Feb. 10, 2021
The pandemic left no area of higher education untouched: many institutions moved to a pass/fail system, students moved back home, and future college dreams were severely altered for many students. The move to primarily online learning has also posed a challenge for transfer efforts because it brought about a slew of changes to institutional policies. If students did not receive a letter grade, if their courses got cancelled, or if they opted to attend community college as a freshman instead of a four-year college, what would that mean for students looking to transfer once the pandemic is behind us?
While the question of how to make transfer more accessible is a complex one, there are things institutions can do now to prepare for the potential ways the pandemic could complicate the transfer process. One of these is using communication strategically to help students navigate the process and meet their transfer goals.
In my research on how institutions can communicate predictive analytics findings to students, I found that several behavioral science concepts can help colleges create messages that are both effective and equitable. Many of these concepts can help institutions support student transfer during a difficult time, while also taking a refreshed look at their transfer policies.
Personalized and Timely is Best
A key goal of communicating with students is getting them to take an action that benefits their success. One way to help students with that is to provide messages that arrive just in time. This means that students receive messages related to their transfer goals at a time when they can take an appropriate action.
Course enrollment is one such time. For example, a community college student who has indicated their intention to transfer could receive a message alerting them when a course they have in their "shopping basket" does not meet the transfer requirements for the four-year institution they plan on transferring to. This personalized and timely message gives the student information that is relevant to them and opens the opportunity for the student to change their course schedule to meet their transfer plan sooner rather than later. And although it is better than nothing, a mass email to all students at a community college during the first week of classes suggesting they are careful to only select courses that meet their transfer plan is unlikely to be effective. This is because the information is not personalized and does not arrive at a useful time.
Messages, emails, or other forms of communication should also make taking action as easy as possible. This could be through including links and/or instructions on how to take the action requested in the message. This way, students are not left wondering what the next step is, which may stop them from taking the action altogether.
So, for instance, when colleges notify students of updated transfer policies they should include actionable information. If students receive an email update regarding a partner institution's credit policy on pass/fail, this message should include a link to check whether a course taken for pass/fail qualifies under this policy. Students have a lot on their plates, and even more so during the pandemic, so minimizing the hassle will help students on their path to transfer.
Similarly, centralizing information helps minimize hassle. A commonly cited challenge for transfer students is how difficult it is to know what classes are transferable to another institution or count towards their major. This information is often decentralized. While it is certainly a challenge to gather all this information into one place, centralizing information minimizes hassle for students and makes it more likely that they will take actions that aid them on their path to transfer. Once information is centralized, colleges must ensure it is intuitive to find and that students know about this resource.
Be Positive, but Realistic
Messages to students should strike a balance between positive and realistic. A positive tone contributes to important aspects of a student's educational experience, such as having a sense of belonging, a growth mindset, and belief in their abilities. However, a purely positive tone out of context of realistic parameters is unfair to students. One institution I spoke with in my research shared that faculty recommended changing a message from "It's not too late to change your grades!" to "It may not be too late to change your grades!". They found that this language encouraged students to address their failing grade and also accounted for each faculty member's unique grading policy. Striking a similar balance as related to transfer is also important, especially during such a challenging and uncertain time.
Behind the Scenes Work
While the work behind the scenes isn't seen by students, it is an important aspect of effectively communicating about transfer to students—especially during the pandemic. Investing time on the front end, developing messaging, a communication strategy, and getting a team together, can make communication more effective. For instance, a group composed of a student, communications staff, and adviser could provide recommendations for how to identify transfer challenges and communicate solutions effectively. This also serves as an opportunity for institutions to reflect on their transfer policies and practices and identify areas for improvement. Even if an institution has the most structurally effective messages, they cannot create change if the system itself is not conducive to students making a difference in their educational journey. To facilitate smooth transfer, students who indicated their intent to transfer at the start of their program could receive a message encouraging them to meet with their community college adviser to track their progress toward a degree. If there are not enough advisers to meet with in a timely manner, however, this message could be ineffective in getting students closer to their transfer goals.
The world of transfer is complex, and the pandemic has only made it even more challenging for students and institutions alike. While large-scale transfer solutions are still hard to achieve, institutions can take one small step toward making transfer easier for students by improving their communication on the topic. Institutions can even take this as an opportunity to take a fresh look at transfer and work to make it more accessible to students. Ultimately, in a world of uncertainty, a steady voice can help students meet their transfer goals.
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