“Treat us like freshmen or treat us like juniors; I don’t care. Just pick one.”

Two decades ago, Augustana College enrolled almost twice as many transfer students each year as we do now.  In a time when the total enrollment of the college was several hundred students fewer than today, this meant that a substantially larger proportion of Augustana students had already attended at least one other college before coming to our campus.  I don’t pretend to know all of the factors that altered our demographic make up since then, but over the last two decades our proportion of transfer students has dropped from about a fifth to just under a tenth of our total enrollment.

Despite investing more time and effort into recruiting transfer students over the last few years, this effort has proven to be a gnarly challenge.  To make matters worse, it’s been difficult to pinpoint any specific factor that would make it easier to meet our transfer enrollment goals.  So this winter we conducted a series of focus groups with current transfer students to find out more about their experience acclimating academically and socially.  Our hope was that the information we gathered might help us better serve transfer students and, in so doing, make it easier for us to recruit them.  As I’ve been reviewing our notes from those conversations, I thought I’d share one reoccurring meme that might help us improve the way we think about transfer students and, by extension, might increase our success in serving them as well as our ability to recruit them.

Since our student body is almost entirely traditional students coming directly from four years of high school, it’s deceptively easy to think of our entire student body as virtually homogeneous.  However, our transfer student population completely blows up that stereotype.  In our focus groups, we spoke with students ranging in age from 18 to the early 40s.  Some were married, others were single, and all came from different socio-economic backgrounds.  Furthermore, their academic preparation and ability ranged from the very strongest to seriously at-risk.  Some had earned an Associate’s Degree at a community college before coming to Augustana.  Others had transferred after attending a comparable four-year school for one year.  A few had transferred after attending a community college for less than two years.  Still others had transferred after several years of part-time enrollment.  In some cases this included several years of military service.  In short, our transfer students run the gamut – mirroring the diversity of postsecondary students nationwide.

On its face, this may not seem like a particularly earth-shattering finding.  However, the ramifications of the diversity of our transfer students’ pre-Augustana experience don’t seem to be reflected in our institutional practices.  Our curricular and co-curricular practices suggest that we conceptualize transfer students as a single group of homogeneous individuals – just like we (mostly correctly) conceive of freshmen.   As a result, we have developed curricular and co-curricular experiences that treat them as if they were developmentally and academically similar.  While our programming does hit the mark for some transfers, for most these programs often seem hollow and marginalizing.  Moreover, since most of this programming occurs within the first term or two of a transfer student’s arrival on campus, this marginalization begins at the outset.  And they don’t forget it, either.

Now I don’t think this means that we ought to design different pathways for each type of transfer student – that would be virtually impossible.  But I would suggest that our current system seems particularly narrow in its design – almost as if we made the assumption that all transfer students were the same when we put these programs in place.  Whether that was the case at one point or whether we just made an erroneous assumption, today we seem to miss the mark more often than we hit it.  I wonder if this in turn doesn’t communicate a message to prospective transfers that Augustana is not as welcoming a campus as we would like it to be.

I’ll be sharing the specifics of our findings with many of you over the coming months.  I’ve been intentionally vague in this post primarily because (1) I want us to reflect on the degree to which our own conceptions of transfer students may be derived from assumptions rather than fact, and (2) I didn’t want anyone to feel as if I was hanging them or the programs for which they are responsible out to dry.  Indeed, I was certainly one who had not thought through the implications of this diversity among our transfer students before holding these focus groups and hearing what these students had to say.

On the whole, our transfer students are happy with many of their experiences at Augustana.  But that doesn’t mean that we can’t also improve what we do to make the experience even better and, in the process, cultivate an environment that is more welcoming to future transfer students.  Because if national trends are any indication of the changing world of higher education, we will need to make sure that we don’t lose out on the growing number of transfer students just because we appear to assume that there is really only one type of transfer student.  I would humbly suggest that such thinking only reflects a glimmer of times long past.

Make it a good day,

Mark

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