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We talk a lot about Isabella at Minnesota State.

Isabella is a mother coming back to college after an extended absence. Previously, she had attended a private not-for-profit college for one semester, and picked up a couple courses at community colleges over the years. She’d wanted to be a nurse, and had completed a couple pre-nursing courses and a few other general education courses before her kids were born eight years ago. Now, she’s interested in social work.

She knows that there is a Minnesota State college near her home, and thinks she can attend classes there if she can figure out a way to do it while working and taking care of her children. Once her youngest is in first grade, Isabella decides it’s finally time to contact the local community college and enroll. 

Isabella isn’t a real student, but an evidence-based composite of one. But she’s become real to us at Minnesota State, and talking about “Isabella” has helped us reframe conversations around equity and transfer. We have worked for years to improve the transfer process, including designing a Minnesota Transfer Curriculum, implementing a robust reverse transfer process, and creating more than 270 Transfer Pathway Degree programs — but while we’ve made progress, we still aren’t where we would like to be.

Isabella has helped sharpen our focus, reminding us at every turn that transfer has to be a student-centered process.

Need for a Student-First Approach

Minnesota State is the third largest system of higher education in the United States and the largest in the state with 30 colleges, 7 universities, and 54 campuses, serving over 340,000 students. Improving transfer has been a major focus ever since the system was created through a merger of the university, state college, and community college systems in the early 1990’s. But as we close in on three decades since the merger, it was clear that transfer was still a challenging process for too many students.

In 2019, we launched both our Equity 2030 strategy and joined the Tackling Transfer program. Equity 2030 has a single goal: to close educational equity gaps for students of color and  Indigenous, low-income, and first-generation students at every Minnesota State college and university. Given the reality of students’ lives today, transfer plays an essential and pivotal role in reaching that goal.

Through our work with Tackling Transfer, it quickly became clear that we needed to  reframe transfer from the perspective and experiences of our students. Informed by data, including a survey of underrepresented transfer students and focus groups, we developed Isabella’s personna and story to help us personalize and contextualize the transfer experience. This has helped us see barriers with a new clarity, and helped us better align our efforts to smooth the transfer processes. We see our policies and procedures through her eyes.  

Isabella is like many students, especially students who fall into one of the Equity 2030 focus populations. Students have family and financial responsibilities that prevent them from returning to school full-time. Many students also have challenges maintaining momentum, and what seem like temporary set-backs — a child or child care provider getting sick, testing positive for Covid-19, car trouble, or a change in family or work schedule — can derail students and cause them to stop-out. At Minnesota State colleges, fewer than one in five students accumulate 30 credits in their first year and fewer than half accumulate 20 credits. While students at the universities fare better, only about one-third will complete 30 credits in their first year. Isabella’s story brings this reality to life:

After the first week of classes, Isabella feels ill-prepared and wonders if college is really the right fit for her. She drops out of the college math course she registered for because she’s spending so much time trying to keep up with the homework. Isabella knows she took a math course previously and isn’t sure why she needs a different course for the Pre-Social Work Transfer Pathway. She figures she can try the math course again later, once she’s more adjusted to her new schedule balancing college, work, and her caring for her kids.

Many of our students struggle to complete college-level math courses, and more often than not, that is the stumbling block that keeps them from getting a degree. Acknowledging that, we are now working to better align appropriate math requirements to programs, so students are not tripped up by a requirement that isn’t truly necessary to the quality of their education.  

Isabella meets some other social work students who let her know she should talk to her advisor. However, her advisor has a large caseload and time only allows for a 15-minute appointment.  Isabella feels rushed and doesn’t want to be a bother, so she doesn’t bring up all the questions she has. She never learns about her degree audit report or transfer services.

Advising was both a frequent highlight and a frequent pain point in transfer student focus groups. In a higher education system, transfer processes vary from institution to institution. Students who were able to connect with an individual, not necessarily a formal advisor, who was encouraging and helpful often cited that as what made their transfer experience successful. Large advising caseloads combined with the complexity of transfer processes work against both students and advisors. Improvements in the alignment and consistency of the transfer curriculum would also make it easier for advisors and students.

Isabella perseveres and completes her Pre-Social Work Transfer Pathway degree. She wants to transfer to a local university to finish her bachelor’s degree. Navigating the university campus and administrative offices can be daunting. She has a hard time finding someone to help her with her next steps. Eventually she figures it out with the help of fellow students. Isabella transfers to a Minnesota State University and, once there, successfully completes her bachelor’s degree.

In the story we’ve constructed, Isabella ultimately overcomes the barriers she faces in attaining a degree, but we know that many students don’t. Spotlighting those barriers makes it clear that many of them don’t need to be there in the first place, and recognising that has been instrumental in shaping our work to improve the transfer process, particularly through an equity-focused lens. The system is now leading a comprehensive review of all transfer pathway programs through “community of practice” workshops. This review process brings together colleges and universities to align programs among their institutions and to do so from a student-centered and equity-minded perspective. The workshops address barriers and challenges such as academic and advisory support, meeting students’ basic needs, identifying and streamlining inconsistencies in course or credit evaluation, and improving transfer student orientation programs, among other areas, to ensure a seamless and clear pathway. 

At the same time, broader equity-focused initiatives will help to strengthen and undergird transfer success. Some of these systemwide efforts include guided learning pathways, Equity by Design, and the Equity Scorecard. Listening to students and communities and internalizing their experiences is essential to the success of this work. Institutions and the people they serve have to work together to not only create new pathways — but highways — to opportunity.

Inside Higher Ed