In 2018, a group of colleagues from the Charles A. Dana Center, the Texas Association of Community Colleges, the Texas A&M University System, the Texas State University System, the University of North Texas System and the University of Texas System came together in recognition of the need to improve collaboration across higher education in the state to make meaningful progress on equitable transfer student outcomes. The group began meeting quarterly as the Texas Transfer Alliance, with advisory support from Educate Texas and the national Tackling Transfer initiative.
How important is cross-sector collaboration in a state like Texas? No other state resembles Texas in terms of its exponentially complicated public higher education landscape, which includes seven university systems, fifty community college districts, several public independent universities, and an active state agency, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB). Texas has nearly 1.3 million undergraduate students and close to 40% of them are expected to transfer at some point. Latinx and Black students make up over 52% of the enrollments, and those percentages are expected to increase given the just-released 2021 Census data.
Transfer has also been heavily legislated in Texas in recent years—powerful legislation with good intentions, that often point to inadequacies at the state and institutional levels in areas such as credit applicability, availability of timely and actionable data, and student- and equity-centered policy and practice. The legislation can also place undue burden on resource-strapped institutions, 2- and 4-year, especially in terms of meeting reporting requirements from the THECB.
The transfer landscape in Texas both benefits and suffers from all this complexity. Designed to undergird support for system- and institution-led transfer reform efforts across sectors, the early days of the Texas Transfer Alliance have helped to bring coherence, connectivity and a shared equity lens to the work. We have a long way to go in that necessary reset of transfer articulated so powerfully by our Tackling Transfer Policy Advisory Board colleagues, but working across sectors has helped us to build a critical foundation grounded in:
- Trust and relationships: Regular cross-sector meetings build trust and engender strong relationships and collaboration, allowing for open discussion among critical friends to push each other to always keep students at the center of needed change and to be relentless in applying an equity lens to all our endeavors, within and across our systems, sectors, and institutions.
- Data-informed: Higher ed policy-makers always refer to the goal of making transfer seamless. That endeavor entails, among other things, first making the “seams” visible and transparent so they can be removed if they are barriers, or flattened out and integrated into the fabric of student progression, from recruitment, enrollment, persistence, completion and job attainment. We know a lot about how to better serve transfer students, thanks to the Tackling Transfer Initiative and the research conducted by its lead organizations—HCM Strategists, SOVA and the Aspen Institute—as well as others like the Columbia University’s Community College Research Center. We have access to rich data and analytics coming from the University of Texas System’s Transfer Study and the Texas Association of Community Colleges’ Texas Success Center, as well as the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the National Student Clearinghouse.
- Troubleshooting and sharing: The table set by the Alliance fosters collaborative problem-solving—and there are lots of problems. The cross-fertilization of ideas and data- and practice-sharing is rich. So are the policy exchanges and debates, accompanied by reminders to be inclusive across sectors, especially given the big footprint that the university systems can have, including the largest ones, the University of Texas and the Texas A&M Systems, and the significant resource differences among members.
- Institutional practice and exemplars: Most importantly, the institutions that make up our systems and sectors guide our work and provide exemplars for how best to serve transfer students. Countless faculty, staff and administrative leaders at our colleges and universities are in the trenches educating and serving students. One of the most exciting components of the Texas Transfer Alliance is the Transfer Partnership Strategy led by the Dana Center, in which 26 of our combined campuses are working in two- and four-year pairs to strengthen transfer at the local level.
Playing well with others is essential, and makes our lives easier. Most importantly, it ensures that Texas students are able to pursue postsecondary education through equitable pathways, with the academic foundations and financial and other supports they need to be successful, that position them to meet their immediate goals (a certificate, a degree, a job) and their long-term goals (a meaningful life and career). Critically, the members of the Texas Transfer Alliance represent 86% of the public undergraduate enrollments in the state. Meeting the Alliance’s ambitious goals, all of which have seen progress since we formed in 2018, means impacting the success of hundreds of thousands of students, large percentages of whom are low-income, first-generation, and racially and ethnically diverse.
The action takes place on our campuses, yet leadership must also be committed and clear. That is true for institutions and postsecondary systems, and cross-sector collaboration like the Alliance leverages the scaling potential of systems and organizations like the Texas Association of Community Colleges. In a state where students transfer in all directions—vertically, laterally, in reverse and in swirls—transfer student success truly is every sector’s responsibility. The Texas Transfer Alliance is certain to evolve as we look to the future; its early days have laid a foundation for a focus on transfer, providing a forum and motivation to act, collaboratively, to ensure that what we know translates into what we do, and that we always keep equitable student success at the center.
Rebecca Karoff is the associate vice chancellor for academic affairs for the University of Texas System.