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The struggles and poor outcomes of transfer students have been well-established in this blog, as well as the broader literature, and need not be restated here. “Fixes” often focus on helping a prototypical student transfer vertically between a two-year institution and a four-year institution. Yet, the data show that students often transfer between multiple institutions, move multidirectionally among institutional types, and follow multiple pathways from the sending institution. So, fixing the transfer process between two institutions is not going to effectively move the dial on transfer student success.

Systems of higher education, which govern multiple institutions and are able to “see” transfer patterns from a different perspective than any single institution, can be a useful and overlooked tool for scaling transfer student success and creating more seamless transfer experiences across multiple institutions.

A recent report, the Emerging Role of Public Higher Education Systems in Advancing Transfer Student Success, provides a comprehensive look at the increasing role public higher education systems are playing in improving transfer student outcomes. The survey, which was conducted just prior to the pandemic, can serve as a useful snapshot to examine ‘pre/post-pandemic’ analysis for future research, as systems may adjust their approaches to address disruptions in the education pipeline and other changing features of the higher education landscape. Nevertheless, these results call attention to the important role that systems can play in facilitating student mobility, the transfer of credit and scaling policies and practices that may result in a significant positive change in transfer student outcomes.

Data evidencing the impact of this work remains scarce as many of these efforts are nascent. However, assessment data from SUNY’s Seamless Transfer initiative, implemented in 2015, showed the program resulted in increases in several positive outcomes for all student groups, including increased associate degree completion rates, fewer credits at completion, and increased on-time baccalaureate completion. Data will need to continue to be tracked to assess the impact of other transfer efforts.

Key findings from the report include:

  • Nearly all respondents indicated they are actively engaged in work at the system level to improve student and credit mobility within the system.
  • Systems are able to create structures and employ policy levers with the student as the focus and in line with how students actually move through higher education, which is not always the case with bi-lateral agreements between two institutions. The five most common policy levers identified by respondents were: guaranteeing the transfer of credit and/or courses among multiple campuses, aligning curriculum between programs and campuses, providing system-level transfer credit appeals, developing reverse transfer protocols, and creating grading policies that support and protect transfer students.
  • Transfer analytics at the system level are able to identify patterns and solutions that cut across multiple campuses and provide a holistic view of student mobility, which is often not possible when looking at the data from any single campus.
  • Nearly all systems are making public data disaggregated by race, ethnicity, social economic status and gender in order to support discussions around equity in transfer.
  • Technology and technology-enabled solutions were identified as an important component of the work that systems are undertaking to support transfer. However, lack of data and technology standardization across campuses pose significant challenges to implementing solutions at scale.

This study was conducted on behalf of the National Association of System Heads (NASH), which is the association of the chief executives of the college and university systems of public higher education in the United States. The 43 NASH member systems include multiple four-year institutions, and nearly half include two-year institutions. Together, public university systems educate approximately three-quarters of the nation’s students in public, four-year higher education and a significant proportion of students seeking two-year degrees. How these systems are organized - that is, multiple institutions operating with a single system governing board and chief executive -makes them particularly well-positioned to tackle critical issues in their states, such as student transfer and credit mobility.

Supporting transfer student success has been a consistent focus of NASH, and will remain so under the recently launched Power of Systems initiative. To that end, NASH has formed the NASH Transfer Network (NTN), which brings together content experts from systems across the U.S. to focus on solving key challenges for institutions and transfer students. Over the coming year, Beyond Transfer will host a series of blog posts from systems that are part of the NTN, highlighting the ongoing transfer work in their systems, lessons learned, successes, and challenges. We hope to encourage productive dialogue that will encourage innovation within and across public higher education systems to bring transfer student success to scale.

For more information, please contact:

Dan Knox, Senior Advisor, NASH Institute for Systems Innovation & Improvement (

Jason Lane, Senior Fellow, NASH, Dean of the College of Education, Health & Society at Miami University (

Maria Khan, Research Associate, NASH Institute for Systems Innovation & Improvement (

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