President Speaks: There’s only upside for colleges to improve transfer policies

by Joseph K. Clark

Editor’s note: Mary Hawkins is the president of Bellevue University, a private institution in Nebraska. Bellevue University has welcomed transfer students into its community for 40 years — more than half of our existence. Transfer students are considered a new enrollment frontier for many colleges. That makes sense, considering that transfer students account for around 1.3 million students enrolled in postsecondary education.

We’ve done this because we needed to rethink our strategy in the mid-1980s when we almost closed. We shifted our institutional focus to degree completion and took dramatic steps to allow students with prior credit to finish what they started. Improving credit mobility for transfer students made sound economic sense. And we started growing enrollment.

But that wasn’t the only outcome of this new direction.

We found that transfer students, especially community colleges, have the college “know-how” needed to succeed. Unlike novice learners, community college transfer students understand the ins and outs of registering, enrolling, attending class, and, especially, completing assignments on time. They’re likely familiar with learning management systems and online portals. And they are often more adept at using technology because they may have used emerging platforms and techniques in their workplaces.

We’ve also found transfer students often bring valuable real-world experience into both in-person and virtual classrooms. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, around two-thirds of full-time students attending community colleges also have jobs.


Mary Hawkins

Our faculty, many experienced professionals in their industries, listen to and respect transfer students who share their prior learning or work experiences in the classroom. These learners enhance the overall student experience for the entire class. Thus, it’s no stretch to assume that many transfer students have full-time or part-time work experience.

As a former community college leader, I encourage higher ed leaders working inside and outside the classroom to use transfer students’ unique experiences to make their curricula and instruction more relevant and meaningful to today’s students.

For example, our emergency management professor encouraged a transfer student who had been a bomb technician in the military to share his experiences in the online classroom — and then used those experiences to bring risk-management principles to life for other students.

The rich mix of students of different ages; racial, social, and economic backgrounds; and experiences create more diverse classrooms, which should focus on all of us in higher ed.

Importantly, we’ve found transfer students to be highly motivated to succeed in their college journey. Transfer students seeking a bachelor’s degree often fall into Bellevue’s “career advancers” group.

They are pursuing a higher education credential to expand their knowledge, indeed. Still, their primary motivation is to advance and qualify for that promotion or new role at work.

That motivation translates into positive institutional outcomes. We know that students who transfer a complete associate degree (60 credit hours) persist through the third term at rates 15% greater than other students and that their one-year retention rate is the highest at our university. I’m incredibly proud that over 2,000 transfer students earned a degree at Bellevue University last year.

The other motivational driver is that transfer student who are parents want to set an example for their children. Our admissions counselors and student coaches who work closely with transfer students often hear that our students want to “make their children proud” and model for them the importance of higher education.

Bellevue University is a testament to the idea that real-world education and learning aren’t confined to a four-year residential experience. Today’s learners take a more nuanced approach that fits their busy lives. Here, it’s normal to see students enroll with an average of four transcripts from other institutions.

We know that transfer students can succeed but that it takes more flexibility from their institutions. All too often, transfer students must jump through hoops when they attempt to transfer into a four-year institution and pursue a bachelor’s degree.

When transfer students have to repeat courses to ensure they are academically prepared to meet an institution’s standards for “academic rigor,” it leads to credit transfer loss and costs students more time and money. It hurts institutions, individuals, and, ultimately, society.

In line with our open-access identity, we’ve structured our operational and academic processes to support transfer students with intuitive and personalized functions. For example:

  • We have current articulation agreements with hundreds of community colleges, and this commitment helps smooth the process for transfer students.
  • Articulation agreements are based on the total associate degree transfer, giving the student junior status.
  • Our faculty use applied, active learning and teaching methods and assignments. They also engage in professional development to keep their skills relevant.
  • Students enroll in a cohort program through a single registration for all their majors’ required courses. Their financial aid is packaged in the same one-step process.

We commit to a hassle-free process to accept all associate degrees, military training, and experience, courses approved by the American Council on Education, credits earned through CLEP and DSST exams, and other prior learning from accredited colleges and universities.

It’s up to us to evaluate the transfer processes in higher education, so it’s less “our way or the highway.” As our university, which has accepted more than a million transfer credits over the last ten years, can attest, it is possible to be more student-centric and institution-centric simultaneously.

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