Understanding Transfer Students’ Needs
Students often end up choosing to transfer programs or schools after having earned credit in a certain class or field. What happens is that their credits often don’t transfer, and they have to take new courses to earn the same credit again. This can be frustrating not only for the students but also for administrators. It may be time to take a look back at institutional policies and see what can be improved and revamped. In this interview, Wendy Kilgore discusses the experience of a transfer student, their outlook on institutional support and other key findings from her report.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it particularly important for higher education leaders today to understand the insights and experiences of transfer students?
Wendy Kilgore (WK): The National Center for Education Statistics reported 1.38 million transfer students enrolled for fall 2018 at degree-granting institutions, and the National Student Clearinghouse found that 31.5% of community college students transfer to a four-year institution within six years. These numbers alone support why higher education leaders need to understand the perceived, or real, barriers and enablers of the transfer student experience. Transfer students are, and will remain, part of our student population and deserve our best level of service. Service can only improve when we understand the student experience of navigating transfer-related institutional procedures and policies as well as the transfer culture of the institution.
Evo: In your report, you found that 43% of students did not know why their credits didn’t transfer. What does that tell you about the transparency and student-centricity of receiving institutions?
WK: This response from students is not all that surprising given what we know about the institutional permutations and intricacies of transcript evaluation policy and practice. However, I do not think that institutions are overtly trying to be opaque about why credits did not transfer. On the contrary, Title IV eligibility institutions are required to make available to students the conditions under which a credit is evaluated for transfer, and most are posted on institutions’ websites. The weak link is that we most often expect transfer students to seek out, read and understand these policies, and we assume they will find the reason why their credits did not transfer.
The data on the read/open rate of college-issued email should tell us otherwise. Few students will take the time to read these policies, and even fewer will take the time to ask questions about why their credits did not transfer. Best practice in this situation would be for all institutions to send a comprehensive report to the student explaining why credits were not accepted in transfer. However, in a forthcoming report about institutional policy and practice for transfer credit evaluation, we found that 63% of institutions provide transfer students with an explanation of how their credits apply to their selected program of study, but just 51% tell students why credits do not transfer.
There is clearly a gap in practice that we should address–all students need to be made aware of both in a way (or multiple ways) that is easy for them to understand. We also need to make it easy for students to seek institutional guidance if there is a lack of clarity.
Evo: You found that academic advising—both from the sending and receiving institutions—was an area that students identified as needing significant improvement. Do you have any suggestions around how advising and degree pathway models could be adapted in response to this critique?
WK: We are just starting to research the possible statistical relationship between institutional advising models and practices and the number and type of transfer credits awarded. The impetus for this research stems from this survey and another similar project at a single large institution. The results of these projects mirror each other in that the students who were generally pleased with how their credits transferred noted the importance of academic advising at both institutions (the current school as well as the one from which they transferred), and those who were unhappy noted a perceived lack of quality and/or accuracy with academic advising.
The transfer policy research I mentioned above included a question about when a transfer student met with an academic advisor. Surprisingly, initial data indicates that 13% of institutions never require a transfer student to meet with an academic advisor; 5% require students meet with an advisor only before registering for their second term; and another 4% require a meeting sometime during their first semester of enrollment. In total, nearly a quarter of all transfer students are not required to meet with an academic advisor before they register for classes for the first term at their new institution.
Most, if not all, pathway models support requiring students to meet with an academic advisor on a regular basis. This should absolutely be the case if the student intends to transfer to another institution. Anecdotal and qualitative data tell us that consistent, well-informed academic advising plays a strong role in students’ course selection. A case study published in the most recent edition of AACRAO’s College and University Journal, titled “Pathways and Potholes” Transfer Student Experiences at a Four-Year University,” used a qualitative approach to understand more about barriers and enablers for transfer students. One of their findings is that “transfer students are often ignored or are given individualized attention only after ‘things settle down’ in the semester.” This supports the data we collected on transfer student advising practice and reflects some students’ perceptions of the transfer experience. Quite possibly, there is a significant link between effective academic advising engagements and the percentage of credits that transfer, but as far as I am aware, that has yet to be quantified.
Evo: What are a few other key findings from your research that you feel institutional leaders need to know if they are going to effectively serve transfer students?
WK: Although some of the data points highlight areas in need of improvement in the transfer of credit experiences and processes, we should not lose sight of the fact that over half reported that all of their credits transferred. Among the students who were not able to transfer all their credits, most were not displeased with the result and understood the reasons behind it, including: change of major, major exploration, personal enrichment, grade earned in a course, and dual enrollment courses completed in high school. We should not discount the value of exploratory courses or courses taken solely for personal enrichment to students undecided in their major. The dual enrollment credit loss issue could be at least partially addressed by eliminating any policies that do not allow for college credit earned while in high school to be awarded in transfer.
Although not specifically tied to this research, institutions often lack access to data that helps understand the transfer student experience. There is a lack of data on the impact of policy and practice on how credit is accepted and applied to a student’s degree program. Few institutions, therefore, can make a quantitative assessment of the transfer student experience and examine the data for issues of inequity in practice by student characteristics. This leaves institutions in the position of making policy and revisions based almost entirely on anecdotal information. I would posit that, for most, the same type of policy changes and decisions around admissions requirements and enrollment indicators would not be made with a similar lack of quantitative data.
In summary, institutional leaders should conduct a review of all the transfer credit evaluation policies and practices for unnecessarily complicated and restrictive practices. Where they are found, a concerted effort should be made to simplify them and create an environment aimed at giving credit where credit is due. Students should not be put in the position to retake credits for which they have already earned a passing grade in a course at another institution because of institutionally based idiosyncratic transfer credit evaluation practice or policy.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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 College and University Vol. 95 No 3 page 2-9
Author Perspective: Association