Understanding and improving the transfer experience


It is March 9th, and Anisa, a young, soon-to-be community college graduate, has an approved graduation application and is excited to be the first in her family to earn a college degree and transfer to a university. 

When meeting with her advisor, she asks about the transfer process to the local four-year university. However, with no formal partnership, Anisa’s advisor points her to the website where Anisa learns she already missed the application deadline for the upcoming fall semester. 

Jake Ormond and Kellie M. Dixon

Disappointed, Anisa thought the process would be similar to her community college application process, where she could apply as late as the day before classes started. Now she must postpone her educational future until the spring semester. 

Luis, a student transferring to a university from a local community college, was excited to sit down with his advisor and design a pathway map to his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. However, after his advisor evaluates his courses and transcripts, Luis is told that he will need to retake Calculus II, Intro to Chemistry, Interpersonal Communications and many other courses because they would only transfer as electives. 

Disappointed, Luis contemplates if it is worth spending an extra year retaking coursework he already completed. 

These points of loss for Anisa and Luis not only impact the bottom line for our institutions, but they also prevent our students and our communities from reaching their goals. 

We offer some considerations when working with community college students seeking to transfer to a four-year institution, with emphasis on the Loss Momentum Framework.

Four phases of LMF

Completion by Design’s Loss Momentum Framework (LMF) challenges colleges and universities to dive into points of loss and points of momentum to expand their understanding of the student experience. The four phases of LMF include: 

  • Connection – the phase between a students interest in going to college and submitting an application 
  • Entry – the phase between submission of the admissions application and completing their first college-level course 
  • Progress – the phase between students entering courses related to their program of study and achieving 75% completion in their program
  • Completion – the phase where the student completes their credential and transitions to life beyond the institution, whether that be pursuing further higher education or entering the workforce

The RP Group and Community College Research Center in 2013 published “Understanding the Student Experience Through the Loss Momentum Framework: Clearing the Path for Completion,” calling upon community college practitioners to think beyond traditional models of higher education, specialized “boutique” programs impacting few students and instead “look at students’ journeys with a magnifying lens” to redesign the student experience to ensure all students have opportunities to accomplish their personal and academic goals. 

While this report is limited to community colleges, we challenge all higher education practitioners to think about how this four-phase process prepares students to transfer, and then begins again as they further their higher education. 

Understanding the transfer experience 

The transfer experience is different for all transfers. First, we must acknowledge that students transfer to institutions with different experiences. Some transfer from other four-year institutions and others from a community college. 

Additionally, in the June 2016 Issues of Higher Education, transfer students may transfer after completing anywhere from a semester to two years at a previous institution. Therefore, the needs of transfer students will vary; however, we will focus on transferring from a community college. 

In 2015, Olivia Matthews discussed the challenges and institutional support systems for undergraduate transfer students at a public four-year university. The themes that derived from the study included: academic advising issues, awareness of support services, campus culture and lack of institutional communication. 

Understanding these concerns and engaging intentionally with transfer students at the community college level prior to graduating or transferring may alleviate some of these issues. Additionally, as community colleges and four-year institutions continue to forge transfer articulation agreements, it would be wise to discuss the transfer experience regarding out of the classroom activities and services. For example, hosting continuous “four-year institution” fairs at college campuses that include student support services (e.g. residence life, student activities). Additionally, in Issues of Higher Education, Alison Kadlec and Elizabeth Ganga provided students’ perceptions and thoughts on barriers to transfer when they transferred from a community college to a four-year institution. Students discussed barriers such as finding creative ways to pay for college, transferability of classes, underprepared advisors at community colleges, and insufficient communication amongst faculty/staff within two-year and four-year institutions. Ultimately, the transfer experience becomes a self-exploration journey for students with limited and inconsistent assistance from faculty and staff. These barriers have a direct impact on the four phases of LMF.

Connecting, engaging transfer students 

There is no shortage of research describing the ideal workplace. Harvard Business Review’s article, “Creating the Best Workplaces on Earth,” describes the ideal workplace as one where employees are praised for originality, are transparent and honest, strengths are leveraged and enhanced, personal values align to the organizations’ values, and all individuals find value in their work. Further, CPEhr describes the ideal workplace as one with strong employer-employee relationships, transparent communication, clear goals and expectations, training and development opportunities, and one that values work-life balance. 

What does this have to do with the transfer student experience? We, as employees, strive to find institutions that promote these organizational characteristics, but do we extend these benefits to students, specifically transfer students who already feel disconnected and disengaged? 

We recognize that students are not employees, and higher education institutions are not corporations. However, organizations are rapidly evolving to meet consumers’ needs. This is when bold leadership is needed to transform our institutions to what current and future students need to achieve their dreams. 

Thinking back to Luis and Anisa’s stories, we, as higher education practitioners, must recognize that the phases of the Loss Momentum Framework restart with the transfer process. Completion focuses on the exciting time to be a community college graduate and prepare to transfer; however, Connection begins again as the student explores four-year institutions and submits applications to continue their higher education. 

This calls upon all higher education practitioners to think about the following questions: What are the points of momentum for your students? The points of loss? And, how do we get to the root cause of those loss points to transform them into points of momentum?

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Jake Ormond is the project manager and compliance officer at Glendale Community College in Glendale, Arizona. Kellie M. Dixon is director of student affairs assessment and staff development at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.