When Massachusetts adopted its Equity Agenda for public higher education, it committed to producing racially equitable outcomes while increasing overall degree attainment. With racial equity as the system’s top policy and performance priority, we collectively engaged in professional development with Shaun Harper of the University of Southern California’s Center for Race and Equity. We knew that we needed to change the system that had failed too many of students of color. To do that kind of work, we had to learn to recognize systemic barriers in order to succeed in dismantling them.
Transfer is part of that system. The commonwealth has long been engaged in initiatives to improve student mobility. The first Commonwealth Transfer Compact (CTC) was established in 1974! The CTC gave students full junior standing if they earned an associate degree at a community college, maintained a 2.0 grade point average and completed a minimum 35-credit general education core. Most of our policies today are variations on this theme. Our General Education Foundation, formerly known as the MassTransfer Block, formerly known as the Core, remains virtually unchanged. Why the name changes? When we actually spoke with students, they told us they thought MassTransfer Block meant their courses were blocked from transferring. In reality, the block was the opposite of that, but we learned that when we engage students in the policy-making conversation and center them in our decision making, a whole new world is revealed.
In addition to the Gen Ed Foundation, the commonwealth’s current MassTransfer program has a reverse transfer pathway, statewide transfer pathways in more than 40 disciplines, a statewide course equivalency database, a program aimed at improving degree completion for transfer students called the Commonwealth Commitment, and more. The state has invested an incredible amount of time, energy and resources to expand options and improve outcomes for transfer students.
This work is directly tied to our broader racial equity goals through two major initiatives now underway. The New Undergraduate Experience (NUE) convened students, faculty, staff, administrators, community leaders, industry partners, K-12 colleagues and nonprofit friends with the charge of developing recommendations that would recognize students’ cultural wealth, transform teaching and learning, and align system and institutional efforts to create student-ready campuses. NUE examined all aspects of the undergraduate experience, including transfer, and we came to the conclusion that we need to do better. When racial equity becomes the priority, everything shifts. As policy makers, we are excited about NUE’s recommendation to develop a statewide dual-admission program. But we also know that developing technical requirements for a new program won’t be enough. Students have told us that a sense of belonging on campus matters as much as the mechanics of transfer. Centering students in our program development requires us to expand our thinking about what constitutes student success.
While NUE represents a major engagement with external stakeholders, internal efforts are underway to conduct an equity audit for all student-facing policies and programs. Department staff feel prepared to conduct the audit using a racial equity lens because of our professional development, and we also recognize that learning about the impact of white supremacy culture on higher education is a lifelong project for us and for our students. The audit is informed by the agency’s racial equity principles, which are intended to assist in the cultural transformation of the department, as well as ground the Equity Agenda in equity-minded change. The MassTransfer team is examining every policy and program related to transfer and, along with colleagues from across the agency, will soon propose a new policy scheme aimed at centering racially minoritized students and eliminating racial disparities.
The ultimate goal is to eliminate the need for an Equity Agenda. Efforts to achieve racial equity should never be an add-on, but the center of our work in higher education. In Massachusetts, we have an opportunity to redesign our system and center students of color. Student mobility and transfer are central to the reconstruction of our system of higher education that is necessary to reach our goal of producing racially equitable outcomes in higher education.