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The Power of Student Voice: How Human-Centered Design Leads to Seamless Transfer Pathways

Seamless Transfer Pathways

How might community colleges and four-year universities dramatically improve transfer and baccalaureate attainment rates by reframing the end-to-end experience from the student’s point of view?

Education Pathways to Economic Opportunity

If you want a good job, go to college. Sound familiar? While the degree as the gold standard may be debatable, recent data affirms that in today’s economy, college graduates are still landing the majority of the good jobs.

Eighty percent of students who enroll each year in a community college aspire to earn a bachelor’s degree. But transfer and completion rates are staggeringly low. Only 1 in 4 students make the leap to a four-year institution within five years. When you consider that 44% of students entering community college are low-income, coupled with growing income inequality and persistent earnings gaps, solving for transfer student success takes on great urgency.

The Seamless Transfer Pathways Design Challenge

In Fall 2017, the Education Design Lab, with funding from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, set out to respond to the moral imperative and urgency to redesign pathways for underserved students with the institutions that serve most of them: large public community colleges and universities. We launched Seamless Transfer Pathways, a multi-year design challenge with the goal to improve transfer and graduation rates for community college students aspiring to earn a Bachelor’s degree by 30% over six years.

We centered the initiative around the design question, “How might community colleges and four-year universities dramatically improve transfer and baccalaureate attainment rates by reframing the end-to-end experience from the student’s point of view?” and invited transfer partnerships to apply. One hundred institutions representing 25 states came forward. The Lab selected four teams: Miami Dade College and Florida International University; Township High School District 211, Harper College, and Northern Illinois University; Collin College and University of North Texas; and Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University.

Our hope was that the work would be helpful to the transfer community’s efforts to dramatically improve student outcomes. As teams prepare to launch their pilots this fall, the Lab is eager to share our experience and lessons learned. Our new paper, Seamless Transfer Pathways: Student-Centered Solutions to Improve Transfer Student Success offers practitioners a look at how these institutional teams embraced a student-centered approach to move beyond conventional models and solve for the future.

To learn more about the pilots that will launch this fall, please visit:

Mapping student insights

Key Take-Aways

Begin with Data: Big Data and Small Data

“Seeing the raw data was uncomfortable at times, but sometimes it’s the hard truths that lead you to the best solutions.” – Dr. Mark Mrozinski, Assistant Vice President of Workforce Development, Executive Dean of Community Education, Harper College

Solving for transfer student success involves understanding where and why a system loses its students. To map the student journey, we asked the teams to come to the table with all their student data.

Using a ‘Leaky Pipeline’ graphic to chart where students were coming from and where they were going, we captured their transfer stories. The quantitative data was not new, but analyzing it in context, with transparency and without filtering, allowed the teams to identify immediate opportunities to re-think their pathways.

Later, the teams looked deeper into student sub-groups and began to reframe problems as solutions. Undecided students experiencing the worst outcomes and accumulating excess credits. Latino families demanding a predictable, fast, and affordable education close to home. These were seeds that would eventually grow into pilots.

Leverage the Tools of Human Centered Design

“The design process really affords participants the opportunity to think about things critically, but also provides them the boundlessness to come up with some things that they wouldn’t have otherwise. It really challenges them to think differently. And higher education needs that.” – Janet Marling, Executive Director, NISTS

Our aim was to be transformational. Moving beyond “point solutions” would require a shift from an institutional mindset to a student-centered mindset. After starting with the big data, we brought students directly into the conversation and elevated their voices to help the teams adopt a ground-level view of the student experience.

Each partnership formed a core design team of up to 10 staff, supported by a design coach. The Lab introduced design thinking principles (empathy, invention, and iteration) and trained the core team to use empathy tools (empathy maps, journey maps, interviews with students) to understand and document the student journey.

We then gathered and curated the qualitative data, displayed as artifacts in the form of a gallery walk. Widening the circle to include other stakeholders, the teams invited administrators, faculty, and staff from across the partner campuses to engage with the research. The artifacts provided the ‘small data’ from which insights could be drawn to shape the themes for the pilot concepts.

Emerging Themes Across Campuses

As we conducted our deep dive with each campus, two major umbrella themes emerged: belonging and trust. The five circles illustrate the five most compelling design opportunity spaces. The stars depict where the final pilots landed for each team and which themes became primary drivers for the next phase: concepts.

Create a Sense of Belonging for Students

Central to the themes that emerged in the gallery walk was ‘belonging.’ Often, the first question asked of a potential transfer student is, “Where are you planning to transfer?” It is a valid and important question, as so many institutions have different requirements and students can at times find themselves “off-track” from their very first semester. But it can also cause some confusion as to where student loyalties lie. If institutions are constantly asking students what’s next, do they ever get to truly belong where they are?

Many students interviewed by the teams talked about the need to trust both parties to provide them reliable information and support throughout their transfer experience. But they also shared how as soon as they felt comfortable navigating the 2-year institution, everything changed, again, and they found themselves struggling to fit in at the 4-year. Understanding this expectation on the part of students helped clarify for the institutions why and where students were struggling.

Engage Stakeholders Across Silos

The Seamless Transfer Pathways initiative created an opportunity for participating institutions to open a new communication channel with their partner schools that went beyond articulation agreements. By framing the conversation around the student experience, institutions had to first confront their own silos before engaging their partners. Bridging differences in how information, policies, and procedures are interpreted requires convening internal stakeholders to discuss and agree on a path to move forward. Only then can you begin the process of collaboration with your partner institutions.

The teams recognized this and worked to involve all members of their campus at some point throughout the design challenge. Demonstrating the value of collaboration as a means to achieve change allowed the institutions to engage in new and more meaningful ways. One team set the expectation that collaboration extends beyond the 2-year and 4-year institutions and invited a local high school district to join their application. Such collaboration enables strong transfer partnerships, which are vital to producing the talent that local communities need.

For the 80% of community college students who aspire to a Bachelor’s degree, institutions must present the path from beginning to end, with considerable optionality, transparency, and affordability. But improving transfer success requires transfer partnerships to produce more than articulated agreements and guided pathways. We need new models that reimagine higher education and take into account the experiences and real needs of students and their communities.


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