Standing Up for Students Amid the Pandemic Learning ‘Swirl’
Racial Equity

Standing Up for Students Amid the Pandemic Learning ‘Swirl’

This is Part 1 of a two-part series on transfer students and inequities faced by students of color during the pandemic.


Black student at computer

Higher education is in turmoil. Over the past few months, we’ve reached out to dozens of higher education leaders—presidents, policy experts, researchers, and governors, too. All are anxious, worried about budgets, enrollments, and whether it’s safe to reopen campuses in the midst of COVID-19. Most of all, they are worried for students.

These leaders share a common understanding: The pandemic widened and deepened inequities that long existed in higher education, and underscored the need for all of us—from philanthropies to policymakers to college presidents—to act boldly on behalf of learners. Unprecedented levels of uncertainty and economic distress compel us to find new ways to keep students on track. This starts with ensuring that transfers from one school or program to another are easy, efficient, and recognize what students know and can do.

Recent events including the tragic death of George Floyd have exposed, again, just how deeply racism is ingrained in our society. It’s no surprise that Black students, as well as Hispanic and Native American students, are more likely to experience disruption in their educational journeys, and more likely to “stop out” of school before earning a credential. Like every other American system, higher education is hampered by structural, pervasive racism. Now is the time for higher education leaders to stand up for students, fix what is broken, and help everyone who wants to learn.

Together, we can ensure our institutions are places where learning is transformed into a valuable degree, a fulfilling career and a brighter future, and where Black, Native American, and Hispanic students have every support they need to earn a credential. We can make a lasting impact right now.

Increase in ‘Student Swirl’

The reality is, for many of today’s students, educational journeys include a few starts and stops, usually dictated by the demands of family, work, and finances.

Even after decades of concentrated efforts to improve the recognition of learning and transfer process, students still lose significant time, money, and credit when they transfer. This is a policy and practice failure at a systemic level, as the millions of students who transferred between 2004 and 2009 lost 43% of the credits they had earned.

“Student swirl,” or moving between schools and programs, happens frequently. It is even more prevalent among students of color. A lack of systemic solutions expands these inequities. Without a genuine commitment to equity that focuses specific attention on how these policies and practices affect learners of color postsecondary education is not the “great equalizer” many believe it can be.

More than 25 million adults have started college but not earned a credential—even though many amassed more than the required credits for an associate degree or certificate. Knowledge gained through military experience or on-the-job training is even less likely to apply toward college degrees than courses taken at other colleges or universities. That’s a major loss for the 1.3 million active-duty service members who gain advanced skills and knowledge daily, and for the 3.3 million people who have earned industry-recognized certifications.

There is speculation, and some emerging data, about how students will do in the fall. We predict more students than ever will swirl between institutions. Students will likely transfer at higher rates, stop out of credential programs, or simply “ghost” classes. We must stand ready to meet them where they are, recognize what they already know and can do, and help them earn the credentials necessary to sustain themselves and their families.

Do the Right Thing

It is time to do better. This moment requires it. Higher education must transform to meet our current challenges and to meet students’ growing, urgent needs.

In our next blog, we will offer policy and practice ideas that are already being implemented at innovative, student-centered institutions and states across the country. Each requires conscientious, equity-focused work, but all will pay dividends for our nation’s recovery if they’re widely adopted.

Now is the time for our higher education institutions and policy leaders to step up and lead—by righting wrongs, removing barriers, reducing complexity, recognizing learning wherever it happens, and innovating—always with students’ needs at the fore.

We hope you will join us.

“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

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