Student Transfer (Part 2) – How to Improve the Transfer Experience for Students

Parchment Staff  •  Jan 16, 2024  •  Podcast
Episode 5 - Parchment Podcast - How to improve the transfer experience for students

Heather Adams, Associate Director of Transfer Engagement at The Aspen Institute, joins us to discuss how institutions can improve the experience for transfer students. We discuss how institutions need to shift their understanding of the transfer student from a transaction to a holistic view of a learner’s journey, as well as best practices from the Aspen Institute’s Transfer Playbook.


Matt Sterenberg (00:01.295)

All right, Heather, this is part two. In part one, we talked about why do students transfer and really why it’s so important and sort of the problem statement. And we talked about there’s a lot of students that are attending a community college that want to transfer to another institution, but don’t end up doing it. So now let’s pivot and let’s think about how we can improve transfer, how can institutions start to think about improving the experience for transfer students? So it’s a big topic. It’s a big question. And we kind of talked about the articulation front a little bit and how that wasn’t quite enough, right? It’s not enough to just have these practices. So in your mind, what can institutions do? What examples do we have? I mean, institutions that are handling transfer students really well.

Heather (00:58.434)

this question. Okay, first I want to start with a couple of like the premise of what sort of undergirds or underlines all of this. So for me, transfer is not just this simply about credits. And I think I might have mentioned that in our last conversation. It’s not just about transferring from one institution to another. It’s really about that kind of lifelong trajectory, right? Where, you know, that journey, that educational journey that can take any different direction that it’s going to for each individual. And so to me, there just seems to be this kind of thought that transfers just about that one element, like transferring from one school to another.

But I just, I see it starting at high school or in the workforce and going through to like degree, you know, doctorates and things like that after. So that’s kind of like, to me personally, transfer is not simply that. Then it goes back to that valuing all forms of education that one’s not better than the other, that you’re just pathways of success, and that they’re kind of equally important to our livelihood and our nation’s wellbeing. And then the third thing is that

With transfer particularly, we like band-aids. We like incremental band-aids. We like nibbling around the edges, but this is not going to solve that aspiration versus reality problem that we saw in the data, right? It’s improving the transfer experience is not going to be done by nibbling and by just doing like a little transfer program over here or an event over here. Improving transfer is a system and a culture change.

And then fourth, I think, is it’s not a handoff. So transfer is not about credit, but it’s also not just about, okay, they’re my students now and then once they transfer, they’re your students and I just hand them off to you. It’s about this shared responsibility for transfer and a shared responsibility for that trajectory and that success of the student.

Heather (03:20.454)

So I have those four premises that I start with, just so you know. Do you like those?

Matt Sterenberg (03:27.307)

I like them. I will. That brings up and not to derail your four premises, premise I

Heather (03:29.55)

I’m sorry.

Heather (03:34.526)

I don’t know. I actually don’t know. As I was saying it, I realized I didn’t know the right grammatically correct way to say it.

Matt Sterenberg (03:41.231)

Um, yeah, so that brought up a, that made me think of something. So we think of transfer as this transaction, right? So we think about it in terms of like the operational piece of, okay, I am transferring, right? How do we make that more seamless? We all would agree that is important, right? How do we make it when a student intends to transfer? How do we make that better?

Heather (04:02.626)


Matt Sterenberg (04:08.079)

How do we make the actual operation of sending your transcript, your credits, that whole process, we should make that better and more seamless. We should make the orientation, the welcoming, the stigma around I am now enrolled as a transfer student. How can I make that better? But before that, we go back to the data you highlighted, right? Eight out of 10 students that go to a community college want to go. We know that want to go on to get a bachelor’s. 31% do it. So it’s not about the actual transaction at that point because we have five of those 10 students that didn’t even make that transfer transaction. So it’s not about making just the processes and all the things around it. It’s why didn’t those five…

Heather (04:52.561)


Matt Sterenberg (05:01.671)

do what they said that they wanted to do initially. So then it’s really not about, it’s like pre-transfer, right? And it goes back to what you said about thinking of everybody as a transfer student. So then it gets back to the difficult thing which is like pathways, thinking about pathways, academic advising. And that to me is the hardest thing because there’s such a human element to it and those are the hardest challenges.

to overcome, right? Like, hey, we need to talk to students more. It’s like, how do you track that? How do you even engage with that? So all that being said, go.

Heather (05:37.756)


Heather (05:43.794)

Well, I think I now have a fifth slash maybe 1B because it aligns with sort of this idea that transfers not a, it’s a lifelong trajectory of education versus a transaction. And I love your point because we, if you, nothing’s just a transaction. I mean, think about customer service, like we all want to feel good about something, right? I’m not comparing higher ed to customer

Heather (06:13.614)

controversial topic, but we all want to understand and feel good about an experience. And if you’re just kind of manually doing a transaction, like it’s just about credits, that’s not going to help the student. That isn’t focusing on the student, as you pointed out so nicely. So I just, I couldn’t agree more. It’s transaction is about, transfer is not about transaction. It’s really about that kind of relationship building in that shared responsibility we have in lifting up that student to accomplish whatever goals they have. So, okay, this is not an exhaustive list and it’s not in any particular order, but since you already said it and you foreshadowed, I’m going to have my first one, a way to improve the student experience, the transfer student experience, is talk to transfer students. Know who your transfer students are. Know the nuances of your community.

What’s their experience, get their feedback. And another premise, I guess, for me, when I say collect data, I don’t just mean like the student outcomes. Those are vital, obviously, but you have to understand the experience. And the only way you’re gonna understand the experience is if you talk to students. They are the experts in transfer at the moment because they are going through it. And I could go on and on about this one, but I mean, have transfer students look at your websites.

Have them look at your program maps. Have them look at your systems that you’re thinking about buying into and purchasing. Does it speak to a student? You said it earlier in our conversation. You mentioned that we make these articulation agreements that work for us, but they’re not helpful for a student to navigate. So what is helpful for a student to navigate? Ask a student. So that is my number one.

Heather (08:10.642)

Articulation agreements are not enough. They’re legal documents. They are not living, breathing experiences of students, which is what’s needed. So knock down silos, talk to your partners, build connections between sectors and industries and community. It’s an ecosystem of transfer. And articulation agreement is a great first step, but it’s just a legal document. It does not guarantee that you’re actually gonna create a community. It does not guarantee that the process and the initiatives that you’re that you’ve written down are going to be sustained and keep going after you’re gone. So I think it’s about collaborating. It’s about building partnerships that are beyond just the one-to-one relationships, but really institutionalizing a partnership. And unfortunately, an articulation agreement or an MOU or random of understanding is really just a first step towards building that institutionalized partnership. It does not guarantee you an institutionalized partnership which doesn’t guarantee you a streamlined transfer experience. And under that kind of idea or note is, even on your own campus, connect with others. There are often disparate transfer initiatives and strategies and things going on all over campus.

And you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. You just need to knit those together and have a sort of unified transfer vision and goal. Um, so I think just knowing that you need to push past that articulation agreement is, is a big one. And I’m going to stop there because I know that you have thoughts about that.

Matt Sterenberg (09:54.611)

Well, no, I think of course I have comments. But I like thinking about the partnerships piece. When we have seen positive examples, like from the dual enrollment perspective, it’s when they’re very tightly knit and it like a school district will have a very close relationship, very close communication and collaboration with a university or college partner. Right. And they’re very explicit about and the way that it works is they’re very explicit about certain pathways, right? Here are the courses you need to take to get here. There’s an advising component, there’s a counseling component. And I recently had a conversation with University of North Georgia and they talked about how dual enrollment used to sit in admissions, but now it sits in advising because they want the student to have the wraparound feel, the wraparound services and the feel of a college.

Heather (10:43.278)


Matt Sterenberg (10:50.831)

So I think that was just a great example of how to, again, not think about it like credits or a transaction, but to think about it like from the student’s perspective of how can we make this student feel like a college student and to think about the advising because we want them to be thinking about a pathway in order for these credits to actually matter to them. And then obviously from the university perspective, it benefited them. Like if I get all these wraparound services,

Heather (11:12.749)


Matt Sterenberg (11:20.111)

Aren’t I going to be more endeared to University of North Georgia, for instance, because I already feel like I’m one of their students. I’m feeling more comfortable. So I thought that was a great example of a solid partnership that worked because of the cooperation and collaboration.

Heather (11:35.702)

I love that. I love that. But you know, you can’t have that sense of belonging without that policy and practice in place. So it’s like, you’ve got to have those structures in place to then build that partnership so then the students actually feel the kind of reality of that and feel the support net of that and gain that sense of belonging. I love that. I love that.

Yeah. And I should also say this is a good point, this is a good place to talk a little bit about Aspen’s research and work, because most of these that I’m talking about are sort of what I’ve learned over my years of working with transfer students and running centers and doing research. And at Aspen, there’s the transfer playbook that’s a really pinnacle publication. We’re actually working on the second edition right now through an equity lens.

And I would say we’ll see what we add to the second edition, but the three pillars really of kind of proved data-based, evidence-based best practice is having the strong advising, having the strong pathways, and then prioritizing transfer. Three things you just noted that, North Georgia, is that the school you were talking to?

did in order to create that. That doesn’t happen magically. That happens with specific strategy and prioritization, focus on advising early and often, and focusing on clear pathways that actually give students what they promise to give. So just kind of throwing that in there for if people want any kind of sort of evidence-based database, if your brain works that way, check out the Transfer Playbook because I think that can give you some solid structures to start with that then can help you develop that inclusive culture that you were talking about. Okay, number three, don’t blame students. So we need to welcome students sort of on our schedule, on their schedule, not our schedule. So my friend John Fink from the CCRC, the Community College Research Center, he always says…

Heather (13:59.639)

Don’t ask if the student is ready for us, but if the institution is ready for the student. So we shouldn’t ask our students transfer ready. We should ask, is our college ready for transfers? And I’ll give you a link to a great article that he wrote about this, but I love that. I love that idea that…

Matt Sterenberg (14:04.955)


Heather (14:23.806)

We do a lot of, well, all that information’s on our website. Like, I don’t know, you know, it’s there. They could figure it out. All right. And it maybe, it probably is. However, something’s not getting through, right? So even if it is there, even if you feel like you’ve done everything over the sun to get the information out, something’s, there’s a disconnect. So again, talk to students. It’s not, we don’t want to put the onus on the student. It’s not on the student.

This is really on us, I think. We’ve built systems that are super complicated or that work for us.

Matt Sterenberg (14:59.171)

And to that point, I feel like we roll out the red carpet for first time in a college students. And it’s like, whatever you need, there’s this massive competition for them and you’re getting brochure after brochure, email after email about the process. And we do not place the same value on communication. And maybe, you know,

There’s a perception that, hey, they’re not interested in all this fluff, they just wanna know this basic information to enroll. But again, talk to students, do we know that? What do you wanna hear from us? Is it, yeah, yeah.

Heather (15:41.878)

assumption, right? Exactly. And I learned that firsthand. I mean, I’m a perfect example. I’m an assumption. I went back to school at 36, 37 years old. I thought I was going to like in and out. I want to like get my degree and get out. Like I don’t need, I’m not going to go to pep rallies. I’m not going to go to like, I ended up being the biggest cheerleader for UCLA there is. I was not a cheerleader, but I started two student groups. I was, you know,

Matt Sterenberg (16:05.689)


Heather (16:11.958)

welcome weeks for transfer students. I mean, I ended up being like the most rah-rah student that you, you know, not something I predicted, not something that anybody who knew me would have predicted, and probably not something you as an advisor or a admissions counselor or a recruiter would have necessarily assumed about a 37-year-old going back to school, right? We make lots of assumptions. Now, I also did want to get through it and get on to my next thing because I knew I’d found my professional purpose. So I had kind of, a paradox of needs and wants. But I’ll tell you what doesn’t make you feel welcome is when you get a letter addressed to your parents, the parents of Heather Adams, and you haven’t lived with your parents in like 30 years. You know, that kind of thing really does make you feel like you’re not seen. And so that communication, and I would add to your point, Matt, like it’s compassionate or empathetic communication, communication that’s tailored, I guess.

It’s not just about marketing. It’s literally about, yeah, I want the pep rally. Yeah, I want the band to be at my transfer Bruin day or my, you know, my welcome day. I want the same things that the freshmen or the first year, first time in college students get and transfers often don’t because there’s an assumption they’ve been in college before they kind of know the deal, they know what they want. They’ll figure it out. It’s on the website. So yeah. Um, all right. For, uh,

And this one’s really important and kind of goes back to the articulation agreement concept or conversation. Transfer can’t sit with one person on a campus. It’s the responsibility of all of us. This is, you know, again, as I was saying, it’s not a handoff. It’s a shared responsibility. So back to the premise of shared responsibility. And I really dislike that term handoff because we’re all responsible. It’s the all sectors, all roles, all departments. This really does lead to that cultural piece that you were talking about. And honestly, as a person who had transfer in their title, I felt there was no way I was going to solve the problem for 700, 3064 transfer students at UCLA.

Heather (18:33.334)

That wasn’t going to happen. They were all over the place. I wasn’t going to reach 7,000 students. But because I had transfer in the title, in my title, it was like, Oh, well, Heather will know the answer or Heather, you know, just send it there. Versus, Hey, I’m in, you know, making things up, but I’m in, you know, career center. I’m in the financial aid and I don’t know the answer to this transfer question. Like maybe I should, if I’m getting this question a lot about, from transfers about financial aid or about career prep and about career development. And so one of the things that I did is created this community called Transfer Nation. And really the idea was to one, not be alone in transfer because transfer is so complex that people are like, I don’t wanna touch it, it’s a hot potato. It’s why we nibble around the edges, right? It’s like, no one wants to get in there and like really fix the systemic issues, right? Because they’re hard and you can’t do it alone.

But once we have someone with transfer in their title, it’s like, oh, they’ll deal with the transfer. And this goes to your premise of like, do we even need the word transfer anymore? We do because we’re not there yet. The day that everybody is joining Transformation and everybody on a campus is talking about transfer in an equal manner than you and I who talk about transfer every day, then we’re okay. But I would say this is the same with like first gen.

Matt Sterenberg (19:43.799)


Heather (19:58.446)

know, issues like we’re, we talk about first generation college students all the time. Everybody has to have a responsibility in supporting first generation college students. We wouldn’t say they don’t. We wouldn’t say financial aid doesn’t need to know how to deal with that. We wouldn’t say career center doesn’t know how to deal with that, but we do that with transfer often.

Matt Sterenberg (20:17.231)

So I’m listening to this and I’m in higher ed and I’m just predicting what my response will be. Let’s start an advisory committee. Let’s start an advisory committee on transfer. Which is let’s say a step in the right direction, but is that enough? And what is the ideal? Give us like a…

Heather (20:21.131)


Heather (20:28.414)

I have a million other jobs.

Heather (20:32.855)


Heather (20:36.297)

Yeah, totally.

Matt Sterenberg (20:45.555)

pragmatic response to, all right, we all have to care about it. Let’s all agree that we need all the departments. This is an institution wide thing. This is a missional thing that we’re all committed to. How do we organize it? Because everyone has their own priorities, their own fiefdoms within a university, let’s say. What are the action items to get people to actually buy in and care?

Heather (21:04.238)


Heather (21:10.614)

Well, number one, I’ll start with sort of the Aspyn College Excellence Program lens is definitely you need leadership prioritization, right? So you need presidents and provosts with a vision who are kind of setting the stage and setting the tone, that this is our united vision on transfer, and that then needs to really expand to the entire institution. And often it doesn’t. Or often there’s just not a prioritization and there’s only a bottom-up effort more of my kind of philosophy or what I’ve seen work is both, right? So you need somebody at the top who has the weight and the power really to make the decisions on prioritizing, funding, making sure staff have time and support and professional development to do what you’re asking them to do. But you also need the boots on the ground people who are working with students every single day and are kind of the lifeline and see what they’re doing.

So I think, you know, on a big high level, like a big high level answer to that is that, you know, you’re going to need presidential involvement and you’re going to need leadership to understand the imperative here when it comes to building transfer culture and building policies and practices that really work for those students. And sometimes you have to make a different case for a president. Sometimes it’s about how transfer can serve your return on investment or how transfer can serve the return on mission if your institution’s serving the regional area or needs more diversity, whatever that is, how does transfer speak to that? That might have to be a case that you would have to make to leadership if they’re not prioritizing. And then I would say, again, it’s sort of check your assumptions. I think a lot of people, we just go through our day and I’m certainly a culprit of this is you just sort of go through your day of like, this is what a student is, this is what they need. And, you know, it’s kind of a little bit repetitive. And instead of taking a moment to look at the individual, and I don’t think you have to have be a transfer to know how to really talk and serve transfers while or advise transfers. You just literally have to ask the questions. Like you have to know if they’re a transfer, you have to understand what that experience was for them. So again, it just comes back to talking and listening to students about.

Heather (23:34.354)

what’s happening right now, rather than assuming you are giving the correct information immediately, just because it’s what you’ve always done. I can use like a career center example or even alumni association. When you, you know, sometimes alumni associations are like, oh yeah, everybody’s an alumni. They’re all whatever’s, you know, whatever your mascot is. Where did you go to school?

Matt Sterenberg (23:57.811)

Kelvin University. The Knights.

Heather (23:59.574)

What was your mascot?

The Knights, right? So you’re a Knight. Once you graduate from Calvin, you’re a Knight. Yeah, awesome. Well, you know, are you, you know, do you have a tag for your transfer alumni? Because are your transfer alumni just as, you know, kind of engaged and loyal and into, you know, felt a sense of belonging as students who came in right from high school and spent more years there? Are they, are you?

Are you making an assumption that transfers do or don’t want to be identified and connect with people with shared experiences? I mean, it’s a conversation. It’s not an easy answer, but it’s something to talk about. It’s something that a transfer coordinator or director can go to alumni and say, hey, have you ever thought of an affinity group for transfers, especially if you have a high volume of transfers? Alumni affairs is probably going to be like, we never really thought of that.

I bet they have a first gen alumni group or like, you know, other affinity groups, whether that’s by race and ethnicity or interest, they probably have some really significant affinity groups. I bet transfer is not there yet. But why not? And it doesn’t necessarily need to be at every institution if you don’t have a huge community of transfers or there’s not a need for it or a demand for it from students. But even just having that conversation.

I don’t want to put words in our alumni association colleagues’ mouths, but I don’t know if they’re thinking about transfer, right? But just thinking about it and asking the question, I think, is what we can all do in any role you’re in, even if you don’t have a president who’s necessarily setting the stage for a unified vision for transfer.

Matt Sterenberg (25:53.403)

Yeah, and I think the alumni are the best people to talk to. So if you talk to someone who is a transfer student but has never been a transfer student before, be like, what do you want to be part of your experience? I don’t necessarily know, but if you talk to the alumni and said, hey, what did we get right and what did we get wrong? That’ll tell you a lot because they’ve gone through the experience once before.

Heather (26:17.348)

Yep. Exactly. And yeah, or you know, and you can use a gazillion other examples. You know, most of the resources and departments on campus think of themselves as for all students, you know, but does the transfer know the career centers for them? Are they going to do they walk through the doorframe? And if they don’t, why not? And is the Career Center asking that question?

Is it our advisors, if you don’t have transfer-specific advisors, are you surveying your students to see what the difference is, experience and different questions coming from transfers versus full-time, first-time and college students? What’s the difference and what’s their experience like? And if you are not…

Heather (27:06.562)

keeping track of that and tagging who your transfers are, kind of tracking those common questions, then there’s gotta be gaps. There has to be gaps. But you only know if you’re asking the question and if you’re really kind of focused on it and prioritizing it. I know there’s a million things to prioritize. Believe me, no one at an institution is doing just one thing. Generally people…who are doing transfer work are also doing a gazillion other things. But I do also know from experience that it’s not that hard just to ask the question, just to say, so what’s your experience been? Or just to go, let’s look at the data here by transfer versus by full-time and college students and see what the difference is. Maybe there’s no difference. Maybe you’re doing an awesome job. That’s cool, you have transfer inclusive culture, right? But possibly you can learn something as well.

And that’s really just like the first step at doing that, you know, that kind of it’s everybody’s responsibility thing. So the other thing in this kind of segues a little bit from transfers, everybody’s responsibility is transfer goes beyond an enrollment strategy. Right? You know, you’ve heard, you’ve heard me say this transfer is a workforce imperative. It’s an economic imperative. It’s a regional imperative. It’s a return on investment, it’s institutional survival and health imperative. Transfer is not, it’s a student success strategy, not an enrollment strategy. And all too often from the four-year perspective, we get stuck in transfer sits and enrollment. You just mentioned it, that this institution put dual enrollment and advising instead of

Heather (29:01.25)

That’s super smart because they’re understanding that it’s a richer, it’s not just the transition. It’s not just that initial, are you going to get in? What’s your application look like? How are we recruiting you? And then we hand them off to whomever. It’s about, yeah, are we doing that in an inclusive way? And then are we also sharing that information with the campus and other departments who are then equally responsible for the student’s success.

Matt Sterenberg (29:29.911)

I do think the enrollment piece is interesting because that is a nice gateway to get institutions to care about it because they’re all struggling for enrollments. So it is a good way to your point to like fold it into this is why you need to care about it. But it shouldn’t just be about that. So it’s a good way. It’s a gateway to like get institutions to perk their ears up. But to your point, it’s not it’s necessary but not sufficient.

Heather (29:38.347)


Heather (29:54.414)


Heather (29:59.618)

Exactly. And all too many times it sits in admissions and it doesn’t ever really infiltrate itself into the rest of the infiltrate transfer culture, into the rest of the institution. I just think that, again, transfer is not about transferring for one institution to another. So it’s not just that moment in time. What about the rest of their time?

And if the premise of the problem is not enough community college students are graduating with bachelor’s degrees, then we have to start again looking at that trajectory and where that responsibility is in terms of the lifelong trajectory. Okay, so last but not least, and again, these aren’t in really any order, but I think this is a good one to kind of conclude with or wrap up on, is that…

It’s about kind of transfer inclusive culture, whether you’re at a community college and you’re creating kind of a transfer promoting culture. Everybody here can transfer, is capable of transferring, you know, has a route to do it and it’s easy to navigate and here’s how. A transfer supporting culture of preparing them for what it’s gonna be like when they do transfer to a receiving institution and introducing them to the people that they need to know, or other students who’ve lived through that experience. And then at a four-year at a research university or a receiving university, I should say, it’s about the welcoming environment and kind of being relentlessly welcoming to take a phrase from another colleague, Peter Felton, who wrote a book about, about relentless, building relentless relationship, building relationship rich connections with students. And he talks about being relentlessly welcoming, which I love, because that’s kind of what you need to do to make sure that people know that they matter and that they belong. And so I think, you know, the way in which to create transfer culture and shift culture on our campuses is to do some of the things we talked about before. Right? If you set up some of these policies and practices and you do them, you

Heather (32:21.866)

and you implement them so that they’re institutionalized, they don’t just live with one person, they don’t just live on one piece of paper, but they’re continuously improving and they’re actually something that everyone has a role in, both the community college and the receiving institution. Then all of a sudden, you’ve got a structure that supports an inclusive culture. And then that culture can really develop more.

But you really have to get the practices and policies right in order to kind of fulfill that institutionalized transfer receptive culture that you might be aiming for.

Matt Sterenberg (33:02.459)

Heather, we’ve covered a lot of ground and it’s been an amazing conversation talking all about transfer. Thank you so much for joining me. And one more plug, if you’re listening to this and you want to know, and you’re just a transfer nerd like Heather is, let’s be honest. Yeah.

Heather (33:21.583)

Calling all transfer nerds.

Matt Sterenberg (33:24.363)

You can find more information at Transfer Nation. So you guys have a LinkedIn page that you post a lot of stuff. I think you have an Instagram page. You’re doing all sorts of stuff. Where can they find Transfer Nation?

Heather (33:33.834)

We are on Facebook. I would just go to and all of our links are there. You can learn a little bit more about us, but join the conversation. And I also do a podcast. So Matt, I hope you’ll be joining me at some point on the Transformation Talks podcast. If I really wanna, season four, we’re entering season four, and I really want to focus on other departments and areas that are out seemingly outside of transfer but aren’t and learn from departments and organizations that serve other areas of the institution about how they’re pulling in transfer receptor culture into their practice. So if you’re listening to this and you’re interested, I’d love to hear your take and talk to you about it on TN Talks.

Matt Sterenberg (34:27.159)

Awesome. Thank you, Heather. Appreciate it.

Heather (34:29.998)


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