The higher education delivery system in the United States is, at best, leaky. We are seeing a record drop in enrollment due to a number of societal and economic factors, including rhetoric that questions the value proposition of higher education. Student debt is on the rise and there is a growing demand to demonstrate a return on investment.
I’m biased, of course, but I’ve always believed it’s worth the investment if students graduate with a meaningful degree that sets them up for long-term success. The problem is that too many students get lost and escape the system without proof of identity. These leaks are more pronounced when students are looking to transfer from one college to another.
One of the main challenges is that many of our current transfer policies and practices are designed around institutions, not students. But we may finally be turning the corner.
A new report — the first from the Power of Systems initiative recently launched by the National Association of System Heads (NASH) — identifies key approaches systems are using to enhance student mobility and credit transfer across the country. These include policies that ensure transfer of courses and grades, align general education frameworks, create shared early learning outcomes across majors, and provide credit transfer calls by students and institutions. . Some systems have even adopted reverse transfer initiatives that allow students to transfer credits from their four-year institution to the two-year institution where they started, in order to “complete” their associate degree.
For many, the idea that a higher education system has a role to play in student success may come as a surprise. These entities have always been considered state agencies that set budgets and policies. The reality, however, is that higher education systems, which serve 75% of all students in public four-year institutions, may be our best bet for expanding access and increasing graduation. Systems have the data to track students, the leverage to facilitate collaboration, and the authority to create policies. In fact, as Jason Lane and Jonathan Gagliardi note in their new edited collection Higher education systems redesignedsystems “increasingly strive to harness the collective power of multiple campuses to improve student achievement, strengthen communities, and build state economies.”
Transference is one of the best examples of the transformative effect of systems. Even after overcoming the political and practical obstacles to transfer – which I know from personal experience to be a Herculean feat – we have continued to fail to meet the needs of students. Public higher education systems can be the solution.
For example, a five-year evaluation of a system-wide transfer policy for the 64 campuses of the State University of New York system found that, as a result of the policy, “graduate completion rates students have increased, the time to obtain a degree has decreased and the number of credits to graduation has decreased”. This happened after decades of those numbers not budging.
Meanwhile, in Wisconsin and Maryland, cross-system transfer initiatives recognize that students can transfer between campuses as well as between systems. Much of this work is still in its early stages and results have yet to be tracked, but early indicators suggest these efforts are making a difference.
As the NASH report illustrates, systems can approach these issues from several angles. We can now track and analyze transfer analytics across multiple campuses, allowing administrators to see how students move between campuses, which majors are most popular, where students are losing credit, and how transfer affects rates graduation. The systems are also able to take advantage of technology solutions that help students compare transfer options between campuses. They can even use AI to help professors and advisors make decisions about course comparability and transferability.
The future of transfer student success lies in the power of systems. With three out of four students nationally enrolled in public higher education systems, there is no doubt about the potential for bold partnerships to expand opportunity and advance equity for all students. And this, in turn, will advance the prosperity of the nation.
Nancy L. Zimpher is Chancellor Emeritus of the State University of New York System, Co-Chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, and Director of Power of Systems, an effort by the National Association of System Heads to rethink the way the higher education can advance the nation’s prosperity.