

Each year, CSU enrolls about 1,500 transfer students, from both two- and four-year institutions, about a third of the number of first-time students. The number of transfer students has increased 16 percent over the last three years. Transfer students have accounted for more than half of each graduating class since 1995.

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Efforts to improve the educational experience and graduation rates of transfer students began nearly 20 years ago, when Paul Thayer, who recently retired as the university’s first associate vice president for student success, convened a team of administrators and academics from across campus to examine the issue from top to bottom, with absolutely no questions off limits.

“Paul asked the most important questions: What were the patterns, why were they happening, and what can we do to make things better?” recalled Alan Lamborn, associate provost for educational attainment.

One of the first initiatives, cited by the Aspen Institute, was a 2000 report identifying and exploding myths about transfer students. For example, Thayer’s group found that CSU faculty thought transfer students accounted for 3 percent to 10 percent of the undergraduate student body when, in fact, transfer students were 40 percent of all undergraduates.

“All the credit goes to Paul and others across campus for working tirelessly over many years to change the way the University thinks about what students, from whatever background, need to successfully achieve their goals at Colorado State, and then changing whatever needed to be changed to meet those needs,” Lamborn said.

Essential practices

The three “essential practices” identified in the Aspen Institute report are all in place at CSU:

  1. Make transfer student success a priority
  2. Create clear programmatic pathways with aligned high-quality instruction
  3. Provide tailored transfer student advising.

“We’re always working to improve the experience for students at CSU, both inside and outside the classroom,” Miranda said. “We hope that sharing our successes to date with transfer students with other institutions can help the nation’s higher education system effectively serve a wider population in the future.”

“The Transfer Playbook” also includes a step-by-step checklist on improving transfer outcomes for both community college and university leaders. The entire report can be downloaded at and more information is available at