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The operating procedures of U.S. colleges and universities have become increasingly complex over time. The challenge of managing increasing complexity is ever more pressing as all industries continue to experience massive disruption in the still-emerging post-COVID future. As these disruptions are acutely impacting postsecondary enrollment patterns and the larger economy, transfer students seem disproportionately impacted in the latest enrollment numbers. For this reason and the economic turbulence that has accompanied the pandemic, the focus on transfer student success as an equity issue is receiving greater attention. This “Tackling Transfer” blog series and new scholarly works are calling out the equity imperative of improving outcomes for transfer students and are making bold new recommendations for systems change, with action focused at the federal, state and institutional levels.

Most states coordinate transfer through legislative statutes or other policy initiatives that require public colleges and universities to act in synchronization on transfer issues, and while there are benefits to coordinating transfer through a state system, systemness does not guarantee seamlessness, and policy alone can’t remove the barriers facing today’s transfer students. Rather, the pace and quality of progress toward improving local and statewide transfer systems and, ultimately, transfer student success depends on a dynamic, living network of disparate individuals in disparate units of disparate colleges and universities that each execute various components of transfer processes.

Applying systems theory to transfer allows us to use the iceberg metaphor -- viewing the problems of low and inequitable transfer student success as surface-level events caused by deeper systemic issues including underlying structures, interactions within the system that shape incentives and behavior, and long-standing mental models that influence decision making around institutional transfer processes. And, helpfully, systems theory reminds us that systems don’t make or remake themselves: it is humans that build, operate, replicate or have the power to change these complex systems that conspire against transfer student success.

Changing Human Systems Creates Systemic Change

Over the last decade, I have worked with hundreds of faculty and staff members across a large network of multisector institutions in my roles coordinating statewide transfer articulation initiatives, first in Ohio and now in Michigan. This experience has given me a front-row seat to the complexities of curriculum articulation, where I clearly see higher education’s persistent administrative silos as parts that impact less defined but structurally powerful interacting systems of articulation that directly impact students’ progression to degrees. In applying systems theory to my doctoral research examining systems of articulation, I have realized how powerful these systems of articulation are as structural gatekeepers to degree progression and completion for transfer students. Articulation systems involve a disparate network of organizational actors interacting to execute policies and processes that dictate whether or not students receive transfer credit for prior coursework that can be applied as degree requirements. This loosely coupled system interacts within the organizational ambiguity, administrative silos, cybernetic inconsistencies and fluid regulatory systems typical in higher education organization and forms a thick structural barrier to transfer student success.

Rebecca Lavinson offers additional context on how current articulation systems are not working for students. She underscores the necessity of addressing the human systems of transfer between institutions where trusting relationships and a unifying shared vision are necessary to make all transfer systems more student-serving, including articulation systems.

While systems theory has helped me make sense of the challenge transfer champions face in their day-to-day work, it has also shown me that a cybernetically connected network of faculty and staff members focused on understanding and collaboratively executing their respective roles within transfer systems hold incredible power to create systems change, with or without a policy lever.

Last week in this blog, my colleague Erica Orians described our ongoing work to address transfer systems change in Michigan -- a highly decentralized state that grants constitutional autonomy to its higher education institutions. As Erica discussed, we have collectively changed the landscape of transfer in Michigan while honoring the autonomy of governance in our colleges and universities. We are doing this not because state policy said we must, but because a growing collective of humans at our postsecondary institutions has embraced a shared vision for advancing transfer student success and is taking up the charge to lead from within and change the structure of transfer, both locally and on the statewide front. They are forging new relationships and collegially changing human systems, creating systemic change we all hope will yield more equitable student success outcomes.

Leveraging Structural Change in Transfer Systems

Systems thinking offers an established theory of change and tactical analysis tools to examine complex systems and find leverage within them for structural change. It is a helpful framework for transfer systems improvement since, as leading transfer researcher John Fink reminds us, transfer offers an opportunity to examine and address institutional performance gaps -- structural barriers -- that are systematically failing transfer students instead of continuing to focus (unfairly) on student performance gaps as reasons for lagging success rates. Motivating systems actors at all levels to embrace their role as equity change agents holds powerful promise to dismantle structural barriers and increase postsecondary attainment rates, particularly among historically underserved populations who frequently travel the community college transfer pathway.

Katie Giardello has spent the last decade working on statewide transfer initiatives alongside many deeply committed educators and administrators in two Midwestern states. She currently serves as manager of network engagement with the Michigan Community College Association’s Center for Student Success. She is also a doctoral student in higher education leadership at Western Michigan University, where her doctoral research focuses on systems of articulation.

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