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Community college transfer has been called the Gordian knot, impossibly tangled and far from seamless or student-centered. It’s not uncommon for experienced educators and seasoned policy makers alike to throw their hands up in disbelief when confronted with the inconsistencies and tremendous complexity of the transfer process.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, nationally, only 13 percent of students who begin at a community college are supported in crossing the graduation stage with a bachelor’s degree six years later, and white students are nearly twice as likely as Black and Latinx students to reach that milestone. The Public Policy Institute of California finds that in the Golden State, only 19 percent of community college students who set a goal of transfer successfully do so within four years.

To change that status quo, and build a more equitable COVID-19 recovery, we must untangle the perplexing layers that impede successful transfer. And while education policy making can sometimes seem like a nebulous, unfamiliar process, it may be the most significant lever in moving the needle on improving community college transfer for students across the country. States from California to Connecticut have begun making the case for disrupting the transfer status quo with varying levels of success.

As experienced legislative advocates for advancing equitable, student-centered pathways in education, we believe that policy makers can and should be compelled to remove persistent systemic barriers that prevent far too many students from reaching their college dreams.

The following considerations should help stakeholders prepare to tackle their transfer policy push:

  • Assess what role you or your organization are best positioned to play. Just like actors play different roles in a movie, advocates, too, play different roles to help create policy change. Are you the convener of different voices, are you providing critical data on an issue, are you scorching the earth outside the Capitol in press conferences? It is important to play to your greatest strengths.
  • Identify a strong champion who has the wherewithal to remain on the issue. The key to building and sustaining support, and ultimately victory, for a legislative initiative is to early on identify a policy maker who will carry the water and stay engaged for the long haul. As California sought to address historic transfer reform (SB 1440) by creating an associate degree for transfer that would guarantee admission to the California State University system, the highly respected Senator Alex Padilla was that essential policy maker. He dug into the issue, carried follow-up legislation and continued to advocate for successful implementation of the policy as he ascended to secretary of state and his appointment to the U.S. Senate.
  • Build a winning coalition. Once you’ve committed to your role and found your champion, it is critical to build a “bulletproof” winning coalition. Your coalition should bring together a diverse team that is collectively aligned on the broader goal of enacting change. This means that the tent may be bigger than you initially envisioned but that’s OK. Policy wins when the constituents or those impacted win, not one organization. Additionally, a winning coalition can include unlikely voices or those with different views. But remember that at the end of the day, while compromise is important and aligned interests are golden, you shouldn’t sacrifice core elements of policy to satisfy the opposition.
  • Weave together student voice and data to tell transfer students’ stories. Transfer students have a compelling story to tell about how they are navigating their learning, work and lives. Combine student voices with data -- disaggregated by key student characteristics such as income, race/ethnicity and age -- to illustrate the many complexities and barriers students face on their paths to completion, and their ideas for how to better support their success. In Connecticut, this was a key strategy during the push to offer undocumented students institutional aid. It was hard to argue against the policy when students who had graduated from the state’s public high schools were walking around with robes and graduation caps, vividly sharing their journeys and aspirations to be part of Connecticut’s workforce.
  • Research the opposing view and engage the opposition. While you may think you have the best policy idea on earth, there will always be an opposing view. A former secretary of education once imparted these words of wisdom: “No policy change worth pursuing is without opposition.” The key is to hear the opponent’s concerns while remaining focused on the remedy you’re seeking. The best advocates can hear the critiques, develop sound alternatives and communicate them better than the opposition.
  • Approach your campaign to transform transfer with a long-term vision. Finally, it is best to set the expectation that the policy change you are seeking will not happen the first year you attempt it. A long-term vision means you are committed to building allies and becoming a trusted source for policy makers seeking information on the issue. Long-term vision means a commitment on your part to see the journey through until change is made. Good advocates will help get policy enacted. The best advocates are also engaged for policy implementation to ensure fidelity and accountability.

Taken together, these strategies have the potential to move policy that helps untie a tangled transfer system. Our institutions have a moral and economic imperative to help millions of community college transfer students complete the degrees that will ensure they succeed in career and life. We now have the opportunity to unravel this troubling transfer knot once and for all.

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