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Reimagining Transfer in Michigan through MiTransfer

Written by: Katherine Giardello, Michigan Community College Association Kevin Chandler, Macomb Community College



In February 2020, we had the opportunity to tell the state of Michigan’s story of reimagining transfer through its MiTransfer Project at the 16th annual NISTS (National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students) conference. Our session at the conference was dynamic largely due to a highly engaged crowd who also told their stories, asked good questions, and shared smart ideas that left all of us reinvigorated as transfer champions. The Michigan legislature provided one-time funding for our MiTransfer Project which created a new statewide transfer planning website (www.mitransfer.org) in addition to multi-institutional transfer agreements in selected disciplines. This blog post summarizes the MiTransfer story we told in our conference session wherein we focused on three key themes regarding our work in Michigan: it was voluntary and collaborative, and because of those efforts, the transfer process is becoming more streamlined for both students and participating institutions throughout the state. In addition to touching on these themes, we will share lessons learned and thoughts on the future of MiTransfer in a post-COVID world.

Voluntary

Michigan is one of the only states in the U.S. without a coordinated system of higher education. In fact, our state constitution specifies that public colleges and universities will operate under autonomous governance. As such, there is no coordinating or governing board for public higher education in our state. Three Lansing-based associations that represent the three sectors of higher education in the state serve coordinating functions, but their primary organizational focuses are legislative and public advocacy. The state legislature maintains some requirements of institutions through language in the state appropriations bills for higher education, but such statewide efforts are nearly always voluntary. This means all institutions, public and private/independent, can decide for themselves whether or not to participate (as opposed to legislation in other states that requires public institutions to follow specified transfer policies).

According to the Education Commission of the States (ECS), thirty-plus states have “guaranteed transfer of the associate degree” written into legislation or board policy, typically implemented by a coordinating/governing body. We have followed our peers’ examples to build strategies that improve transfer student success but have adapted them to the “Michigan context,” which is unique in terms of higher education governance. We are pleased that all twenty-eight public community colleges and thirty-eight public and private/independent four-year institutions voluntarily participate in the MiTransfer Project.

Collaborative

Despite this autonomous background, there is also a long history of collaboration on transfer in Michigan. The first meeting of what would become the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) was held in 1910 in Detroit with transfer among the topics of the day. In 1972, Michigan’s AACRAO group, the Michigan Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (MACRAO) implemented the MACRAO Transfer Agreement. In 2014, responding to a state legislature request to update the transfer agreement, the Michigan Transfer Agreement (MTA) was implemented across the state with all public institutions participating to different degrees of interpretation (because of Michigan’s autonomous governance structure, institutions have applied the terms of the agreement according to their unique interpretations). Building on the success of the MTA, the state’s FY 2018 budget included a one-time appropriation for the MiTransfer Project that sought to replace the statewide transfer equivalency database and build multi-institutional associate-to-bachelor’s degree transfer pathways in selected academic programs. Several cross-functional representative groups provided input and oversight of various components of the MiTransfer Project as described below.

Michigan Transfer Steering Committee. To guide these efforts and improve communication across stakeholders, the Michigan Transfer Steering Committee was formed in 2016. This representative body from community colleges and both public and private, independent four-year institutions, as well as the MACRAO organization, selected all academic program areas for the MiTransfer Project and oversee the various functional teams that make the project work. Put simply, the MiTransfer Project included two major deliverables: a new statewide transfer database (Mitransfer.org) and a set of statewide multi-institutional associate-to-bachelor’s degree transfer pathways (MiTransfer Pathways).

MiTransfer.org. Invaluable input and advice in the process design, testing, and implementation phases of the Mitransfer.org launch was provided by the MTN Replacement Team. The new website launched in May 2019. There are sixty-six institutions providing data to share critical transfer planning information with the public. In addition to a more sophisticated searchable statewide transfer equivalency database, the website features a never-before aggregated list of links to all participating community colleges, public universities, and independent colleges and universities in Michigan on its Find Colleges & Universities page. Details on the Michigan Transfer Agreement and new MiTransfer Pathways are provided in addition to general transfer planning information. A secure user area provides robust reporting capabilities and access to a new digital syllabus repository along with tables that display information about Michigan Transfer Agreement (MTA) courses.

MiTransfer Pathways. The Michigan Transfer Steering Committee selected twelve academic programs within which to build statewide pathways over the three-year project period. The twelve programs are Art, Biology, Business, Communication, Computer Science, Criminal Justice, English, Exercise Science, Mechanical Engineering, Psychology, Public Health, and Social Work. The MiTransfer Pathways Team provided guidance and insight on plans to convene groups in these program areas to develop statewide transfer pathways. Ultimately, nearly one thousand faculty, staff, and administrators from across the state attended a series of six meetings to determine common lower-division transferable coursework between community colleges and universities. The first four pathways in Biology, Business, Criminal Justice, and Psychology were executed in December 2019, and institutions have progressed in integrating these agreements into their catalogs and on their websites. The final eight pathways are projected for implementation in August 2020 (after a slight delay due to COVID-19).


Faculty, staff, and administrators from across Michigan attend the first MiTransfer Pathways meeting in May 2019.

Streamlined

Many constituents benefit from the streamlined MiTransfer.org website that institutions collaboratively maintain, notably students. Increasing visibility of institutional transfer resources improves transparency for students, parents, and advisors in a variety of capacities (high school guidance counselors, college and university advisors, faculty, advocacy organizations, etc.). At Macomb Community College, one of the largest community colleges in the state of Michigan, MiTransfer Project will improve the process by which a student can transfer, making it easier on universities and colleges as well as students. Now a more simplified framework in building articulation agreements and transfer plans can be applied across most colleges and universities that have chosen to participate in these areas of study. Additionally, students do not feel like they must cement their destination decision immediately; instead, they can make that decision gradually as their own education track becomes clearer, allowing for maximum credit transfer at more than one institution.

The MiTransfer Pathways are statewide transfer agreements that include common courses specifically articulated in the MTA and MiTransfer Pathways agreements in addition to institution-specific requirements as laid out within institutional curriculum worksheets. The agreements stipulate that institutions will maintain equivalence for all MTA and MiTransfer courses and as many as possible of the remaining degree requirements available at community colleges.


Figure: Associate-to-Bachelor’s Degree Transfer Pathways Curriculum Blocks

Lessons Learned

  • Build on the work of others. Several states were further ahead in their statewide transfer pathways work and graciously offered to talk on the phone with our project team and share documents that helped us build our strategy. Our own project documents were shown and discussed at NISTS. Examples appear in slides from the session that you can download here.

  • Craft a simple purpose statement. Our project objective called for “making the overall transfer experience more efficient, easy to understand, and simple to navigate while optimizing credit transfer.” It has proven to be a tall order, but these guiding objectives have motivated large swaths of institutional teams to keep working to reduce the complexities of transfer. Although not stated explicitly, our efforts clearly benefitted from a students-first mentality among participants that favored authentic, equity-minded collaboration over inter-institutional competition.

  • Support access to reliable data. In our case, people were interested in this work after seeing the data, which spoke for itself—particularly the low completion rates among Michigan transfer students. We used data from Michigan’s Center for Educational Performance and Information (CEPI) and the National Center on Education Statistics (NCES) Integrated Postsecondary Education System (IPEDS) to investigate context at the state and institutional levels. We also relied on research reports published by the Aspen Institute and Community College Research Center, National Student Clearinghouse, and Dr. Jason Taylor to inform our project.

  • Strive to sustain collaboration on and across campuses. Doing so will require long-term investment and enthusiasm from institutional leadership. A comprehensively shared vision and lasting, trusting relationships are necessary to keep reimagining transfer in Michigan (and beyond!) to benefit students first and, certainly, to benefit institutions as well. (A note on funding: Funding is obviously important to largescale reform efforts. Ultimately, wholesale culture change is an underlying goal of projects like these, and, while continued funding and centralized staffing are beneficial, integrating transfer into institutional operating cultures will produce the most sustainable long-term results.)

  • Develop a way to measure success. As we near the end of our funded project, we are finding that we need better institutional and statewide data to evaluate whether the MiTransfer Pathways increase associate and bachelor’s degree completion rates and improve course-taking efficiencies for students on the community college to university transfer pathway. The project team is formulating its evaluation plan and looks forward to sharing our results as the evaluation is completed.

Looking Forward

Clearing the transfer path is more important than ever in a post-COVID world whose citizens have been hit hard financially and will have to recalibrate for the global workforce and economic revolution that emerge in the wake of the pandemic. None of us can afford for students to meander through confusing, inefficient curricular pathways. It will take a village of transfer champions to keep clearing and maintaining an optimal community college transfer pathway, but the benefit to both students and learning institutions will be well worth the effort.


About the Authors

Katherine (Katie) Giardello believes strongly in the social justice imperative of the community college transfer. She currently consults on Michigan’s MiTransfer Project through the Michigan Community College Association’s Center for Student Success. She is also a doctoral candidate at Western Michigan University, just beginning her dissertation on the topic of curricular articulation. She invites you to connect with her on Twitter and share research and ideas reinforcing the importance of transfer using the #transferevangelist hashtag.

Dr. Kevin Chandler has worked tirelessly in advocating for more streamlined transfer pathways for students. As the Dean of University Relations at Macomb Community College, he managed relationships with the college’s four-year partners and oversaw one the nation’s largest university centers. He was recently named Vice President of College Advancement and Community relations at Macomb Community College and just finished his doctorate in educational leadership with a concentration in higher education from Oakland University.

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