Published on 2015/08/27
Co-written with Sarah Jewett | Executive Director of the t-STEM Initiative, University of Maryland Baltimore County

The EvoLLLution | STEM Transfer Success: Reflecting on Lessons Learned
Institutional commitments to transfer students and inter-institutional partnerships devoted to alignment and student success are critical to raising the numbers of underserved students who succeed in the STEM fields.

This is the conclusion of a two-part series by Martin and Jewett reflecting on their work to launch programs to create access to STEM fields for underserved students, focusing on students who entered the university through transfer. In this piece, they look back on the lessons they learned during the process of launching these initiatives.

Improving the success, retention and graduation rates of transfer students requires institutions to engage in critical self-reflection. Given that transfer students comprise almost half of the student population at UMBC, it was imperative for us to think seriously about how students experienced the transition between institutions, and to adopt new approaches to improve the process.

At the basic level, our questions were simple enough. We asked ourselves: What seemed similar and different across institutions? How could the transition between them be smoother? What variables were relevant for success? For example, how did full-time student status matter?

At the outset, there seemed to be inconsistencies when comparing macro-level data between transfer students and first-time freshman. When we examined the data more deeply, there was preliminary evidence that in certain foundational STEM courses, students who transferred were not succeeding at the same rates as those students who entered as first-time freshmen. A closer investigation was warranted.

In the past, institutional responses to similar data often echoed a common refrain—transfer students were not prepared for university-level work. Often, these responses included ways to fill the “gap” in students’ skills or knowledge. This approach may seem reasonable, yet what assumptions can be reinscribed in this refrain? This perspective often assumes a deficit framework in which students bear the responsibility and the blame for failure. As an institution, UMBC has taken a more complex approach by:

  • Acknowledging and affirming the assets and strengths that transfer students bring to the campus community and the learning experience;
  • Recognizing that institutions need to honestly consider their role in shaping transitional experiences for students;
  • Valuing the role of data to target needs, drive development and assess change.

This approach meant that UMBC needed to challenge prevailing myths about transfer students, make a visible and high-level commitment to the success of transfer students, and collaborate closely with community colleges.

From this perspective, the need for inter-institutional alignment becomes increasingly clear, as does the need for targeted student support where there are potential differences between institutions. Differences are likely to be found in assignments and assessments; financial aid and payment plans; instructional practices such as extra credit or calculator usage; class size and structure; expectations for orientation; roles of advisors and TAs; and interactions with faculty. These differences are not about “gaps” in students’ skills or knowledge. They are about “gaps” in inter-institutional alignment and in institutional practices. They only become visible when inter-institutional teams have systematic opportunities to sit together around a table, discuss their practices at the micro and macro levels, and consider ways to best support student success. No blame, no forced change—just a commitment to the common goal of student success.

As institutional partners, we recognize that our mutual goal of student success can only be met if we share responsibility for it. Shared responsibility requires a collaborative and longitudinal perspective on the meanings of transfer and success, and an inter-institutional shift toward a collective mindset—that is, “our” students, rather than “mine” and “yours.” Shared responsibility also necessitates relationships that are honest, trusting, and oriented toward positive change. Within and across institutions, leaders must make transfer students a visible priority, as well as ensure that time and resources are allocated for colleagues to build relationships, and to sustain the kind of thoughtful reflection, productive planning and realistic action that facilitates successful transition. Additionally, faculty and staff need to reexamine and rework processes and issues that may negatively impact transfer student success, retention and graduation rates.

Finally, with appropriate support and resources, transfer students themselves share the responsibility for their success. They need to develop an academic plan; understand their curricula while at the two-year institution; obtain information about the specific requirements at their chosen four-year institution; learn about the transfer process, including credit transfer; and seek and strategically utilize information that will help them to reach their academic and career goals. After their successful transition between institutions, they can serve as student mentors who facilitate a sense of belonging, connection, and support for other prospective and current transfer students.

To develop a diverse, highly skilled and well-educated workforce who can meet our growing labor demands and solve the complex issues of the 21st century, we must ensure that we provide critical support for STEM students who transition to universities from community colleges. At the same time, we must develop the talent of the “missing 70 percent” of the population who have not traditionally pursued STEM majors and careers—women, African Americans, Hispanics, first-generation college students and people with disabilities. It is important that we are intentional about how we as individuals and institutions respond to this opportunity to support STEM transfer students, especially those students from underrepresented groups.

As we move forward, CWIT will serve 25 additional transfer students in computing majors through the T-SITE Scholars program with a second S-STEM grant from the National Science Foundation. The STEM Transfer Student Success Initiative team will continue to serve an increasing number of transfer students through its robust set of services and resources, as well as to translate the experience of our local partnerships into a national model of collaboration between two-year and four-year institutions.

Martin and Jewett will be sharing further information on both of these projects at the 22nd National Conference on Students in Transition Conference, to be hosted in Baltimore in October 2015.

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Readers Comments

Jennifer Martinez 2015/08/27 at 10:44 am

It takes some guts to dig deeper than the initial data that simply says these students aren’t prepared for university work. That can be an incredibly problematic view, especially considering we’re talking about the 70 percent—mainly minorities—who haven’t historically had access to STEM education. This is all very necessary stuff.

Arthur Hall 2015/08/28 at 6:12 pm

This inter-institutional discussion stuff sounds like a logistical nightmare, but if the principle of no blame, just commitment to student success is really upheld, I could see some really incredible things coming out of a collaboration like that. It looks they are getting more grant support, so hopefully this can be a model for other schools to forge similar relationships.

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