Building Bridges For Transfer Students Requires Collaboration and Coordination

Ben Chrischilles, Steven Hahn

In Brief

5-Minute Read

In recent months, some of higher education’s biggest challenges have been exacerbated — from enrollment declines to a widening gap in equity and accessibility. To curb these trends and remain resilient, leaders across public and private fouryear institutions and community colleges are focused on supporting transfer students as they map their educational journeys in an era of uncertainty, economic hardship and disruption.

But to do so, institutions must first reckon with the attitudes and practices that have historically impeded transfer progress, then share the accountability for making systemic changes. Those that forge partnerships and bridge the transfer gap can not only seize an opportunity to clear long-standing barriers to student success — they can secure an advantage in an increasingly competitive market.

Students and administrators across four- and two-year institutions agree that transferring from one institution to another is harder than it should be. They also agree, according to a recent survey by Inside Higher Ed in partnership with Hanover and Huron, that a more “centralized approach to credit evaluation” could improve the transfer process — from accreditation and administration decisions to how effectively institutions are preparing students to transfer and supporting them on the other side. The findings in “The Transfer Landscape: A Survey of College Officials” highlight a striking perceptual gap between four- and two-year administrators that has long stood as a barrier to successful solutions.

Overcoming the divide will require collective accountability and a coordinated approach to achieving systemic change. To build a bridge that seamlessly supports student transfers, four- and two-year institutions must think carefully about how they broker strategic discussions, nurture and explore new partnerships, and make changes that improve the transfer student journey from start to finish.

Making the Case for Change

Building bridges between four- and two-year institutions not only requires mutual responsibility — it also promises mutual benefits. Take undergraduate enrollment, for example, which fell 4.9% compared with the previous fall, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s final report from the fall 2020 term. All forms of student transfers declined during the pandemic at a rate three times higher than nontransfer students, and community colleges were hit especially hard. They recorded a 10.1% overall enrollment drop and 19.4% fewer students transferring in from four-year institutions than the previous year. To prevent the decline in transfer student mobility from further amplifying the financial strain that Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings expect to continue for at least another year, four- and two-year institutions must act collectively and strategically to bridge the gap, regain transfers and curb the downward slide in enrollment.

Improving transfer mobility can also help institutions close a widening gap in diversity and equity. The pandemic’s disproportionate impact on underserved communities and students has set back many institutions’ diversity and inclusion efforts, to say nothing of the impact it has had on the lives and livelihoods of their students. The enrollment drop-off was the steepest at community colleges and public two-year colleges, which in turn impacts the four-year institutions that often receive upward transfers from these student populations down the road. Across the academic community, student transfers declined among every racial and ethnic group tracked. By promoting flexible transfer pathways and supporting student mobility, institutions can have a meaningful and compounded impact on advancing their missions to increase accessibility and strengthen equity and diversity outcomes.

Shifting Attitudes and Perceptions

Leaders of two- and four-year institutions share differing views about how well they are supporting transfer students but acknowledge the need for a clearly coordinated approach to student transfers. To collaborate effectively, these institutions must first overcome discrepancies in the perceptions and attitudes regarding their roles in the transfer student process.

When brokering conversations among faculty and administrative officers across four- and two-year institutions, facilitators should acknowledge and respect the work that has been done on both sides, and take care to avoid any fingerpointing that surfaced in the findings from “The Transfer Landscape: A Survey of College Officials.” For example, at two-year institutions, only 13% of administrators stated that their four-year counterparts are extremely or very effective when working with transfer students to approve academic credits. On the other hand, 51% of respondents from four-year private and public institutions stated that their institutions are effective in this area. And less than half of all respondents stated that two-year institutions are extremely or very effective at managing the transfer student process. Moving beyond these gaps in perception to a better understanding of student experiences will allow colleges and university leaders to consider the student transfer pathway from start to finish, rather than focusing on one side of the hand-off.

Aligning on Strategic, Systemic Changes

To build bridges that support smoother and more successful transfers, institutions should consider making strategic changes, rather than working in a silo. There are many opportunities to build partnerships, clear roadblocks to successful transfers, and re-imagine the system that supports students on their educational journey.

The following strategies can help leaders create smoother on-ramps and off-ramps for transfer students moving between two- and four-year institutions:

Supporting Student Mobility

As institutions react to the latest enrollment trends, the market for transfer students will grow increasingly competitive. For community colleges and four-year public and private institutions, it will be more important than ever to support transfer students, bolster enrollment and nurture many paths to success. Those who think carefully about how they broker strategic conversations between four- and two-year institutions, bridge the perceptual gap, keep the conversation focused on students, and enact strategic, systemic changes will move ahead of the curve and position their institution — and their students — for success.

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