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IHEP Offers Lessons for Schools to Improve Transfer Pathways

Although 80% of students who enroll in community colleges plan on getting a bachelor’s degree, only around 15% do so within six years. It’s a product of what seems like a perpetually leaky transfer process, in which, nationwide, 43% of credits are lost between schools. Minoritized students are particularly affected—they’re more likely to start at two-year institutions and less likely to wind up finishing a four-year program. Now, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), a nonpartisan nonprofit promoting post-secondary access and success, is publishing lessons learned from its ongoing attempts to build a better, more equitable transfer system.

Since 2021, IHEP has been piloting TransferBOOST (Bachelor’s Opportunity Options that are Straightforward and Transparent), an initiative that offers support to 24 two and four-year institutions in Arizona, Virginia, and Illinois in improving their transfer pathways.

Amanda Janice Roberson, director of research and policy at IHEPAmanda Janice Roberson, director of research and policy at IHEP“[It] provides space and capacity for institutions and states to focus in on transfer populations and really drive the change that we want to see,” said Amanda Janice Roberson, director of research and policy at IHEP.

IHEP helps the schools align their transfer processes with four principles: that credits earned at an institution will transfer and apply to a bachelor’s, that costs will be streamlined and not change over the course of the student’s path, that time-to-degree will be minimized, and that degree pathways will be clearly communicated.

IHEP’s briefings, released Tuesday, are designed to serve as a model for institutions and states looking to replicate the Institute’s TransferBOOST work. One of the strongest takeaways is the importance of partnerships—within institutions, between institutions, and between institutions and states.

“You need to have really clear lines of communication [and] consistent understanding of policies and processes to do everything that we wanted to do,” said Roberson. “Establish[ing] relationships is really, really helpful and necessary for the success of some of these pathways.”

Dr. Tania LaViolet, a director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute, agreed.

“Very little of this work can be done independently,” she said. [Partnerships] are critical to creating clear programmatic pathways for students and for strengthening advising. When you do these things in partnership, you get a holistic view of transfer students’ experiences and pathways. When two-year and four-year institutions co-own transfer student success, that’s when they have the best outcomes.”

IHEP found that when schools and states work together, they are best positioned to take advantage of the information that they have amassed. As part of TransferBOOST, state and institutional leaders were able to use disaggregated data to figure out how they could best focus their efforts and where students were getting stuck. Northern Arizona University (NAU), for example, examined why so few community college transfer students received scholarships that were meant for them and found that the requirement that students apply for the money two semesters before moving to NAU was an unhelpful barrier.

According to LaViolet, the briefings illuminated the particular importance of state-level data.

“[The pilot states in TransferBOOST] have very good transfer outcomes reporting, but very few states across the country provide that kind of clarity,” she said. “It should be a call to action for other states to look at what kind of transfer data they can provide.”

The briefings also emphasized the importance of clear, joint communications with students to avoid the confusion that often accompanies the transfer process. Unified communications, IHEP found, lend a sense of credibility to the pathways that they are promoting. TransferBOOST schools communicated in a variety of ways that showed unity, the briefings said, including letters co-written by the presidents of different schools, and regular visits by four-year transfer staff and faculty to two-year colleges to recruit and inform students.

IHEP suggested that two- and four-year schools work together to create short descriptions of transfer pathways that highlight a clear goal, such as lowering costs or finding a good job.

Dr. Tania LaViolet, a director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen InstituteDr. Tania LaViolet, a director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen InstituteLaViolet thought that this sort of co-communication was important but cautioned that schools should make sure that the transfer pathway is fully developed before advertising it to students.

“We’ve got to make sure that we have all our houses in order before we come out with that message,” she said. “One of the challenges right now in higher ed is increasing levels of distrust. I’d say that if you come out with a statement about a high-level value proposition and you don’t deliver, that’s one way to deepen distrust.”

Roberson said that a goal of the briefings would make the work of improving transfer pathways accessible to states and institutions. However, although some of the briefings’ suggestions sound simple, implementing them may not be.

“None of the recommendations are rocket science, but systemic change is hard,” said LaViolet. “That’s why [schools’] presidential and cabinet-level leadership is so critical. What we’ve found is that when that leadership is persistent and consistent, we begin to see the kinds of changes that are required to support transfer students at scale.”

Although the recommendations may not be revolutionary, LaViolet thought that the briefings are still valuable.

“It demonstrates to others across the country that this work is important and possible, regardless of institutional context,” she said. “It helps build the kind of attention that reforming transfer pathways needs.”

Jon Edelman can be reached at [email protected]

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