Technology Research

The Problem with Transfer Student Pathways and Technology

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Upward transfers—students moving from two-year to four-year schools—increased by 2.6% since last year. Most of these students faced the daunting task of finding the right four-year institutions, transferring credits, and securing enough financial aid. As institutional responses to COVID-19 have caused many students to become disenchanted with remote learning or seek to stay closer to home, we can certainly imagine more students will face these challenges in the future.

While there has been much discussion about developing better policies or practices to improve support for transfer student pathways, there has been little attention paid to the role technology can play in enhancing them. This is a surprising gap given how much technology permeates the rest of higher education.

In this week’s Wake-Up Call, we explore the role of technology in supporting transfer student pathways. What is its current role? What are the gaps in this support? And how can institutions ?

What is the current role of technology in supporting transfer student pathways?

Most technology in the market focuses on helping students overcome the challenges of transitioning from a two-year institution to a four-year institution. For example, vendor products within the Student Mobility segment of our Higher Education Technology Landscape (Landscape), including Transferology (CollegeSource), Program Mapper (Concentric Sky), and Common App for Transfer Students (Common App), concentrate on helping students prepare for the transfers, search for the best-fit institutions, or submit applications.

Likewise, some statewide public education systems (the California Higher Education System, the Department of Higher Education of Massachusetts, and the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education) have also leveraged technology to support students with this transition via "virtual transfer portals." These portals provide career and major exploration tools, academic planning, course maps, transfer agreements, and other pertinent transfer information.

What are the gaps in technological support for transfer student pathways?

Following the transfer, however, technological support for transfer student pathways falls short. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, only 21% of high-income transfer students and just 10% of low-income transfer students obtain a bachelor’s degree in six years.

As the Community College Research Center points out, once the transfer is complete, support for transfer students requires three different components:

  1. Data sharing between two- and four-year institutions to improve transfer outcomes
  2. Clear programmatic pathways aligned with high-quality instruction
  3. Tailored student advising

Reviewing the higher education technology market reveals that the current set of solutions struggles to meet these three requirements. As data across systems rarely share the same meaning and structure, institutions find it hard to achieve "semantic interoperability"—where two or more systems exchange information that users can interpret and use—making it harder to imagine data sharing across institutions. And, although some Student Mobility Solutions and Course Registration and Degree Planning Solutions allow students to visualize and map their pathways, they do not empower institutional leaders to view these pathways through the lens of learning outcomes and skills. Last, while Advising Solutions help institutional leaders identify students in need of academic support, they do not consider specific needs transfer students often have, such as adapting to a four-year school environment.

How might institutions address gaps by leveraging technology?

As we have written before, most schools select technology solutions to address their needs by adopting a product-level view: focusing on a solution's features or functionality. But the complexity of the challenges transfer students face along their pathways demands that we move away from this product-level view to a strategic view that looks to address the more aspirational purpose of ensuring a seamless and successful transfer student pathway.

To take a more strategic approach to more effectively supporting transfer student pathways, we think institutional leaders should start by asking themselves two fundamental questions:

  1. What do we need to know about transfer students?
  2. What do we want transfer students to do?

How will these questions help institutional leaders decide how they should leverage technology to support transfer student pathways? For example, suppose institutional leaders decide that answering the first question requires understanding where transfer students face academic challenges post-enrollment. In that case, they should invest in an Advising Solution that goes beyond helping students transition into a four-year institution to providing student advising that aids transfer students in developing skills (critical thinking, time management, note-taking, research, and writing) that they may not have learned at their two-year institutions.

Likewise, a school might decide to address the second question by helping transfer students avoid losing credits when transferring; as it stands today, students lose an estimated 40% of credits in this process. In that case, the school should invest in a Course Mapping solution that does more than simply evaluate whether students' credits will carry over to their four-year institutions. It should also help transfer students determine the best pathways to graduation.

The Bottom Line

Supporting transfer student pathways—with or without the help of technology—is a thorny and challenging task. The current role of technology in supporting these pathways is narrow, mainly focusing on the transition point between two-year and four-year institutions, and largely overlooks the needs of transfer students after this transition point. We need, therefore, to view the entire transfer student pathway and rethink how we develop and deploy technology to support it.

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Eduventures Principal Analyst at Encoura

We’re accustomed to a personalized experience in all aspects of our lives – from how we shop to how we stream TV and navigate digital media. And students today are expecting the same in Education. They want a personalized experience that helps them navigate their unique paths. The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated Education’s transition to a digital experience driving us to an inflection point where delivering a truly personalized experience is right around the corner. Eduventures Principal Analyst James Wiley and Blackboard CEO Bill Ballhaus discuss how a personalized experience, fueled by data, is unfolding in education and what that means for the future.

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