Over the past two years, the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities supported the first two cohorts of the Transfer Student Success and Equity Intensive, a national effort to accelerate transfer reform at scale. Two cohorts, totaling 71 institutions across 25 states, convened monthly to learn about effective transfer practice, address shared challenges and ultimately launch transfer visions and strategic transfer excellence plans that aim for stronger, more equitable transfer outcomes.
Aspen connected with Julie White and Sheila Edwards Lange, chancellors at Pierce College and the University of Washington at Tacoma, respectively, to learn about how they worked together to offer guaranteed admission to UW-T for Pierce students. Here, White and Lange talk about their experience acting on a shared Strategic Transfer Excellence Plan (STEP), how they’re working to make sure students feel a dual identity as members of both institutions and how they’re maintaining the momentum of their transfer work for the long haul. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity).
Q: Your two institutions have a long-standing partnership for transfer. After participating in the transfer intensive, what does the transfer partnership look like now on your campuses?
Julie White, Pierce College: There is a broader awareness of transfer and an understanding of what we need to do [to help our students]. For example, we’re having a transfer fair this spring. I’m seeing more activity with our deans and student success coaches.
Sheila Lange, UW-T: We’re trying to make transfer more seamless. We are having a transfer admitted-students’ day on our campus for the first time. One of the things that was most impactful for me as chancellor was sitting in a focus group with students who had transferred from Pierce. When we asked the initial question about what the process was like, they all had really good things to say, but when you drilled down more, they … shared how difficult they thought it would be to get into UW-T. We had not given our students enough information about the transfer process.
Q: You both assumed your role as chancellor within the last two years. How were you able to build this partnership and prioritize transfer during a time of transition?
Lange: [Julie] was already at Pierce, and I am a former community college president. I knew the [previous] chancellor, and Julie—we had worked together and served on statewide committees together. The relationships between the leadership, and then between our teams, is what makes this work. The quality and depth of those relationships allowed us to advance quickly on a shared commitment to transfer.
White: There’s an alignment of values, knowing Sheila and having worked with her, knowing that she has the community college experience. There was a level of trust that may not have been there with a different person. Also, our teams across all levels are comfortable working with one another and have those relationships. My job is easy—my job is to remove barriers for them to do the work they already want to do to strengthen transfer.
Q: What did you need to do at each of your institutions to make sure the STEP was implemented?
Lange: Having the chancellors communicating how important this is to the institution gives our teams the leverage that they need to just go out and make it happen. They know that it is important for me that this happens. There’s a lot to the leadership saying, “This is important. Let’s make this happen.”
White: I’m the beneficiary of a lot of prior work in this initiative from my predecessor. I know it was a significant commitment to come up with the vision statement and the framing values—and I needed to carry on this commitment and communicate the importance of it.
Q: You’ve been working on transfer for a long time. How do you maintain momentum?
Lange: The STEP [got us] re-energized about and refocused on that work. We thought both teams walked away with a deeper understanding of how the other institution worked, and how we could better align our processes and expectations. Now they know where they can intervene and what they can do differently to move us further along.
White: I do think that STEP accelerated our work, along with learning more about what our students need and rethinking everything during the pandemic. It is a synergy of all those factors. The STEP also helped us structure our work. Accountability structures are important for higher education organizations because we get so mired in day-to-day work. Our challenge will be to continue to provide that structure for ourselves, just because of how life is. Because we lost team members in the Great Resignation, we’re still rebuilding some structures, particularly in institutional research and marketing, which are going to be critical partners for [the success of] this.
Q: What does sustainability look like five years out?
White: Students at the community college will have that dual identity. They will have access to resources and support at both colleges. They will know where they’re going. [Right now,] despite our guided pathways, there are still so many students that don’t know what they plan to do. I want them to be able to just come in and go full steam ahead and know what [their transfer pathway] looks like. Ultimately, I want them to get personally rewarding and economically self-sustaining jobs.
Lange: I see in five years our students are going to know exactly what pathway to go on. They’re going to be co-branded as Pierce and UW-T students, and it’s going to be really clear how to get to where they ultimately want to go.
White: And they will have a whole team cheering them on from convocation to graduation, from both institutions.