Addressing the
Transfer Maze

Recognizing Institutional Barriers Inhibiting the Transfer Process

The recent report “THE TRANSFER PLAYBOOK: ESSENTIAL PRACTICES FOR TWO- AND FOUR-YEAR COLLEGES” published by Teachers College of Columbia University highlights the challenges of serving prospective transfer students who bridge between two and four-year institutions in pursuit of their college degree.

Addressing the transfer maze begins with recognizing the institutional barriers built-in to standalone institutions as they adjust to market conditions. Most of the transfer barriers are unintended consequences of institutional actions.

  • First, many institutions design and setup programs of study on the basis of attracting and retaining traditional students first and filling in the seats with transfer students as needed.
  • Second, transfer students carry the additional burden of defending their investment in prior learning to warrant not repeating course work.
  • Third, feeder institutions establish and support transfer pathways, with various levels of insight into how receivers are open to the preparedness of their students.

In general, each institution’s curriculum is established to target workforce objectives. The academic departments and leadership interpret the market and project offerings. They design to serve the ideal traditional student seeking completion within two or four years - without the variation transfer inserts.

Some institutions do create special transfer programs designed by partnerships. They draw success from sustaining the articulation agreements promoted if the will is matched by resource allocation and budget. According to the Columbia University Playbook though, most students who transfer from the two year to four year do so without finishing their associates degree, suggesting the effort aligning curriculum and programs competes with other motives held by leaners and institutions.

“Despite this great promise, the transfer process does not work well for most students.”

Nontraditional enrollment strategy is setup as a lower priority emphasized to fill seats and revenue lost when attrition occurs. On the surface, an institution may welcome transfer students equally with traditional students, but the devil in the details supporting the transfer process reveals how an institution embraces and serves the transfer process or basically responds to the consequence or planned outcome. Outcomes often abstract how institution view learners; how learners view themselves and how the transfer process is managed, coordinated and aligned with core objectives of the institution or not.

Undergraduate, four-year Student churn happens for many reasons which we need not drill into here. In general, as attrition lowers given the attention to student success, the institution de-emphasizes the transfer process as a by-product. Less seats are needed to fill from two-year students or other nontraditional affinity groups. This raises the rationale “why emphasis and budget for a process that will eventually reduce?”

Historically, many institutions place a low emphasis on streamlining the transfer process because the ultimate or may we suggest ideal goal is to have full enrollment from traditional pathways. They lack buy-in across administrative and academic departments to make transfer integral and equal to traditional pathways. Transfer for decades has been viewed sort of as a distraction from the core institutional desire to address traditional students attending and completing the entire set of program requirements from within the college or university – and not outside their classroom. This is intuitive given the motivation to serve the best and brightest – assumed to enter the doors traditionally because they have had the privilege, access and path prepared for them, versus those that do not.

This orientation led to a reluctance to support and adopt unifying strategies that would elevate and serve transfer pathways as equal with traditional. Technologies can address the challenges of guidance, progress checking, alerts, currency and sustainability – while reducing duplication of data and effort by optimizing a shared process – instead of working from sender to receiver as two isolated systems.

Budget and IT technologies continued to focus on traditional models of enrollment and completion without enough of an emphasis on the cost of supporting collaborative technologies. Institutions often evade these technologies that would enhance institutional collaboration supported by lack of resources, competing priorities and difficulty to think about the externalities they have limited visibility too.

Institutions generally address the academic oversight, advising and the guidance information based upon paper flows supported by form-based petitions. Without automation, the slowness, delays and variation how administrative and academic departments act are impacted by volume and timelines.

“Competition for students, misaligned incentives, and resource constraints each play a role in undermining the smooth functioning of the transfer process.”

Administrative departments are supported by the proactive Articulation Agreements provided by Academic departments and the general course equivalency process, they usually manage with the Registrar’s Office. Familiarity with a prospective learner’s prior path is important. Admissions offers guidance aligned to what they know in general. Cursory or preliminary review of course titles and descriptions from known institutions are weighed differently than the unfamiliar. This adds delays and holdups when Admissions needs to forward requests to assess a learner’s assertions to Faculty. In the meantime, they may offer antidotal summary information to decide upon with caveats – or withhold it on the promise of doing a full audit upon matriculation. Which then contributes to “transfer shock” when a learner is informed late – that some of their coursework may transfer as electives, and they need to take additional coursework to satisfy the core requirements that did not count.

Academic departments act when learners enroll and matriculate, further reveals the lack of priority establishing responsive services in balance with proactive ones preparing and sustaining articulation agreements with partner institutions. A lack of a responsive transfer process exasperates learners seeking clear and divisive answers on acceptance of transfer credit and future study plans when they may not know their program of study or the need to change it, given their capabilities, capacities and interest.

The information often harvested from prior learning assessment also relied on administrative personnel in Admissions and Registrar Offices to assess prior learning or external learning experiences. From the Academic side of the house, this lacks the academic rigors of external learning assessment. Familiarity of institutions was substituted for standing up academic oversight, rubrics, precision and quality control. Further frustrating those in the institution dedicated to or allocated to support the transfer process further frustrating expectations in the transfer process.

Staff and Faculty attitudes guide how transfer practices are proactively or reactively handled by institutional departments, with an emphasis on maintaining standards, recording precedents and validating comparable academic rigor. Practices are often welded into workflows designed to support traditional student enrollment. The added paper dependencies, receipt of transcripts from other institutions and the methods used to assess prior learning require a sequence of steps infused with duplication. While SIS technology is often standalone and isolated, lacking connectivity to support shared data and workflows working together. This duplication, false sense of data currency and trust in the use of artifacts dependent on the data such as guided pathways, articulation agreements and study plans designed for transfer student success.

Helping students find their way out of the Transfer Maze

The Transfer Maze

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