Last year we invited you—partner organizations, leading researchers and on-the-ground leaders—to join us in our blog during the final year of the three-year, multistate, multi-organization “Tackling Transfer” project. That project tested the hypothesis that meaningful and equitable improvements in outcomes for transfer students entail clear-eyed and comprehensive attention to areas of policy, practice, leadership, communication and culture—and we learned a lot from deep work in three states (Minnesota, Texas, Virginia). When we launched the original blog, we sought to elevate lessons across those disparate areas of transfer-student advocacy work, and in 2021 we posted 49 blog posts from researchers, college and university practitioners, policy experts, students, and higher ed change makers. The project partners capped “Tackling Transfer” by capturing a repository of tools and resources that we hope will be helpful to transfer champions.
As we look forward, we carry lessons learned and sharpened convictions about the real levers for scaled improvement in outcomes for students who experience learning and acquire knowledge in a variety of settings and institutions on their way to a bachelor’s degree and beyond. These lessons and convictions fuel our curiosity and lead us to a vision for the next phase of this blog that we’re calling “Beyond Transfer.”
Among the many lessons learned, a few rise to the top for us as we look forward to the work that most needs to be done.
- Update and clarify our language. The complexity of student transitions is one that belies simple definitions. Most commonly, transfer has been used to define two-year-to-four-year student progression patterns. But this definition of transfer is insufficient and outdated to define the experience of students attending multiple institutions, acquiring knowledge in multiple settings and/or scaffolding learning and earning on their way to credentials of value. A wider lens on today’s student experience across types of institutions is a necessary accompaniment to the traditional focus on transfer as a mechanism for baccalaureate-seeking community college students.
- Acknowledge our history to own the present. As we support today’s students’ progression patterns, it is important to acknowledge the historical roots of the two- and four-year postsecondary sectors in the U.S. The growth of separate and distinct community college and university sectors was designed at least in part to maintain the exclusivity of the four-year sector—not expand equitable access to it—and without sufficient external pressures that set new conditions and incentives, traditional universities will remain focused on maintaining the status quo (even to the peril of their own long-term health).
- Elevate the equity implications. Despite decades of attention on transfer, there is still limited capacity in the field to articulate why improved recognition of learning is a lever for equity and what action should follow. Leveling the playing field for today’s students, particularly Black, Latinx, Indigenous and Asian–Pacific Islander–Desi American students, and students from low-income backgrounds, to include rural students, will require next-level attention to the equity implications of student transitions. Within states, we still see negligible advocacy beyond rhetoric around transfer as an equity issue. There’s a clear need for more truth telling—and better use of existing data—to show plainly what is not working for today’s students and to make it harder for policy makers and practitioners to ignore or deflect the equity imperative of efforts to improve recognition of learning and seamless transfer. Accreditors, who are often weaponized in discourse by institutional actors who are both for and against reform, must become part of the transfer student success conversation. Not enough attention has been paid to accreditation as a lever for focusing institutional attention on issues related to equity in opportunity and outcomes for today’s learners.
- It’s not policy or practice; it’s policy and practice. Efforts to build the capacity of institutions to reform practices at scale move too slowly in the absence of a strong connection to policy and advocacy. At the same time, legislation and policy change/reform that don’t attend sufficiently to conditions for effective implementation result in anemic or ignorable policy that falls short of intended results. We must take comprehensive approaches to scaled reform that embed elements of policy and practice as core foundations of change, such as ensuring that all transfer legislation apply to both public two-year and four-year institutions in a state and that planful consideration of quality implementation is baked into policy design from the outset.
- Attend to incentives. Every state has some type of transfer policy on the books; every state also has dismal and highly inequitable transfer student outcomes, pointing to the insufficiency of existing policies to shift institutional practice and create the conditions for colleges and universities to truly prioritize student interests. Clear-eyed attention to incentives and the real drivers of institutional focus must be centered in transfer advocacy work, because it’s readily apparent that institutions struggle mightily with the sort of collaboration required for a meaningfully improved student experience. Thinking more creatively about incentives is also in order. For example, partnerships that bring philanthropic dollars as matching funds to state appropriations for progress on cross-partisan postsecondary attainment goals can build appetite and lower risks for policy makers to lead, and can motivate system and institutional leaders to set measurable goals for improving outcomes for transfer students who attend multiple institutions.
- Connect the dots; widen the lens. The effectiveness of transfer policy is impacted by policies in other areas of the student learning journey, and reformers focused on transfer student success need to adopt a wider view of available levers. For example, the way placement and remediation are structured at community colleges shapes would-be transfer students’ chances of success from day one. Likewise, administrative holds policies and a slew of academic policies not specifically related to student transitions disproportionately impact learners who accumulate knowledge in a variety of settings on their way to credentials. And, perhaps most knotty of all, competing definitions of shared governance and academic freedom circulate beneath the surface in just about every major equity-grounded reform effort, including transfer student success. Now’s the time to lean into rather than away from necessary but hard conversations about what it means to align institutional policy and practice with a commitment to equity in opportunity and outcomes for today’s students. Making new connections visible, evolving stale discourse, and widening the conversation to include overlooked or underappreciated levers for change is top of mind as we move forward into 2022.
‘Beyond Transfer’ Will Evolve the Conversation
Building on the lessons above, the “Beyond Transfer” blog will push to evolve the conversation about recognition of learning and pathways to credentials by highlighting leading-edge research, new directions in practice-based work, and next-level policy and advocacy efforts that mobilize equity-minded influencers. We’ll also be on the lookout for “best in breed” work on technology and data infrastructure around learner agency and credit mobility.
We invite you to share your insights. We’re particularly interested in elevating good work that focuses on changing the conditions, incentives and antecedents for durable change on behalf of dramatically better and more equitable outcomes for today’s learners. Join us by sharing your change-making stories.
To connect with us, please email [email protected].