Publications

Infographic

Mapping the College Transfer Process

Barriers to Student Success and Opportunities for Improvement

12/2020

As a partner with the City University of New York (CUNY) on the Transfer Opportunity Project, MDRC’s Center for Applied Behavioral Science (CABS) team used behavioral mapping to help identify factors that impede students in the process of transferring from community colleges to earn bachelor’s degrees.[1] MDRC and CUNY researchers conducted interviews and focus groups with around 200 staff members and students at six CUNY community and bachelor’s degree colleges. Drawing on these reflections as well as insights from behavioral science and research on transfers in higher education,[2] the CABS team identified barriers to student transfer at CUNY and made recommendations for improvements.[3]

The blueprint below is broken into four stages of the transfer process, with milestones at each stage. At each stage there is also information about challenges students and staff members face. Each stage ends with interventions or opportunities informed by behavioral science that could help students transfer more successfully and complete their bachelor’s degrees. A more detailed discussion is available in PDF form here.

Stage 1: Start at a Community College

First semester
Select a degree program and register for first-semester courses

Staff Steps

  • Confirm a student’s interest in a degree program (major)
  • Assess the student’s interest in transferring and plan courses
  • Register the student for first-semester courses

Student Steps

  • Mark a program of interest on the application
  • Attend a first meeting with an adviser to register for courses

Challenge

Information Gaps

Opportunity

Making Decisions Manageable

Choosing a major is foundational to a student’s academic experience and ability to transfer credits. But students must often choose a degree program upon enrollment, and they and advisers face major information gaps about how degree programs at community colleges line up with potential bachelor’s degree programs. Without complete information or enough time, students and advisers could fall back on mental shortcuts: defaulting to the status quo or making decisions based on biases.

Opportunity

Making Decisions Manageable

Breaking down consequential decisions like degree program choice into a series of lower-stakes decisions made over time offers students more time to explore their options and make choices that fit with their long-term goals. Reframing degree program choice as a decision made over time could also relieve time pressure and thereby protect against the use of mental shortcuts to make decisions.

Try it! Sketch a decision-making tool that breaks big decisions into smaller ones. Consider how the tool integrates with the timing of services, and how to measure its success.

A lot of our role is just kind of figuring out what the student might be interested in first. Maybe if they have no idea, guiding them towards a major that’s more flexible, like liberal arts and sciences. Academic adviser, community college

If I could have changed one thing… it’s from freshman year, had someone that advised me, “Hey, these are these schools. There are these majors. This is what you have to do now in order to get there.” Student, community college

Read more

Stage 2: Prepare to Transfer and Apply

First through final semester at community college
Plan courses at community college according to transfer and degree goals

Staff Steps

  • Advise on degree program and financial aid requirements
  • Support skill building in independent degree planning
  • Advise on bachelor’s degree transfer options and the prerequisites available at community college

Student Steps

  • Attend class and complete course work
  • Attend tutoring (if needed)
  • Make and attend meetings with advisers
  • Research transfer options and requirements
  • Decide on programs to apply to and understand admissions requirements and how credits will transfer
  • Register for courses
Apply to transfer

Staff Steps

  • Conduct outreach about deadlines and transfer services
  • Host group and individual advising sessions to prepare students to apply to transfer

Student Steps

  • Complete application
  • Submit supplementary materials if required: transcripts, application essays for specific degree programs, scholarship applications, etc.

Challenge

Limited Attention

Opportunity

Laying Out the Path

Preparing to transfer requires planning. At minimum, students and advisers need to understand how courses taken today will count toward prerequisites and degree programs when students transfer. However, staff and students often lack this information and have limited time and attention to spend on getting it. When resources are scarce, people tend to focus on more present challenges. Students may be more concerned with course work and family responsibilities, for example.

Opportunity

Laying Out the Path

Colleges could reduce the attention students must pay and steps they must take to plan for transfer. For example, a college could offer course pathways to specific degree and transfer opportunities, or offer personalized outreach and implementation prompts — prompts to faculty, staff, and students to take specific actions — with transfer deadlines and resources.

Try it! Develop an informational campaign with reminders and prompts to take steps.

Once we convert them to think in terms of transferability, I don’t think we think about the next step because somebody else is doing that. Somebody else is doing the paperwork. Somebody else is making the calls. Faculty member, community college

The only thing you got on your mind is either work, going home, and then do your homework. It’s not you gonna think about, “Oh, I gotta go transfer.” … I got this paper due tomorrow. You think I’m gonna transfer right now? Student, community college

Read more

Stage 3: Enroll in a Bachelor’s Degree Program

Final semester at community college through enrollment in a bachelor’s degree program
Make admissions decisions

Staff Steps

  • Send admissions offers
  • Inform students about enrollment steps and support them in taking those steps

Student Steps

  • Compare admissions offers
  • Accept offer and pay a deposit (if not waived)
Attend advising appointments at bachelor’s degree college

Staff Steps

  • Advisers: advise on general education requirements and steps to enroll
  • Transfer admissions staff: evaluate credits and provide students and advisers with a transfer credit evaluation
  • Faculty members: advise on degree program requirements

Student Steps

  • Make and attend a general advising appointment
  • Make and attend a faculty advising appointment
  • If denied course credit transfer, submit an appeal
Declare major/degree program and register for first-semester courses

Staff Steps

  • Advisers: describe major degree requirements and advise on selection
  • Faculty members: approve degree program choice (if required) and credit-transfer appeals

Student Steps

  • Meet with faculty members
  • Understand options for degree programs and first-semester courses
  • Register for first-semester courses on time

Challenge

Time Crunch

Opportunity

Streamlining and Assisting

Continuing students are often finishing courses at community college and waiting to receive transfer admissions decisions when course registration begins at the bachelor’s degree college. When admissions decisions arrive, they must act quickly but do not always have the information and tools they need to make informed decisions. While many of the steps need to be taken at their new colleges, they have not yet established connections to support systems there.

Opportunity

Streamlining and Assisting

To support equitable outcomes for transfer students, university administrators could remove enrollment steps or give students extra assistance with them. They could create systems whereby transfer students default into enrollment advising services rather than needing to opt in, offer advising for both prospective and accepted students, or reserve spots for transfer students in high-demand courses.

Try it! What is the current transfer enrollment process at your institution? Draw out a process map. What could a simplified process look like?

For freshmen, you have about three semesters where you can explore.... With transfers, mostly, we have about two months, which is not much time.... The process is more difficult for them, but they get all of this information within one hour of advisement and they have to figure it out, and then they can come up with follow-up sessions with us, but it’s just a lot. Adviser, bachelor’s degree institution

If everyone is in their own little bubble and we have to visit it in order to get what we need from it, that’s a huge problem.... There is no team here. And so, it’s frustrating because you literally could spend thousands of dollars making mistakes that shouldn’t be made because someone should know the whole job. So there has to be more meetings. There has to be more coordination campus-wide. Student, bachelor’s degree institution

Read more

Stage 4: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

First semester in bachelor’s degree institution through completion of credits in bachelor’s degree program
Complete bachelor’s degree requirements

Staff Steps

  • Advise on degree program and financial aid requirements
  • Support academic and professional progress

Student Steps

  • Attend classes and complete course work
  • Plan and register for courses
  • Monitor financial aid status

Challenge

Lack of Connection

Opportunity

Adding Transition Support

Students and staff members perceived that there were fewer resources for advising transfer students in bachelor’s degree colleges than there were at community colleges, which means that students did not necessarily know where to turn for help. In addition, many students reported lacking a sense of social belonging. Some also believed transfer students were perceived poorly, which could make them feel more isolated and less confident in their abilities and thereby hinder their academic progress.

Opportunity

Adding Transition Support

Colleges could enhance institutional support for transfer students during and after the enrollment process (through text or email communication campaigns, for example, or through connections to advisers and mentors) to support their transition to a new environment.

Try it! What does the first engagement with transfer students look like? How can it offer more social support to transfer students?

There’s like this culture shock or transfer shock because they’re so used to having their hand held at the community college. Adviser, bachelor’s degree institution

It’s almost like [community college] cared about you. Even if it was all business, they cared about it. They kind of helped you and tried to push you to get your degree. But over here … it’s like nobody gives a damn. Student, bachelor’s degree institution

Read more

The Transfer Opportunity Project mapping process allowed CUNY and MDRC to display the multiple steps students and staff members must take to facilitate students’ journey from community college to a bachelor’s degree. By uncovering student and staff experiences at each of these steps and aligning those findings to insights from behavioral science, the mapping process also highlighted where and why participants may be presented with barriers in this process. Many of the CUNY colleges that partnered on this project have already taken steps to address these barriers. For example, as part of the Articulation of Credit Transfer Project, CUNY has developed an online tool funded by the Heckscher Foundation called Transfer Explorer, which aims to address the information gaps aspiring transfer students and their advisers face regarding how community college credits will transfer to bachelor’s degree colleges. As CUNY and other systems develop these sorts of initiatives, the mapping process showcased here can be updated to illuminate how staff members and student should engage in those new initiatives and in further opportunities for improvement.

Do the challenges and opportunities shared here sound familiar? Are you interested in trying to apply these insights to the design and delivery of your program? We want to hear from you! Visit us at CABS.mdrc.org or email us at CABS@mdrc.org.

For more findings from CUNY’s Transfer Opportunity Project and affiliated initiatives, please visit: www.cuny.edu/about/administration/offices/oira/policy/a2b.

Recommended citation: Sutcliffe, Sophia, and Barbara Condliffe. 2020. “Infographic: Mapping the College Transfer Process: Barriers to Student Success and Opportunities for Improvement.” Website: www.mdrc.org/publication/mapping-college-transfer-process.

[1] Behavioral mapping is part of MDRC’s six-step approach to problem-solving. For more see Rekha Balu, Nadine Dechausay, and Caitlin Anzelone, “An Organizational Approach to Applying Behavioral Insights to Policy: Center for Applied Behavioral Science at MDRC,” Chapter 11 in Kai Ruggeri (ed.), Behavioral Insights for Public Policy: Concepts and Cases (New York: Routledge, 2018).

[2] Christina Ciocca Eller, “Increasing Success for Two-to-Four-Year Transfer Students Within the City University of New York” (website: http://blogs.cuit.columbia.edu/cmc2304/files/2016/06/GNYC_CioccaEller_TransferReport_EMAIL-FINAL.pdf, 2017); John Fink and Davis Jenkins, “Takes Two to Tango: Essential Practices of Highly Effective Transfer Partnerships” (Community College Review 45, 5: 294-310, 2017).

[3] The information on transfer processes at these six CUNY colleges was collected from the spring of 2019 through the spring of 2020. The process at these colleges was evolving during this period and may have changed since. The authors selected the barriers and corresponding quotes presented in this blueprint either because they came up most often in focus group conversations or because they are particularly susceptible to potential behavioral interventions.