There continues to be sustained focus on the topic of transfer in U.S. higher education. While there are any number of promising sets of practices that improve emerging from a variety of pilot projects and systems, I have not yet seen a silver bullet. And I frankly don’t expect to see one. Because a single solution is unlikely to solve the myriad of interrelated practices and processes that are embedded in the concept we call transfer. To provide better information and faster time to meaningful credentials for this large and diverse population of learners, we require a fresh look at the infrastructure that serves the process. When we talk about infrastructure, we are talking not only about the technology, but also about the policies, practices and resources that are foundational to an institution’s ability to effectively support the learner’s journey to completion of the desired credential.
We know that transfer is ubiquitous and complicated.
The points of authority over the transfer infrastructure are necessarily decentralized; administrative and academic processes live in differing spheres of knowledge and authority. It is rare for any single department to have a full understanding of how their decision-making impacts other departments and the learner we call the transfer student. And I have mentioned before that the label we apply to those learners is in itself problematic and implies a uniformity in their profile that simply does not exist. Policy, practice and process must account for the whole of our learner population.
With nearly 40 percent of all learners porting credit from other institutions into their degree programs and the recent rise in interest in and focus on non-credit bearing learning opportunities, the number of learners who enter the institutional transfer labyrinth will only increase. Registrars, advisors, admission officers, transfer and articulation officers, compliance officers, financial aid professionals, continuing education professionals, and faculty all exercise judgment and authority in overlapping and domains make up the walls of the maze, and can be so embedded into their subsections that they can’t see the whole path. And if we can’t see it from within the institution, where does that leave the learner?
Over the past two years, we have researched and articulated the numerous ways that transfer is broken:
- Institutional credit articulation policies are complicated and inconsistent; policies and practices are not transparent to the learner or to institutional staff.
- Information about the applicability of earned credit is not easily available to prospective learners.
- Practices and tools for the recognition of learning from nontraditional sources are not well articulated or practically implemented.
- Advising for the “nontraditional” populations is not prioritized, or if there is focus it is one-dimensional, addressing a narrowly defined definition of a single subpopulation in the transfer realm.
- Pathways between institutions are not aligned clearly or well-maintained.
- Most processes related to transfer are executed manually in disconnected silos; the available supporting technology is underutilized.
- Resources dedicated to learner credit mobility are insufficient and often supported by a business model that creates additional barriers for learners who have traditionally been underserved.
Where do we even begin?
Faced with this set of challenges, it can be difficult for an institution to understand where to begin, and there is no shortage of advice in the higher education community. Each of our professional perspectives provides a valid lens on the challenge of transfer; each of us has a piece of the solutions. But there is not a single entity that has the complete answer or that can solve for the entirety of the problem. All of the challenges are interconnected in ways that are difficult to unbundle. To do transfer well there is not a single entity that has the complete answer or that can solve for the entirety of the problem. All of the challenges are interconnected in ways that are difficult to unbundle. To do transfer well requires professionals across campus to coordinate and collaborate even more than in the past. And it requires a commitment from the whole of the institution.
I have become increasingly convinced that the transformation needed will require leaders in each of the relevant spaces to think differently. To that end, at the recent AACRAO Transfer & Technology Conference, I had a conversation with Emily Kittrell, Assistant Director from the National Institute for the Study of Transfer (NISTS) to share our emerging toolkits to guide institutions to examine their transfer and credit mobility infrastructure. We discussed AACRAO’s fall beta test of our new transfer designation, which guides an institution through a set of leading practices in transfer credit policy, practice, articulation and technology tied to relevant tools and resources to realize success. Upon successful completion, AACRAO will recognize institutions with an Excellence designation. Emily shared information about the upcoming release of their beta version of a Transfer Policy and Practice Audit Tool, designed to support institutions in discussing their approaches to transfer policy and practice, and create a team of transfer champions on campus. Both tools can provide a means by which an institution can have a positive impact on the transfer experience on campus by focusing attention and resources to build and maintain infrastructure. The approaches of AACRAO and NISTS in this work are different, and in many ways complimentary. And neither are complete.
It literally takes a village.
To truly re-envision transfer, we need to re-envision who we serve and how we serve them. We must expand the conversation beyond what we have narrowly defined as transfer — from one higher education institution to another — and think about the experience of lifelong learners, which is not linear. To remain relevant, we must consider the many ways in which adults move through learning experiences, both credit and non-credit, and work to support the learner to meet their academic and career goals by meeting them where they are, recognizing where they have been, and illuminating the most effective path forward at every step.
We cannot do this alone within our narrow professional spheres. It is the work of the whole of the community. We will need to engage the rest of our colleagues, both administrative and academic, to solve the institutional challenges related to transfer. Financial Aid, the Business Office, Academic Advising, Academic Affairs, Career Services — within the institution, all of these colleagues and their related professional associations have a valuable perspective that can help ease the credit recognition and degree attainment for our learners. And then we need to partner outside the institution, both locally and nationally, to connect to the learning experiences that are happening outside the institution, in order to understand the complete picture of the learners’ experiences and help them to realize the economic and social mobility that education promises to deliver.
We need to tackle the problem from multiple perspectives in order to achieve the desired outcome: An accessible and equitable ecosystem for credit mobility that engenders the trust of traditional higher education while supporting and empowering the learners in their lifelong academic and career development journeys. AACRAO is ready and willing to engage with our colleagues on this important work.
Melanie Gottlieb is the Executive Director, AACRAO