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A Letter to Systems: Now More than Ever, We Must Fix Transfer

The Tackling Transfer Initiative is a partnership of:

In the wake of COVID-19, students are facing massive disruption in their learning. Postsecondary experts are predicting unprecedented student movement among schools in the coming months, perhaps even years.

As colleges and universities closed in spring 2020, students’ educational plans were upended. Early surveys of students suggest that many are facing harrowing financial challenges, many are rethinking where they will attend school, and some will relocate to new colleges and universities. In short, COVID-19 will result in a large group of learners needing to not just effectively transfer credits but also have those credits apply toward their degree.

Every state in the nation has some state or system transfer policies in place, but transfer student outcomes are weak and highly inequitable. In short, transfer in this country is broken. Now is the time for states and systems to step up in bold ways to better and more equitably serve students who change institutions—which was the case for nearly 40 percent of all American undergraduates even before the disruption caused by COVID-19. States and systems must build a seamless transfer system, establishing strategies to help students continue their education, be rewarded for their investments, and finish in a timely manner.

The Power of the System

We focus here on lessons from work with systems in part because we know that, at least for the foreseeable future, transfer challenges will be solved primarily within states and regions. Public systems serve a majority of today’s students, and an overwhelming majority of post-traditional students (i.e., first-generation college-goers, displaced workers, and historically marginalized and minoritized students). Thus developing a cohesive transfer ecosystem at the state or systems level is required to truly tackle transfer.

Unsurprisingly, being part of a system doesn’t itself guarantee seamlessness, even where two-year and four-year institutions live in the same system. We cannot assume systems have the power to solve transfer simply because of their structure. Rather, we must examine and harness the power that systems do have to drive change–if their leaders are willing to lead and manage efforts designed to achieve equitable student success. While systems serve a critical regulatory role, that regulatory identity can operate at cross-purposes with the advocacy role that systems must also learn to play if they are to be engines of significant change.

Those who seek to evolve beyond a compliance entity to more purposefully drive work as a values-based advocacy and support entity are showing the way for others. Tristan Denley, the executive vice chancellor for academic affairs and chief academic officer of the University System of Georgia, told us:

The system was really set up as being an oversight and compliance role, and that’s a critical role. It has to be the case that we make sure that [the] compliance role is taken care of and taken care of well. But what’s newer is recognizing that we also have a role as a transformational partner. In addition to playing a regulatory role, we also have a role in walking a journey with our institutions to actually shape and change the way in which our institutions function—not only as individual institutions, but actually as an overall educational ecosystem. That is really different, to realize that we can have a role that empowers, enables, and supports, and also creates the culture for change, so that we move together to create something that’s better than what we had before.

Moving Beyond Business as Usual

How can system leaders embrace the role as a transformational partner and move beyond business as usual? What lessons can systems leaders apply right now amid the uncertainty? Based upon our work with Tackling Transfer, we make the following core recommendations.

1. Set the expectation that life after COVID-19 must look different, and visibly commit to prioritizing the needs of students in communicating about the role of the system in a post-COVID world.

  • Define transfer success as not just that students are able to move to a new institution, but rather that their credits transfer and apply to completion of their major. Place transfer front and center in systemwide conversations and communications about state attainment and equity goals.
  • Publish finely disaggregated data-—particularly by income and race and ethnicity—on transfer student outcomes annually using the Tracking Transfer measures in order to identify leaky points in the transfer pipeline across the system.
  • Engage in deep analysis of how transfer students are faring at institutions in the three highest-volume transfer programs for each institution in the system.
  • Publicly celebrate four-year institutions that are achieving high and improving levels of success and equity for transfer students.
  • Actively support faculty- and staff-led efforts to build a culture welcoming of transfer students.

2. Incentivize bold improvements in institutional practice and courageous transfer partnership work.

  • Create conditions, opportunities, and venues for transfer partner institutions to jointly and honestly interrogate policy, practice, and data sharing around essential practices associated with improved outcomes.
  • Provide targeted supports so those partnerships have the capacity to convene the right people regularly, identify evidence-based solutions, and work together toward shared goals.
  • Provide incentives to encourage institutions to move beyond competition to position transfer as a core enrollment strategy, build strong transfer partnerships, and develop new models such as dual admissions and co-location.
  • Modernize policies such as alignment of applied degrees, applicability of technical credits, and prior learning assessment to ensure that institutions seek to maximize credit applicability, provide clear guidance to students, reduce the bureaucratic burden, and lower barriers to bachelor’s degrees.

Systems must fix transfer if we are to extend real opportunity to more students, especially those traditionally poorly served in higher education and the workforce, and ensure the survival of the access-oriented colleges and universities that serve as the engines of upward mobility and economic development in our communities. We’ve long needed bold action, but given the still unknown effects of the COVID-19 crisis, expected declines in enrollment that will flow from the decreasing birth rate, and persistent opportunity gaps in our country for post-traditional students, it’s an urgent imperative that can no longer be ignored.