Two Plus Two equals an affordable, smooth path to a college degree for growing number of students

This is the first of a two-part series on affordable alternatives to traditional four-year bachelor's degrees.

CINCINNATI – Bobby Polick’s life veered away from a college path long ago, but at 33, the Bellevue, Ky., resident has an accounting degree in his sights.

Thanks to a “pathway” created this fall by Gateway Technical & Community College and Northern Kentucky University, Polick is on his way to a four-year degree that is less expensive than most and made possible in his mind by starting at Gateway instead of the more intimidating NKU campus.

“Starting at Gateway was a little bit about the discount on the prices, but it also made the transition easier to the four-year college,” he said. “I knew I would already be enrolled at NKU. I was kind of questioning before how hard it would be to do.  This program made it easier.”

Polick was one of the first students to declare for one of the new pathways that the schools unveiled in an articulation agreement they signed last month at Gateway’s Covington campus.

Called Gateway2NKU, the scheme allows students to begin coursework at Gateway before transferring to NKU to complete a bachelor’s degree, including guaranteed transfer of credits as long as students stick to one of many academic pathways – to an accounting or finance or chemistry degree, for example). The program also lets students take four courses at NKU at the price of Gateway tuition.

That translates to big cost savings for students and ends uncertainty about whether credits earned at Gateway will transfer to NKU. Gateway charges $144 per credit hour compared to NKU’s $337.

Such partnerships, called Two Plus Two degrees because students split their four years between the campuses, have been around for years. But this semester saw six schools in Greater Cincinnati and a partner in Columbus expand and strengthen them in an effort to boost enrollment and graduation.

University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati State signed a new agreement in October, as did Miami University and Columbus State. Thomas More College and Gateway established their Four is More program last January that includes guaranteed admission for Gateway grads to Thomas More and up to $14,000 in scholarships there.

The UC-Cincy State agreement establishes the Cincinnati Pathways Scholars program, which establishes new benefits, including a $2,100 annual scholarship to UC for Cincy State Scholars Program graduates with a 3.4 or better GPA. Honors program graduates of Cincinnati State are accepted into the UC Honors Program and have standing to graduate as Honors Scholars from UC if they complete certain courses. Cincinnati State’s annual tuition of $4,359 per year is less than half of UC’s $10,784 for Ohio residents.

The new agreements eliminate uncertainty about whether credits earned at two-year institutions transfer to four-year colleges; offer more counseling to make sure students are taking courses relevant to the degrees they seek; and offer non-traditional students the chance to ease their way onto four-year campuses, where they may initially feel out of place.

“The economy is a big driver, and people want to be able to do things in the most efficient way they can because you don’t want to waste cash,” said Michael Rosenberg, Gateway’s director of transfer.

Beyond money, though, are the barriers, real and perceived, for students who fear they can’t make the grade, often because they’ve been out of school for years or decades or because no one in their families had earned a college degree before them.

Those who find the will to pursue an associate’s degree at a commuter campus like Gateway may feel out of their element on a college campus brimming with traditional students. A two plus two program can help them take the leap.
Gateway students pursuing identified degree paths will also be given NKU student privileges including access to tutoring, intramural sports and Greek and other student organizations.

Similarly, Cincy State students who have completed 15 credit hours with a 3.25 or better GPA are now eligible to get an UC ID card that gives them access to UC’s libraries, sporting events that don’t require a ticket, invitations to programs and events and access to UC’s recreation center for a fee. Those benefits are more than superficial.

“When you’re at a community college, if transfer is your goal as a student, there is decades of research that shows that students who get involved on campus tend to do better in and out of class,” Rosenberg said. “We’re a commuter school. This gives them an opportunity to plug themselves into campus life at NKU.”

Jeff Ortega, public affairs director for the Ohio Association of Community Colleges, said articulation agreements are becoming more common, pointing to ones between Ohio State and Columbus State and others, and that they’re making seamless paths for students.

“It also helps the student form a plan of completion. And we think it helps the student keeps costs down,” he said, with two-year tuition, on average,

being about one-third of state university’s.
Stephanie Davidson, vice chancellor for academic affairs for the Ohio Board of Regents, said these agreements may seem logical but only occur after years of trust-building between institutions.

“A lot of it has to do with the fact that two-year and four-year institutions have been working hard together for 10 years, and we’re starting to see the fruits of that labor,” she said.

In Ohio, the conversion to semesters for all state colleges and universities also made agreements easier to forge (Students and parents can check to find out more about the transferability of credits to eliminate guesswork).

The strategy works for many.

“Out of the students at Gateway, about half are in programs designed as transfer programs or are students who have indicated that they were interested in transferring,” Rosenberg said. “And the numbers are going to continue to grow. It’s an option that makes sense for a variety of reasons.”

But two plus two programs don’t work for everybody, according to Andrew Benson, a veteran education consultant and executive director of Smarter Schools.

“There are solid community colleges in the state of Ohio, but it may not be true in every case,” he said. “(Community college courses) might not be challenging enough for high performing students. If you’re with other students who are way less prepared than you are, it’s hard for that student to get the full benefit of moving ahead.”

For some students, it may be worth spending or borrowing more money to start college on a four-year campus, Benson said, though that is a highly individual choice.

“Everybody has to make their own choice. I would say if you’re going to spend the time and money to go to a community college, you should get the experience that’s right for you. If you start and it doesn’t feel challenging,  then that’s not worth the money,” he said.

For Polick, who had just received his admission letter from NKU before being interviewed, the choice has been a good one:

“I’ve always had a passion for numbers, so accounting just seemed right. I had heard there are a lot of good programs and transfer opportunities between Gateway and NKU. I saw this as a great opportunity to set my feet on the right path.”

Up Next: Industrious high schoolers get a leg up with college credit courses.

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