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A New Tool to Improve Transfer: Introducing the NISTS Transfer Policy & Practice Audit Tool

Written by

Trudy Bers, The Bers Group

In this blog post, Dr. Trudy Bers, a contributor to the audit tool, explores the context of why it’s important for transfer advocates to know whether their institutions’ policies and practices help or hinder transfer students’ journeys.

A multi-ethnic group of four professionals work together to prioritize sticky notes on a wall.

This blog isn’t about the realities and frustrations of helping transfer students. It’s about a new tool to help transfer advocates learn their institutions’ stories about transfer by examining the policies and practices that affect transfer students. But before getting to the tool, I want to provide some background on why I think the tool is needed. I do this from the perspective of a former community college administrator who spent decades—yes, decades—trying to untangle the transfer maze and recognizing that the barriers and complexities of transfer make it so troublesome for students, families, and colleges.

Background: Why is this tool needed?

Transfer is huge! How many students attend more than one college on their way to their bachelor’s degrees? According to the National Student Clearinghouse, nearly 40 percent (Shapiro, et. al, 2015). If we look just at the nearly 8.5 million bachelor’s degree-seeking undergraduates enrolled in fall 2020 (NSC, n.d.) this suggests that 3.4 million students have transferred or will transfer. Add the number of fall 2020 associate-degree seeking students (N = 4.6 million) who may transfer, and the number of potential transfer students escalates to more than 4 million.

Yes, the pandemic and declining college enrollments are affecting transfer. Distressingly, the Clearinghouse reported that upward transfers declined 11.6 percent in spring 2022 compared to the previous spring. Even with this decline, the number of transfer students and potential transfers remains in the millions (NSC, 2022a).

Transfer is complicated to understand.

First, there are multiple transfer pathways, including vertical or upward transfer (from two-year to four year); lateral transfer (between two-year or between four-year institutions); and reverse transfer (from four-year to two-year institutions). And there are additional complicating factors. One is the rise of dual enrollment, where students may earn college credits while in high school and then, after high school, take these credits to a different institution than the one awarding dual enrollment credits. Are these students “transfers” even though they never attended the dual enrollment college once they left high school? Another complicating factor is that students may engage in transfer swirl, moving among multiple institutions and sometimes even enrolling in two or more colleges during the same term.

Second, even within the same university, colleges and departments may use different metrics to identify transfer students. Thus, consistency in identifying, providing services for, and tracking transfer students may vary within the same institution.

Third, the pandemic has shifted enrollment and transfer in ways that were unexpected. In spring 2020, with the realization that colleges were unlikely to reopen for face-to-face instruction in the fall, community college optimists thought students entering higher education and students at four-year colleges would flock to community colleges because of their lower costs and proximity to home. That didn’t happen. Instead, compared to fall 2019, postsecondary undergraduate enrollments declined 3.6 percent in fall 2020. Fall 2020 enrollments in public two-year institutions were down 10.1 and the enrollment of first-time postsecondary students in public two-year colleges fell 20.1 percent compared to fall 2019 (NSC, n.d.).

The downward trend in enrollments continued at least through spring 2022. Undergraduate enrollments were down 4.7 percent, or 662,000 students, with public community colleges losing 7.8 percent compared to the previous spring (NSC, 2022b). Public community colleges have lost more than 827,000 students since the pandemic began. Whether these trends continue post-pandemic is impossible to predict.

There are many ideas but little actual evidence about what policies and practices are truly effective in facilitating transfer.

Research continues to show that transfer policies and practices place a variety of barriers in the way of students being able to successfully navigate their transfer journeys (American Council on Education, 2021; Bailey, et. al, 2017; Bustillos, 2017; Mangan, 2020). Authors suggest a number of remedies and ways in which colleges can facilitate transfer, though few studies include empirical evidence evaluating the actual effectiveness of these attempts (Tobolowski and Bers, 2022). Whether the persistence of barriers is intentional or unintentional, the fact that they exist is incontrovertible.

Using the Tool to Improve Transfer

What can transfer advocates do to improve transfer at their institutions? A first step, NISTS believes, is to know your institution. What are the policies and practices affecting transfer students? Do they help or hinder these students? Has anyone even pulled together information about all these policies and practices to enable the institution to take a comprehensive look at how it is dealing with transfer students?

The NISTS Transfer Policy & Practice Audit Tool is a simple tool transfer advocates can use to document the policies and practices in place at their institutions. Designed initially with vertical transfer in mind, the tool can also be used to assess policies and practices for all transfer students, no matter which pattern (vertical, lateral or reverse) is in play.

We invite you to look at the tool; to download it; to talk with colleagues about its utility; to consider dividing up the sections to engage several transfer advocates in completing the audit and to share their findings; to convene conversations with key transfer stakeholders, including gatekeepers, to discuss whether there is satisfaction with the ways in which the institution facilitates or puts bumps in the path for transfer students; and to consider next steps to improve transfer.



Dr. Trudy Bers is President of The Bers Group, an educational consulting organization. She was formerly the Executive Director of Research, Curriculum and Planning at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Illinois. Her responsibilities included developing and monitoring articulation agreements with four-year institutions and researching barriers to and facilitators of transfer from the perspectives of both scholar and practitioner. Currently she is a coach for Achieving the Dream, a coach for the Institute for Evidence-Based Learning’s Caring Campus, and a mentor for the Higher Learning Commission’s Student Success Academy. She is also a faculty member in the University of Maryland Global Campuses’ Doctor of Management in Community College Policy and Administration program.

She has been a board member of the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students and has been president of the Association for Institutional Research (AIR), the Council or the Study of Community Colleges, and the National Community College Council for Research and Planning.

Bers has published more than fifty articles in professional journals and is a frequent conference presenter. She earned her Ph.D. In Political Science from the University of Illinois-Urbana and holds an M.B.A. from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University, an A.M. in Public Law and Government from Columbia University, and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Illinois-Urbana.


The views and opinions expressed on the NISTS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of NISTS. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything.


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