Innovative Transfer Initiatives: What We Can Learn from Texas
In the ever-changing landscape of American higher education, Texas is determined to lead the way in ensuring all residents have access to affordable, relevant, and necessary post-secondary education. The mechanism through which they are achieving this goal? Prioritizing the needs of transfer students.
Through initiatives like the 60x30 Strategic Plan and Texas Direct, Texas is committed to serving and educating the 4 million Texans with some college credits but no degree. To make these goals a reality, institutions in Texas are making it easier than ever for students to earn their degree through transfer.
I recently spoke with Loida Gonzáles Utley, a leading voice for the transfer initiatives in Texas and across the nation. She currently serves as the assistant director for transfer recruitment at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, at the state level as a member of TACRAO's Community College, Technical, and Transfer committee, and nationally as the new host of AACRAO's Transfer Tea podcast.
Here is what she recommends for other institutions looking to improve their outcomes for students with transfer credits.
1. Identify Transfer Champions Outside the Admissions Office
Too often, the only advocates for transfer students live in the campus admissions office. While these individuals play a critical role in serving transfer students, their reach is limited to the initial admission and enrollment process.
Gonzáles Utley reinforced that successful transfer institutions depend upon staff from all offices. More importantly, effective support of transfer students relies on all campus stakeholders sharing a vision. This shared vision requires staff from admissions, advising, financial aid, and faculty from all academic departments to be in constant communication.
This year, Gonzáles Utley and her team at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi conducted presentations to introduce themselves and share their vision for transfer success. They connected with staff and faculty from local community colleges to further their reach and ensure that folks knew how to best serve transfer students. This effective communication has created a dedicated support system for students transferring into their university.
2. Establish Guaranteed, Personal Pathways
The main priority for transfer students is how their credits will transfer to their new institution. However, most of the tools and mechanisms institutions use to determine course equivalencies can be intimidating for students who are unfamiliar with the process.
"When I first started at Texas A&M Corpus Christi, we had general guides for students," Gonzáles Utley explained. "But I remember the look in a student's eyes when I gave them their guide and they began to wonder, 'What is a core speech class?' or 'What is the core curriculum?'. Instead, we need to personalize this process instead of relying on a general one."
It is Gonzáles Utley's belief that nothing will help a student more than taking time to sit down and explain a transfer guide created just for them. "There is a misconception that because we have these [transfer] resources on our sites that students can make sense of it," she said.
Additionally, the state of Texas has come together to implement a common numbering system between community colleges and four-year institutions. This helps students know that their community college credits will seamlessly transfer to their future Texas institution. "We are trying to lead the way to an innovative method of reaching transfer," said Gonzáles Utley.
Providing transfer students with a clear, personalized path ensures that they feel supported by their transfer institution, improving the likelihood that they will matriculate and reach graduation successfully.
3. Collect and Track Transfer Data
There is also room for institutions to improve on the data they collect regarding the transfer process. Most data surrounding transfer relates solely to enrollment and does not effectively capture the experience of students outside the admissions process.
"Aside from enrollment numbers, it is important that we can measure transfer student engagement," said Gonzáles Utley. Institutions typically gauge transfer as they do first-year students. However, transfer trends change yearly and vary significantly from first-time students, thus requiring different data points.
In turn, she suggests that institutions find new metrics for measuring transfer success. "Aside from enrollment numbers, we want to see the level of engagement through tracking one-on-one meetings with staff to better understand how that yields into enrollment."
4. Ask Transfer Students What They Need
When determining how to better serve and support transfer students, Gonzáles Utley urges institutions to directly ask transfers what they need.
"You will never fail if you know what your population looks like, what their challenges are, and why they may be hesitant to enroll," she advises. "Simply sit back and listen to the transfer voices on your campus. They will tell you what they need if you ask them!"
However, Gonzáles Utley urges that it is not enough to only ask the questions. "It is our responsibility to deliver and respond to student input."
Institutions should respond by creating inclusive environments for all students, including those with transfer credits. "We make assumptions that since [students] went to another college that they know our university," she says. "We assume that all transfer students will be full-time, traditional, on-campus students. The same strategies and processes that we use for first-time students will not work. We owe it to these students to respond."
5. Fund Transfer Students and Initiatives Equitably
When considering the challenges faced by transfer students, Gonzáles Utley was quick to point out the disproportionate funding provided to students.
"Funding is the biggest roadblock for students," she said. "I speak for a lot of professionals when I say that the way other student populations are funded, transfer students should be funded at the same level."
Appropriate funding for transfer initiatives and departments will allow transfer students to feel supported and fairly represented at their new institution. A suitable place to start? Equitably funding scholarships for students.
"While we are so focused on freshmen, transfers need to have more [funding] than what is currently there," said Gonzáles Utley. Many universities provide incentives and full-ride scholarships for first-year students but do not have similar scholarship opportunities for transfer students, even the most successful ones.
Gonzáles Utley cautioned that customizing and meeting the changing needs of transfer students will require the staff, tools, publications, and financial commitment from institutions. "You cannot expect your institution to be a transfer-friendly campus without the support needed to keep up with the demand."