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Michael Fleming is only in his second quarter at Portland Community College, but he already is thinking about where he will go to earn his bachelor's degree in history.
He's looking at the University of Oregon or Washington. And they are looking at him. So are others. As a potential transfer student, Fleming, 25, Portland, and students like him have the full attention of area public and private colleges and universities. About 30 set up shop at PCC's Cascade campus in North Portland one day last week.
Under pressure to ensure more students earn degrees, four-year institutions are aggressively going after students like Fleming because transfers offer an efficient way to sustain enrollment and produce more graduates. Oregon has set a goal to reach education levels higher than any state in the nation.
The Legislature even passed a law last year that stakes Oregon's economic and education future on its 40-40-20 goal: Ensure by 2025 that 40 percent of adults have a bachelor's degree or higher; 40 percent have an associate degree or post-secondary credential and 20 percent complete high school.
Community colleges also are encouraging transfers and striving to make the switch seamless, said Andrea Henderson, executive director of the Oregon Community College Association. With the weak economy, she said, more students are turning to community college. In the five years ending 2010-11, enrollment climbed 37 percent to the full-time equivalent of 125,000 students.
Through Feb. 23, admission representatives from the state's colleges and universities are visiting all 17 state community college campuses. So are some out-of-state schools, including Washington State University in Vancouver and the UW's Bothell campus, which offers transfer students with high grades $7,500 scholarships.
The event, called Oregon Transfer Days, is one of many initiatives aimed at transfers, a promising source of boosting graduation rates. On average, 59 percent of full-time freshmen in Oregon's seven public universities graduate within six years; for transfer students it's 69 percent.
Students with a year or two of community college on average do as well or better at four-year schools than students who enter as freshmen, said Joseph Holliday, Oregon University System assistant vice chancellor for student success initiatives. Universities this fall actually saw a drop in incoming freshmen, but had record enrollment because of better retention and an additional 456 transfers.
Fleming says he loves PCC. So will he press on for a bachelor's degree?
"I have no doubt," he said. "I want to be a lawyer."
The number of transfer students flowing into the state's universities from its community colleges has nearly doubled over the last decade to 6,541 last school year. But that's only a fraction of the roughly 103,000 students (or 52,000 full time equivalent) in community colleges with plans to transfer.
One in five who enter Oregon community colleges graduate within four years, according to Complete College America, a nonprofit devoted to increasing graduation rates. Some, however, transfer before graduating.
In another step to boost transfers, the Legislature passed a law last year requiring admission and credit standards and other requirements be defined to help community college students move more smoothly into four-year schools. It also requires community colleges and universities to produce annual transfer statistics.
In addition, higher education officials aligned courses and agreed on which count toward a four-year degree. They created transfer associate degrees that guarantee such students can enter any state university as a junior.
Will Vaughan, 38, will graduate from PCC in March with a transfer degree and move to Portland State University. He said starting at a community college, where tuition is far lower, proved a smart option for him.
"I'm really happy with the education I've got," said Vaughan, a communications major. "I don't regret it."
Eastern Oregon, Oregon State and the Oregon Institute of Technology are teaming up withBlue Mountain, Treasure Valley, Linn-Benton and Klamath community colleges to experiment with what they call a reverse associate degree.
Students who transfer before earning an associate degree receive the credential when they complete the required credits at a university. This will not only give the student a boost, administrators believe, but also improve community colleges' completion rates.
The smoothest transition comes in co-admission agreements that allow students to attend both a university and community college at the same time so they don't have to transfer. PSU and PCC recently streamlined their pact to make taking classes on both campuses easier.
Sixty percent of PSU's students are transfers, and 40 percent of its graduates last spring had attended PCC
Nanae Seta, 21, moved to Portland from Japan and started college at PCC to improve her English and save money. She's earned 90 credits and is ready to move on. She stopped by the PSU table during transfer day at the PCC Cascade campus.
"I thought about going to PSU to make an appointment," she said. "I don't have to do that. They came here."
Nelson Sigrah, an academic adviser working the PSU table, said more community colleges are showing an interest in transfers and more of them are non-traditional.
Liberty English, 27, a Portland single mom, for example, was out of school for a decade before she returned to PCC, where she will graduate in June with a 3.9 grade point average. Among her priorities as she checked out colleges at the transfer event was proximity. She was drawn toWarner Pacific College, only one bus ride away from her home.
"I'm a little nervous having to pick where I go next," she said. "PCC sort of spoils you."