Community colleges are a major source of transfer students in northern Illinois. Students earn an associate's degree and continue their education at NIU for their bachelor's.
The latest enrollment count shows an eight percent drop in new transfer students. To address this, the university is working to boost scholarships and financial aid to attract more of these students. Sol Jensen is NIU's Vice President for Enrollment Management. He says the university is also solidifying partnerships with local community colleges by establishing connections between each institution's faculty.
"Sometimes they'll go into the classrooms, help teach a lesson, and many times, the academic departments are the ones setting up the transfer agreements," he said.
Jensen says these agreements make it easier for academic departments to acknowledge a common set of standards. Then, NIU can set up transfer guides for students to plan their courses accordingly.
"They can look and see specifically what kind of transfer credits are going to transfer and help them have a better understanding of how much longer it will take for them to graduate," he said.
Experiences differ among students. Some may begin at a community college because they don't feel ready for a four-year institution, while others go for financial reasons. Kelly Smith runs NIU's First and Second Year Experience program. She says the students take part in a one-credit course called the “Transfer Experience” to get them up to speed at a common level.
"A lot of our transfer students come in and they're just not quite sure about how things work here and some can be intimidated by the academic level of the coursework as well," she said.
Smith says developing a sense of community is one of the hardest aspects of being a transfer student, so there are individual groups, academic advisors, and a mentorship program.
"We have Transfer2Transfer peer mentors, usually about 80 strong coming into the fall semester who really want to connect with new transfer students," she said.
NIU graduate Molly Ginn first earned an associate's degree in mass communication at Sauk Valley Community College. She transferred to get more in-depth instruction on her desired career path.
"I was able to focus on the interpersonal communication and stuff like that that really fascinated me, that I didn't have quite as much of a chance to work on at the community college level," she said.
Ginn says she had to make a few adjustments coming from a smaller college, such as taking classes in different buildings, but she noted her previous coursework was an asset.
"It was a little bit overwhelming just due to how many people there were, but the good part was since I was an upperclassman, I was able to have my specialized classes instead of the gen-eds, so I had a lot of the same people in my classes and was able to get to know them and make some friends through that," she said.
She just completed a master's degree at NIU in the same subject, and is now looking at various PhD programs. But Jensen says other students take a more nontraditional path toward their degrees. He calls it a transfer "swirl."
"This is where a student may start at a four-year institution and then go to a two-year institution and come back, or they'll start at a four-year and go to a two-year and then they'll stay with their associate's degree." he said.
Laura Vivaldo Cholula took such a path at Elgin Community College. She majored in and earned an associate's degree in science, but took extra courses for a few years, particularly in law and medicine.
"It's cheaper than what I would pay at a university, so I worked to pay for those classes, and I'm the kind of person that even if I don't use that knowledge in my career in the future, it's going to be useful," she said.
Cholula interned at an immigration attorney's office in Elgin, and decided to transfer to NIU so she could eventually attend the law school. With a more science-oriented background, however, she admits she had to make up some liberal arts courses.
"So when I got here, I basically had to relearn how to write an essay, find out what professors wanted, find out what would be a good research essay," she said.
As a nontraditional student, Cholula said she got involved in student organizations early to find a circle of friends. She found common ground with other students minoring in Latino studies.
"I would always see a friendly face in my political science classes because I had that connection with a student who also was minoring in the same minor as I was," she said.
Cholula graduated this spring and is preparing for her first year at NIU's law school. And while her path wasn't as direct as some students, she has advice for all transfer students.
"Time management is crucial for them to be successful, and also remind them that, yes, you have to work but make sure that your priority is always school," she said.
NIU recently hired a new transfer director who is working to build dozens of additional academic partnerships. Eventually, the administration hopes to expand these partnerships to community colleges out-of-state, further boosting the pool for enrollment.