John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Transfer Student Experience Déjà Vu

September 26, 2012John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

I share some reflections of déjà vu that are arising of the significant amount of work I am doing these days on improving the transfer student experience. My déjà vu comes from my strong sense that I have been through this before—only with respect to my push beginning forty years ago exactly to improve our country’s “first-year experience.” There are many parallels, and differences. I am not even tempted to use the trite and overworked contemporary phrase, which I abhor, “been there, done that.” In part, that’s because I have not “done” this yet to the extent I have the first-year experience.

The transfer student experience is now the normative one in American higher education. According to our government, some 62% of currently baccalaureate degree seeking students have transcripts from more than one institution. You are in a distinct (and surely privileged) minority if you go one place, stay there for the entire BA—as I did and so many other leaders of the academy.

Big problem: our two main levels of higher education, two year and four year, were not really designed to do transfer. Now we are asking them to accommodate students’ mobility patters for which they, the institutions, were never intended to handle.  Even though I had assumed that community colleges were designed to provide “transfer”, the more I have worked with them, the more I have realized that for most this is not a primary mission (instead, developmental education, job training, technical/vocational education are primary).

The non-profit organization which I lead provides a process to help colleges and universities improve their transfer student sending and receiving functions. It is from this work that I offer the following observations.

  1. The first step in improving the first-year experience was simply getting educators to talk about it, not take it for granted.
  2. The second and related step was to increase the perceived importance of the particular student transition—importance to the students especially, but also to institutional viability and the national interest.
  3. Simultaneously, it helped to argue that in some ways first-year students were being discriminated against—they generated far more in funding than was allocated to their care and feeding. They were cash cows for redirected resources to other educational activities deemed more valuable, especially instruction at the upper division and graduate levels. This meant  they received differential treatment, and not favorably so.
  4.  In order to improve the attention paid to first-year students we needed “advocates”, champions. And the first-year experience movement went to great and specific lengths to institutionalize this practice—note the USC National Resource Center’s more than two decades long practice of recognizing, celebrating “outstanding first-year advocates.”
  5.  Attention to first-year students also improved when we developed more “owners” of them, i.e. heads of special units and programs whose institutionalized role it was to champion the needs of such students. Now the institutional practices for such special units and programs are legion. That’s a good thing. But therein lies the rub for transfers: other than the Enrollment Management professionals who process their entry into the institution, transfer students generally lack “owners” and “advocates” at the institutional level. And hence, the treatment of these students varies enormously in the cottage industry culture of decentralized upper divisions. In some units these students are treated well, in others they are invisible, or worse.
  6. Another component that helped move the first-year success needle was the development of some very successful “programs”, interventions, strategies, targeting first-year students, most notably, the first-year seminar. There has been no such magic bullet put in place for transfers.
  7. When we got serious about focusing on the needs of first-year students we became willing to make certain interventions for them mandatory, such as first-year seminars, orientation, advising. But, to date most institutions are reluctant to take this step.
  8. In order to improve first-year student success, we assumed that the students would be willing to get involved in the interventions we offered them. So we offered the interventions.  With transfers, we are not looking at a self-fulfilling prophecy—just the opposite in fact. Many institutions assume that transfer students will NOT participate and hence they don’t offer what they assume those students will not participate in—e.g. special orientation. This becomes then a negative self-fulfilling prophecy.
  9. To serve first-year students we had to better understand them, who they were, their characteristics, needs, problems, challenges, hopes, dreams, fears. We have done a much better job at this than applying the same lens of focus on our transfer students. I find that most institutions I am working with on this issue initially are woefully ignorant of the realities of this population. Prejudice and under attention are common results.

I could continue. But, by now you get the point. There is much we can learn with how we became so successful in convincing the academy to pay more attention to first-year students with the current challenge of giving equal time to transfers. We will never significantly increase baccalaureate degree attainment until we do so. This is a work in progress. I am glad to be part of it. As we have come to say about the first year, “the first year matters.” So does this alternative, newer first year.

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