John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

A State Level Focus on the “Other” New Students

John N. Gardner

In 1987 The Chronicle of Higher Education sent a reporter to the University of South Carolina. She spent two days with me learning about everything we were doing for our students in our University 101 course, and everything we were trying to do for our nation’s first-year students through what we called then, the “Freshman Year Experience” conferences. In her resulting two page spread, she dubbed me “John Gardner, a self appointed spokesperson….” Five years later an article in The New York Times, gave me a title I cherish even more: “The Dean of Freshman Happiness.” Now in the 21st century I would describe myself as again being a “self appointed spokesperson” but this time around for our country’s largest cohort of neglected, second class citizen students, transfer students. I am so pleased to be finding other champions too.

In putting that concern into action, the non-profit organization which I lead, recently had the privilege and opportunity to assist the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, in organizing a precedent setting convening for that state. And I want to share this simple but extremely important concept for which Kentucky’s premier public, two- year college system is showing the way.

What they did was quite profound: they organized an efficient, one-day meeting for the entire state higher education community—for ALL sectors: public and private, two-year and four-year. For leaders at all levels—institutional presidents, chief academic officers, and transfer student focused professionals. And KCTCS paid for every cent of this: there were no registration fees assessed. Talk about big picture thinking for the greater good! This was the first time this sector spanning institutional gathering had ever been convened on this topic, on any topic. How exciting.

Now how difficult would this be to organize in other states, or even regions? Our keynote speaker, Steven Handel, the chief undergraduate admissions officer for the University of California System, told us it would be impossible for him to imagine a comparable gathering in the state of California! But you can’t address any systemic problem in higher education without bringing the relevant stakeholders together. And they must include the most powerful members of those institutions who have the greatest ability to leverage both institutional and state-wide public policy.

So what did we do for a day? We convened to first hear an outstanding keynote presentation on the history of transfer in our country, as context for how we are or are not addressing transfer as the primary delivery route for baccalaureate degree attainment in the US—something at which while we are not performing nearly well enough, we are still the world’s leader. In this keynote we also considered what our role is in discouraging transfer which, while we say we value, we have found many ways of making very difficult for students to actually achieve.

Further in this meeting, we considered an exemplary national model for cross sector transfer by featuring the Orlando, Florida partnership of Valencia College and the University of Central Florida, known as Direct Connect.

We also had a precedent setting convening of the Presidents of public and private, two and four-year colleges and universities in one room for two and a half hours focusing on action steps for subsequent increased collaboration and problem solving to advance transfer. Just imagine that: two and a half hours of priceless , precious, presidential time spent on this highly neglected topic. Personally, I find there is no audience more challenging to maintain attention than college presidents who are much more likely to be consumed by mental distractions of problems back home and insuring their attention is more on their smart phones than whatever I am trying to get across. Actually, to be fair to our presidents, this is also a commentary on my ability as a communicator.

And we spent a comparable amount of time in a parallel session of sector spanning chief academic officers with an identical focus. We definitely left that session (which I had the privilege of facilitating jointly with the KCTCS Chancellor, Jay Box) wanting to have future conversations like that one.

And we considered in another session a motivational and substantive message on how academic advising can be used to improve transfer student success, delivered by the chief executive officer of the National Academic Advising Association, Charlie Nutt. If my readers haven’t had the pleasure of hearing him, they should.

And we introduced these stakeholders to the work of the National Institute for the Study of the Transfer Students, its work and findings. I recommend this as a resource for any institution wanting to improve performance in either sending or receiving transfer students. This session was provided by the Institute’s Executive Director, Janet Marling.

And, in the spirit of not being totally dependent on external expertise, we spent an extremely stimulating 75 minutes looking at doctoral dissertation level research conducted by Kentucky Community Technical College System faculty and staff comparing high impact and low impact two-year colleges in terms of their impact on transfer bound students. Of particular interest to me was their finding that high impact colleges were more likely to have a merged organizational structure in which Student Affairs was integrated within and reported to Academic Affairs!

I have participated in events in other states that have strived to convene transfer student success stakeholders and practitioners, most notably in Texas and New York, but nothing has captured me to this level of how to organize a really powerful convening. I refer my readers to the experts who delivered this inspirational, informative, and productive gathering: Michael Quillen ( and Rebecca Emerson ( Important things are going to come from this.

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