Using Data to Reimagine Transfer in Higher Education

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Feb. 10, 2021

This blog is part of a series about student transfer in higher education and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on transfer students. You can read more here and here.

Transfer students have become a core component of financial planning for many institutions seeking to compensate for enrollment declines of first-time students. Experts say COVID-19 will exacerbate existing disparities and hurdles in the transfer process, and that last fall’s 4.4 percent overall enrollment decline and 9.4 percent dip for community college enrollments, will heighten competition among institutions for transfer students. But for students, transfer isn’t easy. If institutions want to stand out as a welcoming option for those looking to transfer, they must take a hard look at how they serve their transfer students and take action to improve. Colleges and universities should conduct a top to bottom audit of how they handle transfer students from application to graduation in order to create a more efficient and equitable process.

Improving transfer will help institutions graduate more students and improve their bottom lines, but it is also a critical component of closing equity gaps across higher education. Increasing the number of transfer students is one way to diversify campuses and can be used as a strategy to increase educational attainment for marginalized student populations. Done effectively, transfer can be a tool to address those areas, but equity has to be considered in every part of this evaluation. Even among transfer students there are racial and socioeconomic disparities that must be addressed. For example, research shows that low-income students who transfer to a four-year college are less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than transfer students from a higher-income background. Studies have also found that Black transfer students graduate at a lower rate than their white counterparts. Institutions that take steps to solve these problems through an equity lense will have the chance to tackle systemic problems that may exist in their own institutions.

The idea of full blown evaluation and overhaul might make some nervous or feel like a burden after institutions have faced so much difficulty during the pandemic, but it is important to reevaluate existing policies and procedures consistently, both to ensure that institutions are putting their best foot forward for students and to also to improve efficiency and operations. Institutions should ask themselves: Is there a historic policy that doesn’t help transfer students anymore? Is the institution making a good faith effort to count all of the credits a transfer student has earned? Here is what such a process could look like.

Start With the Data

To get started, colleges and universities can use their institutional research offices to gather data on transfer students and analyze it along with their existing internal data to gain a fuller picture of the transfer student experience. This will help institutions identify potential roadblocks and barriers to success that transfer students face. On a larger scale, states can also compile and analyze this data to shape transfer policies for state systems. Institutions and state systems should use this data to answer important questions. Colleges might find in the data that transfer students graduate at a lower rate than non-transfer students. But there might be other less obvious findings if colleges ask the right questions. For example, do transfer students graduate with a surplus of credits, especially compared to students who started at the institution? It is understandable that institutions want students to take as many of their credits at their institution for financial and academic reasons. But it is a disservice to students if they have wasted time and money—both in tuition and lost earnings had they entered the labor market with a degree sooner—taking courses they do not need.

When colleges and universities see that this is happening, institutions must seek to understand why, and then act to change it. There are a number of questions they should consider that could help them pinpoint the contributing factors to the surplus of credit. (Many are questions institutions should consider regardless.) For example, are transfer students taking a significant number of general education courses even if they transferred with a large number of credits? Are their credits seemingly duplicates of courses at the institution? This can help the college work to improve how they are evaluating transcripts so that students aren’t retaking courses they have already successfully completed. Or if the credits are not duplicates or equivalent courses, the institution should consider how they might be more inclusive of accepting credits, especially for general education requirements. Analyzing student credit data can be a check on your credit evaluation system.

Partner with Other Institutions

Another important step is using the data to identify schools that most of an institution’s transfer students come from. Four-year colleges should strive to build or strengthen relationships with these “feeder colleges” and establish course equivalency databases or create intentional degree pathways. Even if transfer is not strong between institutions, nearby regional institutions should be proactive and form relationships with each other. It is especially imperative that these partnerships exist between community colleges and four-year colleges, as it is the most common transfer path students take.

Leveraging data can also be a part of successful institutional partnerships to improve student success. Sharing data across colleges can be helpful to create a roadmap to success, but it can also help identify common barriers for transfer students at both schools. For example, if the incoming four-year college sees that transfer students from the community college often struggle with MATH 102, it might mean that their course sequences are not aligned. MATH 101 at the community college might not cover the material necessary for a student to be successful in MATH 102 when they transfer. Institutions might notice that transfer students majoring in business often are delayed in starting their major courses and are forced to take more electives. The feeder and incoming institutions should examine their respective business requirements and align their programs with degree pathways so that transfer students can meet their degree requirements in a timely manner. Analyzing this data and acting upon it can improve student success and create a strong pipeline of student transfer that leads to more community colleges students earning a four-year degree.

A strong transfer pipeline from community college to four-year colleges is a critical piece of addressing systemic inequities in higher education given the diversity of community college students. Community college students are often low-income, students of color, and non-traditional students. In fact, students of color make up a larger percentage of students at community colleges than at four- year universities. And community colleges enroll the largest share of Pell Grant students of any sector of higher education. They’re more likely to support themselves financially, work full-time, and have dependents of their own. Making transfer work for them will mean that more Black, brown, and low-income students will go on to earn a four-year degree, their best chance at economic security.

Going the Distance with Transfer Students

Institutions should also enhance students’ experience once they get to campus. A popular notion about transfer students is that they already know how to go to college, but in reality, they don’t know how to navigate their new institution. Institutions should make sure transfer students are equipped with the knowledge and tools necessary to successfully navigate the institution and get the support they need. For example, connecting with professors and forming study groups — things direct entry students are often walked through in their first semester. COVID and distance learning does not mean that orientations should be any less powerful; virtual programming can be crafted for both direct entry and transfer students’ success.

But colleges have to follow-up and serve students after orientation. Institutions should use data from surveys like Indiana University’s National Survey of Student Engagement and Beginning College Survey of Student Engagement to understand the transfer student experience and see where there might be gaps in student services. Colleges can go a step further and create custom institutional surveys for their transfer students, as well as focus groups to better understand what is missing in their welcoming programming. Then, institutions should use this data to improve on existing programs.

Ensuring that transfer students are supported and successful is an equity issue. Many students who transfer do so for economic reasons. Students find starting at a community college and taking prerequisites there before transferring is often a more affordable option than starting at a four-year institution. This population is harmed by poor quality transfer policies that cause them to lose credits which results in wasted time and money, which is so valuable to these students.

The Coronavirus pandemic has already changed where students have decided to go to college, and the ongoing challenges could lead to an increase in transfer students in the coming years. Institutions need to use this time now to adapt and improve so that transfer students have a place to land, and what better way to do that then an audit of existing policies.

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