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Over the course of the COVID pandemic thus far, students have faced massive disruption in their learning. Last summer, one in three American adults said they had canceled or changed their education plans, including delaying their enrollment or taking fewer courses. Enrollment was down across higher education this fall, with truly alarming numbers of Black and Latinx students who would have been at a community college forced to hit pause on their education.

These enrollment patterns are deeply concerning for what they mean for individuals’ lives. They also jeopardize our nation’s capacity to achieve an equitable economic recovery. Postsecondary education remains the best bet for individuals to achieve economic security and genuine upward mobility, and our country needs a more educated and nimbler workforce to meet our goals for civic engagement, a robust economy and shared prosperity. As automation and other technological shifts intensify, many of the jobs lost in the pandemic are not expected to return, and many workers will need to reskill and move to other industries. And Americans recognize this, with 42 percent of aspiring adult learners saying the pandemic has increased their interest in postsecondary education. In short, COVID-19 has produced a large group of learners who will need ways to effectively enter, re-enter or continue higher education, move across institutions, and have their prior learning and work experience recognized and applied toward a bachelor’s degree.

To do so requires building a seamless transfer system -- one that ensures that institutions not only accept transfer credits, but also ensure those credits count toward program completion. Every state in the nation has some form of state or system transfer policy in place, but those policies are cumbersome and often remain unenforced. As a result, transfer student outcomes remain weak and highly inequitable. Analysis by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that despite such policies, transfer students still lost 43 percent of their credits in the process of moving between institutions. This has to change, and now is the time for states and systems to step up in bold ways.

The Power of the System

We focus here on lessons from work with systems because, at least for the foreseeable future, transfer challenges will be solved primarily within states and regions. Public systems serve a majority of today’s students, and an overwhelming majority of post-traditional students, including first-generation college goers, displaced workers and historically marginalized and persistently minoritized students. And while there is deep work occurring between individual institutions, the majority of students transfer now across a variety of types of institutions, and they often transfer multiple times. One-to-one solutions aren’t enough. Developing a cohesive ecosystem that recognizes and rewards learning and work experience at the state or systems level remains essential to truly tackling transfer.

Unsurprisingly, an institution’s belonging to an educational system does not guarantee seamlessness of transfer for its students -- even when two-year and four-year institutions live in the same system. Resisting the temptation to view systems as having, by structural definition, the power to solve transfer is an important place to start in harnessing the power that systems do have to drive change. Likewise, it’s important to understand that how the system is positioned and positions itself matters a great deal. While systems serve a critical regulatory role, that regulatory identity can operate at cross purposes with the advocacy role that systems must also learn to play if they are to be engines of significant change. A number of systems are leading in this area, actively working to evolve beyond a compliance entity to one that drives innovation through advocacy and support:

The system was really set up as being an oversight-and-compliance role, and that’s a critical role. It has to be the case that we make sure that [the] compliance role is taken care of and taken care of well. But what’s newer is recognizing that we also have a role as a transformational partner. In addition to playing a regulatory role, we also have a role in walking a journey with our institutions to actually shape and change the way in which our institutions function -- not only as individual institutions, but actually as an overall educational ecosystem. That is really different, to realize that we can have a role that empowers, enables, and supports, and also creates the culture for change, so that we move together to create something that’s better than what we had before.

-- Tristan Denley, University System of Georgia

Moving Beyond Business as Usual

Our work with the Tackling Transfer initiative has provided insights into how postsecondary systems and institutions can move beyond business as usual, and specifically what lessons systems leaders can apply right now amid the uncertainty of the pandemic. Based upon that work, we make the following core recommendations.

Recommendation No. 1: Set the expectation that COVID-19 must be a catalyst for sustained equity-focused change.

  • Refuse to drift back to business as usual. As stewards of significant public investment, system leaders have a responsibility to foster a culture of student-focused change and innovation. The health, education and workforce impacts of COVID-19 have disproportionately affected low-income communities and people of color. Many institutions and systems have responded with innovations such as increasing flexibility for financial aid, eliminating the use of placement testing and reducing barriers to credit transfer. But many fear these innovations will be rolled back after the pandemic, rather than cemented and expanded upon to support equity. System leaders have powerful roles to play in shoring up gains and preventing a return to the pre-pandemic status quo.
  • Lead boldly in empowering students as active owners of their educational journeys. As leaders examine the culture of systems, we encourage intentional exploration of the role of the system in building a statewide ecosystem that recognizes and rewards learning wherever it occurs. Students today are achieving learning in many settings, including in online certificate programs, dual credit courses while in high school, work-based learning and digital badging. How can systems promote student agency and success by recognizing -- and accepting as progress toward a degree -- learning that has occurred and been validated in settings outside the system?

Recommendation No. 2: Visibly commit to prioritizing the needs of students in system policies and practices.

  • Define transfer success as applicability. Ensure that credits not only transfer, but also apply to a student’s program completion -- and place transfer front and center in systemwide conversations and communications about state attainment and equity goals.
  • Publish finely disaggregated data. Disaggregate transfer student outcomes data by SES and race/ethnicity annually using the Tracking Transfer measures to identify “leaky” points in the transfer pipeline across the system.
  • Interrogate how well financial aid programs serve transfer students. Explore the barriers transfer students face when they seek to move their financial aid with them to a new institution, and examine data on the students who stop out in good standing for financial reasons.
  • Engage in deep analysis of how transfer students are faring at institutions in the 10 highest-volume transfer programs in the system. Put the student experience at the center of this analysis and bring both qualitative and quantitative data to the discussion of improving outcomes in high-volume programs.

Recommendation No. 3: Incentivize significant improvements in institutional practice and courageous transfer partnership work.

  • Create conditions, opportunities and venues for transfer partner institutions to jointly and honestly interrogate policy, practice and data sharing. Help get the right people to the table for the right conversations, and focus on scaling the essential practices associated with improved outcomes.
  • Provide incentives to encourage collaboration rather than competition between institutions. Help institutional leaders to look beyond the norm of competition to position transfer student success as a survival strategy, and support experiment with new models such as dual admissions and co-location.
  • Modernize policies related to the applicability of credit. Examine the alignment of applied degrees, applicability of technical credits and prior learning assessment, to ensure that institutions maximize credit applicability, provide clear guidance to students, reduce the bureaucratic burden and ultimately lower barriers to bachelor’s degrees.
  • Publicly celebrate four-year institutions doing the right work. Lift up the stories of four-year institutions that are actively supporting faculty- and staff-led efforts to build a transfer-receptive culture.

For access-oriented colleges and universities, many of which are governed by public systems, stepping up to fix transfer is critical both for extending opportunity to more individuals and for ensuring the survival of these vitally important institutions. Given expected declines in enrollment that will flow from the decreasing birth rate of recent decades, and the still unknown effects of the COVID-19 crisis, it is clear that access-oriented institutions would be well served by moving beyond business as usual in bold ways. If they don’t, we risk losing those engines of upward mobility and regional economic development at the very time we need them most. Better serving post-traditional students is critical to our nation’s equitable recovery and the long-term health of our postsecondary ecosystem.

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