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Independent colleges and universities today are facing daunting enrollment challenges. From the pervasive misconception of private institutions being unaffordable to the drop in the high school populations and to the question of the value of a college education, it is no wonder we are at a loss of where to begin. And yet, in Minnesota, our 18 private colleges and universities account for 31 percent of all undergraduate degrees in the state. If we are to continue to help Minnesota meet its education attainment goals and close the stubborn equity gap, we must also enroll and retain more transfer students.

We have made significant progress in recent years. Many of our private institutions are known to be transfer-friendly, accepting more credits that apply directly to a student’s degree. Still, there is more work to be done to address the hidden barriers that deter degree attainment. Doing right by the transfer student requires navigating perceptions of risks and threats to the institution. The interests of students and departments are not always aligned. Addressing the needs of both is why transfer work is so difficult.

To meet the challenge, it is vital to empower people across campus to lead positive change in practical ways. Too often, staffers feel they do not have the formal authority to address the transfer barriers. Faculty and administration may not be aware of the impact their academic policies have on individual students. With our current focus on improving transfer enrollment and retention, we have found five practical steps that help institutions uncover hidden issues, develop sustainable solutions and create a transfer-receptive campus. These incremental steps provide a road map for institutions to follow.

Deceptively simple, these steps build on each other to drive deep institutional change, enabling more baccalaureate-seeking community college students to enroll and graduate.

  1. Give your transfer students visibility on campus. Once enrolled, transfer students are absorbed into the student body. Track those students and point out their successes to faculty and administration. Share their stories with staff in different departments, post them on the website. Their stories matter. Departments may be surprised to find that their “star students” transferred in from a community college.
  2. Review your transfer policies (including admission, financial, advising and department policies). Put yourself in the shoes of a transfer student. Is the admission process simple and scholarships on par with first-year scholarships? How do discount rates compare? Do deadlines accommodate late applicants? Are general education requirements reduced when transfer credits increase? How quickly are students advised and allowed to register? What are the residency requirements? Can a transfer student access research and internship opportunities in their first year on campus?
  3. Share your findings with administration and faculty. Collect as much transfer student data as possible. Use specific student examples when discussing a policy issue. Share the transfer-receptive policies of your peer institutions. Be ready to suggest the policy changes that will benefit transfer students. Faculty and administration are more likely to explore changes, work through trade-offs and adjust, if they see respected peer institutions have implemented similar policies and practices and retained academic integrity.
  4. Be the voice of the transfer student across your campus. Attend campus discussions and share the transfer student perspective. In policy discussions ask the powerful question “How does this affect transfer students?” Be willing to disrupt the status quo to ensure the transfer student voice is part of the conversation. Invite transfer students to share their personal experiences at campus discussions, too.
  5. Support transfer agreement development with faculty. Debunk the myths regarding community colleges, their faculties and curricula. Encourage faculty members who have identified successful transfer students in their departments to share these examples with their colleagues. Faculty-to-faculty confirmation of the gifts transfer students bring to their programs is powerful. Help faculty build out full degree plans maximizing applicability of credit in transfer. Can the remaining course requirements be completed in two years if a student transfers in as a junior? Use these course reviews to uncover these hidden deterrents to timely degree completion and educate faculty on transfer challenges.

One does not need formal authority to initiate change, but you do need passion and knowledge. Any staff, faculty or administrator can facilitate these five practical steps. Imagine what could be accomplished on your campus when attention is paid to the needs of the transfer student.

Judy Niemi Johnson has worked with transfer students for 20 years. She is currently the assistant director of admission and transfer for the Minnesota Private College Council. She manages the Transfer Initiative project, which is funded by the Teagle Foundation and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

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