How colleges and states can help students caught in the pandemic ‘swirl’
Racial Equity

How colleges and states can help students caught in the pandemic ‘swirl’

Black student exploring library stacks

This is Part 2 of a two-part series on transfer students and inequities faced by students of color during the pandemic. 


As we discussed in our first blog post on “student swirl,” the reality that is starting to emerge is that many of today’s students’ educational journeys are changing as childcare, school openings, and jobs are still uncertain. And just as we historically have seen, this challenging reality is more prevalent among students of color. Furthermore, a recent report found that public flagship institutions, often states’ best-resourced institutions, are not affordable or accessible for learners of color and students from low-income families. We need to ensure that struggling students, especially those seeking transfers or at risk for stopping out, have the support, guidance, and safety nets they need to thrive.

As students struggle to keep learning amid the COVID-19 crisis, economic turmoil, and social uprisings, some schools are leading the way. Detroit’s Wayne State University is one of them. Its Warrior Way Back program forgives institutional debt for students who re-enroll.

This innovative program replaces a broad practice of refusing to release transcripts for students with unpaid loans. The ‘Warrior’ program benefits not only students but also colleges that see strong financial returns and improved student outcomes. Now, this debt-forgiveness program is expanding across Detroit’s higher education landscape and into dozens of institutions nationwide.

This is just one way to help students stay on track as our nation struggles with the pandemic, high unemployment, and persistent racial injustice. “Student swirl” and transfers between schools and programs will increase, as needs and circumstances change.

None of these goals can be met without an urgent, laser-like focus on racial equity. At the heart of our mission is eliminating unfair, unjust, and unequal outcomes for Black, Hispanic, and Native American learners who have historically been left behind.

None of the approaches we identify below sacrifice learning or quality in a bid to increase the attainment of credentials. What these strategies do is put students first—especially those who have been poorly served by higher education. Now, as we work to heal a divided nation, it’s time to right these wrongs, remove barriers, and help future generations succeed through the power of learning.

Here are some practices and policy suggestions for helping students succeed during times of crisis and beyond.

“Any college student could become a transfer student due to the unpredictability of our times. Thus, it becomes crucially important for the higher education community to understand students’ rapidly evolving needs and ensure equitable student outcomes are a top priority.”
Bragg, Wetzstein, Meza & Yeh

Action steps for higher education institutions

Just as Wayne State did, colleges and universities should remove bureaucratic barriers and antiquated practices that hurt student completion. Institutions should:

  • Streamline transfers – Institutions should streamline and speed processes for evaluating, accepting, and posting previous learning to students’ records.
  • Review residency requirements – Even if students transfer with college credits, they may be required to take dozens of extra credits. Most accreditation regulations require that 25% of instruction be provided by the credentialing institution. Schools requiring more should lower that rate, and accreditors could explore waiving the 25% threshold.
  • Simplify degree requirements – Transfer students are often placed on long, complicated pathways to degrees. We need to create guided pathways that are transparent and speed progress without sacrificing quality.
  • Considerations for grades – This spring’s quick move to remote teaching created questions about grades that could linger through fall. Schools should show compassion in decisions about incompletes and pass/fail, including for transfer students. Guidance is here.
  • Credit prior learning – Seventy-five percent of respondents in a recent poll said they’re “more likely to enroll in a higher education program” if they get credit for what they already know. With an increase in swirl expected, we urge schools to review and revise how they award credit for prior learning, and they should engage advisors, registrars, deans, and admissions officials to help. Learn more: National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment; Aspen Institute Tackling Transfer; Council for Adult Experiential Learning; American Council on Education Credit for Prior Learning Network.

Action steps for states

States can strengthen support for students through policies, resources, and oversight:

  • Designate “completion colleges” – Schools such as SUNY Empire State College in New York, Thomas Edison State University in New Jersey and Charter Oak State College in Connecticut were designated by their states to serve working adults and highly mobile students. These institutions have flexible policies for supporting students with credits from multiple schools, military service, and job training. They also offer pathways to high-quality credentials at lower cost. States can follow suit, using this infrastructure: Scaling Completion Colleges.
  • Create guaranteed pathways – Policymakers can forge state-level articulation agreements. These define how all institutions in the state will recognize credit obtained within and across higher education systems as well as industry-recognized certifications, military experience, and work-based learning, paving the way to guaranteed pathways. These paths must be transparent and easily accessible. Further, states—especially those with state-level articulation agreements—should partner to ensure that all learning is recognized across state lines. To learn more, look for the forthcoming All Learning Counts State Policy Toolkit.
  • Grant degrees when earned – States should support granting degrees or credentials when earned. Example: Students who complete credits for an associate degree on their way to a bachelor’s degree should get that associate degree. The same applies to certificates. To learn more, explore Degrees When Due.
  • Make policies clear – Where possible, state policy leaders should remove weak or unclear policy language. There should be no confusion. If state policies support student transfers across the public system, states should require that schools comply or explain why they’re not. Policies are only as good as their implementation.
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