The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Meet Barack Obama and Donald Trump, college failures. Really?

I was once a college transfer student. It seemed okay at the time. But I am learning that people who switch colleges these days, particularly if they are coming from a two-year community college, are often treated no better than cogs in a wheel, if they get any attention at all.

That is what I am learning from Bart Grachan, a cheerful but sardonic associate dean for progress and completion at LaGuardia Community College, which is part of the City University of New York. I introduced myself after admiring some of his writing and found him to be an unusually candid, yet hopeful, guide to the problems of community college students.

That group makes up nearly half of undergraduates in the country. Yet only about 15 percent of students who start at a community college attain a four-year bachelor’s degree. One possible reason, Grachan explained: Four-year schools lust after high graduation rates, so their efforts tend to focus on the students who count toward that — and transfer students don’t.

“Transfer students are washed out of college reporting because they’re only included in data for the school where they started college, not for the school that enrolls them next,” he said.

Here is Grachan’s favorite example of this injustice: “Barack Obama and Donald Trump are both, statistically, college failures. Both transferred, so technically, no school ever reported them in their graduation statistics, and two schools [in their cases Occidental College and Fordham University] had to report them as failures to complete.”

Whatever your view of those gentlemen’s later accomplishments, you have to admit that’s unfair and inaccurate. And it gets worse. Not being able to boost the completion rate of the college they have transferred to means that school has little incentive to help them succeed.

The National Center for Education Statistics, part of the U.S. Education Department, has begun to provide some data on transfers but does not include their completion figures in its report on “Overall Graduation and Transfer-Out Rates,” which is what gets discussed and published, Grachan said.

“They’re essentially data ghosts,” Grachan said. “If they graduate? Super. If not, no worries, since they don’t count in graduation or retention statistics.” They still have to pay tuition, but if they drop out in frustration, the college isn’t hurt because it can just get more transfers next year.

Grachan’s job at LaGuardia is to ensure that his students break through the obstruction and apathy and get the most out of their next college. That’s what he did as an offensive lineman at Fordham, helping his quarterback and running backs make big gains. He hits particularly hard at four-year college happy talk.

“If students ask, ‘How many of my credits will transfer?’ ” Grachan said, “they’re already in trouble. Schools love to say how many credits will transfer — and many will even take all credits. The question that students don’t typically know to ask, nor do schools report, is how many credits can be used toward their degree.”

If the college they are transferring to “accepts 60 credits, but applies 40 of them as elective credits in a degree program that has room for only 10 credits, that means the student effectively loses a year,” Grachan said. “Instead of graduating with 120 credits, they graduate with 150. But maybe they ran out of financial aid along the way and had to take out student loans.”

Grachan noted that four-year colleges offer scholarships to transfers, but not as generous as what they give incoming freshmen. They don’t have lavish orientation events for transfers as they do for prospective first-year students. A transfer’s SAT or ACT score, no matter how bad it is, doesn’t hurt a school in the U.S. News & World Report selectivity ratings. That’s because in the key college measures, transfers don’t exist — as you recall from Grachan’s first lesson.

I remember how little I understood about college when I transferred. It would be nice if colleges were more honest with naifs like me. Thank goodness for straight-talking guides such as Grachan who help us avoid expensive mistakes and make the system work for everyone.