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Through decades of higher education evolution, credit transfer has been top of mind for policy makers, institutional leaders and students. From common course numbering to reverse transfer to broader pathways work, policy efforts and national initiatives have sought to ease the process of credit mobility to promote equitable outcomes, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds and persistently minoritized communities. The Education Commission of the States and Sova recently conducted a landscape scan of national transfer reform efforts, priorities and outcomes for the Catalyzing Transfer Initiative funded by the ECMC Foundation. This initiative pulled together seven partner organizations actively seeking solutions to improve transfer outcomes to foster shared learning and collaboration. The partner organizations include the American Association of Community Colleges, the Aspen Institute, the Gardner Institute, HCM Strategists, the Institute for Higher Education Policy, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

The landscape scan reviewed national transfer initiatives over the past 10 years, including Project Win-Win (2009-2013), Credit When It’s Due (2013-2015), Interstate Passport (2016-present), Degrees When Due (2019-present) and Tackling Transfer (2019-present). Across these foundation-funded initiatives, credit reclamation and community college credit applicability in transfer are the dominant focus areas. As we conducted interviews with researchers, advocates and technical assistance providers associated with these initiatives, we heard again and again that the most important -- and often underappreciated -- key to boosting equitable outcomes in any transfer-improvement initiative is focused, long-term, relationship-driven coordination between multiple key stakeholders implicated in the transfer process. These can include policy makers, institution leaders, administrators, faculty and students.

We also examined broader approaches to pathways and portability to mine lessons. Guided pathways, math pathways and dual enrollment each play an integral role in lowering barriers to transfer student success, and the overarching lessons from these ongoing efforts -- like the other specific credit-focused efforts -- include the core necessity of long-term commitment across diverse stakeholder groups to the principled pursuit of structural and cultural change focused on the student experience. In addition to lessons of practice, we also explored transfer policies and procedures related to portability and learner agency, including prior learning assessments, competency-based education and incremental credentials (or credential stackability).

The leading portability efforts emphasize the infrastructure and policies that help institutions honor and acknowledge -- as progress toward credential -- multiple learning modalities and the demonstrated acquisition of learning from a wide range of settings. And just as with other transfer-improvement work, those involved in portability efforts stress the importance of attending to both the technical and adaptive challenges in policy and practice.

Lessons Learned

Through qualitative interviews, Sova culled a list of 10 cross-cutting lessons learned and key insights from past and current transfer initiatives, including:

  1. “Transfer” is itself a word that feels increasingly outdated to many because it signals a clean, linear process that does not comport with the contemporary reality of student mobility. The complex universe of student transitions is one of swirl that belies any simple notion of two-year-to-four-year transfer.
  2. The equity implications of transfer/transitions remain underappreciated, and there is significant need for more truth telling -- and better use of existing data -- to show plainly what is not working for today’s students. Over all, better advocacy work is needed at every level.
  3. Investment in data infrastructure and effective data use are sorely needed, and institutions/systems are far behind where most assume them to be.
  4. Work focused on program pathways between two-year and four-year institutions is vital, but more attention needs to be paid to systems, states and regions as key units of analysis and change on behalf of more equitable outcomes for transfer students. Likewise, more attention needs to be paid to the incentives and disincentives driving institutional behavior with respect to transfer students.
  5. While the state remains an important unit of change, the future of transfer student success work will call reformers to look beyond state lines and at the broader ecosystem of postsecondary attainment that exceeds state boundaries.
  6. Smart use of technology, which includes clear-eyed attention to the human side of change as well as technical capacity for skilled and committed adoption, is an essential piece of the transfer puzzle that deserves greater attention.
  7. Policy barriers are manifold and granular (e.g., transfer student success is not just about formal transfer policy, it’s also about things like math requirements, administrative holds policies, "opt-in" policies around applying/paying to graduate and the ongoing invisibility of transfer students with respect to metrics that matter to institutions).
  8. While next-level policy work is needed, transfer improvement efforts rise or fall according to the quality of implementation. Focused senior leadership combined with empowered teams, strong relationships and strong connections with “front-line” faculty and staff are important factors in ensuring innovation in policy and practice take root.
  9. The effectiveness of transfer policy is impacted by policies in other areas of the student learning journey, and reformers focused on transfer student success should adopt a wider view of available levers. For example, the way placement and remediation are structured at community colleges shapes would-be transfer students’ chances of success from day one.
  10. Long-term focus and commitment are required, and difficult to sustain, for the most promising evidence-based innovations to result in real improvements in achieving more equitable outcomes for today’s students.

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