Confidence and Connection | The Social-Emotional Impact of the Transfer Experience on Student Success and Attainment

Sep 22, 2020
Chris Flanagan

By Leigh Anne Cappello, Chief Experience Officer, Kinetic Seeds and Robin Colson, Ph.D., Director of Innovation, Florida Virtual Campus

Enacted by legislative mandate, Florida’s 2+2 Program was designed to provide an economical and available entry point to a bachelor’s degree to the thousands of Florida students who either cannot afford the cost of or do not live near a four-year university. Indeed, 63% of college enrollments by Florida’s graduating high school seniors are at Florida’s state colleges (Florida College Access Network, 2018). To support the state’s re-imagining of the transfer experience, a state-wide qualitative research study was conducted to understand the experience through the lens of the student. Findings revealed a fundamental issue that many may unintentionally overlook:  The emotional impact of the transfer process on student success and attainment.

Primarily, we learned from students that there is a general lack of confidence in the system related to the transfer process, largely due to the challenges surrounding communication and information flow.  Students frequently referred to feelings that they were left on their own to get through the process—that “no one has my back.” Most commented that it is difficult to get status on the processing of various forms. Some said that it is not uncommon to get different answers from different sources and they would like to have “one source of truth.” Students also felt that they needed better follow-through from institutional staff as increasing amounts of follow-up can be overwhelming. They lamented that they cannot see advisors in a timely fashion.  And finally, they frequently reported unexpected time and expense due to the need for additional classes or repeated classes because credits didn’t transfer.

Time, cost and lost credit are certainly key lagging indicators of students stopping out of college. However, are the additional emotional strains put on students as a result of functional and structural issues related to the transfer process also impacting enrollment, persistence and completion?  We would argue yes. Getting students the credit they deserve for prior learning and ensuring that learning is aligned with rapidly changing workforce needs is only half the battle in the transfer student journey.

Our research indicated that transfer students need institutions to understand who they are as people and how they manage their college experience. Many transfer students started at a community college to save money or stay near family; many are adults attending school part-time and working; and many are from communities of color, first-generation in college, or of low income. These realities are why transfer populations are the most vulnerable in terms of completion. National data on community college students, who account for about half of the transfers to four-year colleges, reveals that 80% aspire to a bachelor’s degree but only 13% do so within six years of entering a university.  That percentage drops to 10% for lower income students.[1] To change these statistics, transfer students told us they need support and resources throughout their college careers, not simply during the transition from college to university. This feedback was particularly enlightening given that advisors and other stakeholders mostly view transfer as a transaction that ends upon college student acceptance into the university.

Why are we putting unnecessary stress, anxiety and frustration into the experience over the most basic system-level processes and practices such as communication and connection?

Students want colleges and universities to take advantage of high-tech, modern-day technologies that many other industries and organizations employ to standardize, streamline and simplify the many touch points throughout the transfer experience. At the same time, they want institutions to work harder on the high-touch aspects of the journey, providing support and guidance that go beyond static information and that recognize transfer students as people first, with complex needs that go beyond the transfer transaction.

The solution lies with colleges and universities working collaboratively, instead of competitively, to develop standardized, student-centric processes that address both structural/functional and social/emotional pain points. Furthermore, everyone must share responsibility for transfer student success, with universities reaching backwards to place a vested interest in the student from the moment of interest through completion of the AA to application to declaration of intent to selection of a major, completion of a degree and then back again should the student re-enter the system.

Perhaps, what’s most needed is a rethink of the term credit portability and applicability.  If we consider the emotional impact along with the technicalities, then is it really just about carrying the credit forward and adapting or applying it to a learning journey or is it about carrying the student forward along with all that they are, all they have learned and all they have yet to apply?  What might need to change at the system-level relative to how we serve and support if we were to think of the challenge as student portability and applicability? At minimum, we might shift our concept of the transfer student journey, making it about the entire experience and not just about the transaction between experiences.


This blog is part of Project APPLY – A series by HCM Strategists and Kinetic Seeds to enliven a national conversation about how today’s students and workers experience learning after high school.

[1] National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Signature Report. Tracking Transfer: Measures of Effectiveness in Helping Community College Students to Complete Bachelor’s Degrees, September 2017

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