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One year ago, the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program partnered with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities to launch the first cohort of the Transfer Student Success and Equity Intensive, a national effort to accelerate transfer reform at scale. Two cohorts, totaling 69 institutions across 20 states, convened monthly to learn about effective transfer practice, address shared challenges and ultimately launch transfer visions and strategic transfer excellence plans that aim for stronger, more equitable transfer outcomes.

Aspen connected with Metro State University president Ginny Arthur and Minneapolis College president Sharon Pierce to learn about their approach to building a shared transfer vision, the stakeholders they needed to convene to shape that vision and the imperative behind this work. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: As a part of the Transfer Intensive, you had to develop a shared transfer vision statement. What do you think makes your statement transformational?

Pierce: I think what makes our vision transformative is that we’re approaching it as a comprehensive degree plan. We’re not looking to have students complete a certain number of credits at Minneapolis College and receive a piece of paper telling them how they can be successful at Metro State and what it should look like at Metro State.

This comprehensive degree plan includes plans for dual admission, co-enrollment and working together to maximize financial aid. The collaboration we’re building means we are sharing data in a way we never have before, even though we’re in the same system and sister institutions on a shared campus. We’re changing the way students access both of our institutions.

Arthur: I think back to our first conversations with our mentor, Sandy Shugart [president emeritus of Valencia College and senior fellow at Aspen]. He pushed us to develop a transformational vision that served a larger purpose for our institutions and the region. We saw a need in our community for a diverse, well-educated workforce. We realized we can meet these needs so much better if we come together to educate and support students.

Our ultimate goal with this vision is to help encourage our students to consider graduate degrees as well. We’re in a highly educated state with 16 Fortune 500 companies headquartered here, and they are looking for ever higher skills. To make a difference, we want to offer a continuum of degrees and credentials for students and our joint support along that journey.

Pierce: We are well aware of the disparities that exist in Minneapolis, St. Paul, the Twin Cities and Minnesota. Our institutions’ shared mission is to intervene and close those disparity gaps. We’re doing it in the context of a highly educated space with a less than 3 percent unemployment rate. However, neither of those statistics is reflected in the demographics we both serve. We are aligned in a commitment to changing the economic situation of the students we serve, which is what makes this collaboration so effective and rich, and I think will ultimately lead to huge successes for our students.

Q: When you realize this vision, what will it look like 10 years later for students on your campuses?

Arthur: In my vision, we are two separate institutions, but our students will see us as having permeable borders; they’ll move back and forth and access the resources of both institutions. They will have a really rich experience and no one will think “You’re a Minneapolis College student,” or “You’re a Metro State student”—instead it’ll be “You’re a Minneapolis College–Metro State student!” We think of it as a shared investment in the student.

Pierce: We always talk about seamless transfer, but it’s never been seamless. We want students to know where to access resources; even if it’s a resource that Metro State provides, they know they can access it any place on the Minneapolis College campus and vice versa. We want them to get resources, support and information in a timely fashion, so they’re maintaining momentum on the path that has been provided and they’ve helped establish through their comprehensive degree pathway.

Arthur: When I think about the faculty and staff point of view, there’d never be that sense of, “You’re a Minneapolis College student—I can’t help you with that question.” Everyone at both institutions, no matter the question, would be there to help all students. I also see a lot of engagement between faculty of Minneapolis College and Metro State, talking about the curriculum together to eliminate some of the biggest hiccups for students.

Pierce: I want to move toward a joint plan that ensures students access co-curricular support and activities planned by both institutions. You can just imagine how that type of planning would elevate students’ experiences. They’ll have a sense of belonging that hopefully we all had at some point throughout our undergraduate or graduate experience. Providing a consistent learning environment for students in and outside the classroom would be truly transformational.

Q: So, now that you have this vision, who needs to be at the table from your campus to help operationalize the vision? Whom do you need to engage beyond the campus community?

Arthur: We want our employers to understand they can give an internship or practicum experience to a student at Minneapolis College, and then we can ladder them into more intense work-based learning experiences as they progress through their degrees. The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul have the lowest unemployment rate in the country. But if you disaggregate those numbers, the unemployment rate is much higher for African American, Latinx or American Indian individuals than for white peers. We also think there’s opportunity for joint philanthropy. While our advancement folks need to sketch that out, we think employers and foundations will want to support this vision because it’s critical to the future health and vitality of the Twin Cities.

[State] legislators will be another key audience. They have a perennial concern about whether transfer is working effectively, so we’d like to show them a model they can support.

Pierce: The other people that I think are very helpful are some of our current community partners. They help us meet the needs of our various student populations. We are experts in postsecondary education. We’re not necessarily experts in housing, but many of our students enrolled here or at Metro State are housing insecure and need housing. To help them be successful in their educational journey, we need to be aware of those basic needs. Having community partners and nonprofits available on campus for our students makes it so much easier for them to navigate those spaces.

Q: What case do you make to those stakeholders about the importance of investing in and supporting community college transfer?

Pierce: For our internal audience, I think it is about clearly linking transfer to our overall mission and what it is that attracts people to our institution. Linking transfer to our antiracism work and dismantling systemic racism motivates our internal and external audience. We can say that’s what we’re committed to, but we must show them what we’re doing to make that true.

Also, there’s a shortage of workers here in Minnesota. With our help, the students at our two institutions can fill that skills gap. Our workforce needs these students to keep the economic engine of Minnesota revving and moving forward, ensuring a better, sustainable life for all people in our communities.

Arthur: It makes me think about a conversation I had with a Fortune 500 company headquartered here a couple of years ago. They said, “We can attract people from anywhere in the country; we can go to the best schools to recruit. Why should we be interested in your graduates?” I said, “Your company is well-known for its commitment to investing in the local community and striving to improve it. The single most effective thing you can do is invest in the students we produce. They want to live in this community, their families are here, and they have the opportunity to make a difference.” It turned out to be a persuasive argument, and it becomes even more powerful when our two institutions can make it together.

Q: What one piece of advice would you give to fellow presidents seeking to make transformational change through transfer?

Arthur: I think it is critical for the presidents in a transfer partnership to develop their relationship and to be clear that they are on the same page. Everybody else inside or outside the organization will pick up on it if you’re not really in sync. I have such a great partner, which is the most critical contributor to our success.

Pierce: I think people must know it’s not a passing fancy. It is something you’re committed to for the long run because it’s a lot of work. People will want to know—is this something I’m going to get started on and then you’re going to chase something bright, shiny and new next year? Or is this an enduring commitment that is built into your long-term vision and strategic vision and plan for the institution? Are you willing to devote the resources to make it happen? That makes a big difference to whether people are going to dig in or if they’re just going to play around the edges. They must know this is real, long-term and will not disappear.

Q: How has participation in the Transfer Intensive impacted your partnership and goals for the Minneapolis College–Metro State partnership?

Pierce: I think the Intensive enabled people to dig in and have conversations in a planned and coordinated fashion that they maybe wanted to have—but they just weren’t on the calendar or built into the annual work plan. It allowed people to come together and discuss a shared vision, what it would mean, and how to make that a reality. And it also challenged us to think realistically about the resources we need to make this happen. We thought through the next steps and blind spots.

Arthur: Never underestimate the value of a deadline. In some ways, working toward milestones drove those conversations much deeper. Having to report back and participate in the next session challenged us to tackle big barriers. Before, we felt stuck by hard conversations around accountability, financial aid and student success. Without accountability to getting it done, it has been easy to say, “We’ll put that question aside” and never get to what we saw as our real vision.

Pierce: Being part of the Intensive, documenting and putting forward a vision, helped us identify the policies we knew needed to be addressed at the system level. We knew we had a certain amount of control over local policies, but we had to identify and call out system-level policies we don’t control. And we had to develop a strategy to impact those policies, both in Minnesota and with the federal government. It’s hard to lobby for change from the federal government if you don’t come with data and champions in your corner. The Intensive helped us target the specific changes we’re looking for.

Q: For a president who might not have the support of an initiative like the Transfer Intensive but is interested in transfer, what would you recommend as their first step?

Pierce: Step one would be to become familiar with your data, understand what’s happening at your institution and where your students are going and where they are not. Identify if they are graduating, if they are transferring with too many credits and their momentum once they get to your institution. If you’re getting a lot of students from one place or you have a lot of students going to one place and you can see a pattern of barriers, that may be the first partner you want to engage with. This is going to get you the biggest gain. Find that partner and start gauging their level of interest.

Arthur: I’d have to agree. Having those conversations and thinking about our shared vision—together—was so valuable. It also helped us to think about this shared vision right at the outset, to make it aspirational and focus on what will serve students best. That work is perhaps step two.

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