May 2021

If one size fits all doesn’t work in retail, it certainly doesn’t in higher ed. Respect for the diverse choices students are making when pursuing college has led four more Minnesota private colleges to revamp how they’ll award credit for work students do at community colleges and bring with them as transfers.

Seventy five percent of students today attend more than one institution along the way, pointed out Barb May, academic dean and biology professor at College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. “We need to understand that students approach higher education in different ways, and there are opportunities to welcome those different approaches,” she said. “Just because they didn’t start with us doesn’t mean they can’t learn from us in those remaining two years.”

Four institutions — the University of St. Thomas, Concordia College, Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s — have all recently decided to accept the Minnesota Transfer Curriculum and associate of arts degrees earned in certain states as meeting their own core curriculum requirements, with some caveats. These changes will allow for simpler block transfers of 40 credits for the Transfer Curriculum and 60 credits for associate of arts degrees. These are policies that eight other member institutions of the Minnesota Private College Council already had in place.

The changing views of students and their parents of how they want to pursue a bachelor’s degree was a driver as well at St. Thomas. “Leaders here were seeing the larger landscape and realizing if we want to be an option for students who choose a non-traditional path to a degree, we need to review and revise our transfer processes and transfer credits,” said Tonia Bock, associate vice provost for accreditation, assessment and curriculum and psychology professor at University of St. Thomas.

And the result, it is hoped at all these institutions, is greater clarity for community college students.

“We want to make the process for students considering completing their education at Concordia College simpler and for them to be able to see how the education they’ve already received is valued,” said Susan Larson, dean of the college and psychology professor at Concordia College. “We’re really pleased to have a policy that affirms the value of a two-year degree, that affirms the value of what students can learn and bring from other institutions.”

Making it work

Considering this change has been an involved process at each of these institutions. It has involved considering just what elements of course requirements should still be preserved in some way for transfers. St. Thomas, for example, will retain requirements for students to complete a theology course, a philosophy course and a course for juniors or seniors that engenders reflection on what they’ve learned and ties into the institution’s mission. Concordia, meanwhile will retain requirements for a language course and a religion course. And at Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s, remaining requirements include an upper-level theology course, a course that explores culture and social differences and a course that focuses on how students integrate their learning.

Even as the institutions worked to ease the path for students coming in with credits, they weighed carefully just what is distinct about how they educate students that should be preserved.

“It was very enlightening to me to realize that we need to be really thoughtful of maintaining the uniqueness of our own curriculum while being friendly and accommodating to transfer students,” Bock said. “That became clear to me, the more classes you require a transfer student to take, that is going to cost them time and money.”

Decisions about associate degree acceptance required careful review as well; St. Thomas’ policy, for example, applies to associate of arts degrees from Minnesota and the neighboring states with the most similar approaches: Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and North Dakota.

Another challenge can be gaining the necessary support. Faculty have responsibility for the curriculum, so these changes all involved extensive review and votes by faculty committees for these changes at these four institutions. Presidents, provosts and other leaders were key as well to getting these changes made. Those institutional leaders were recognizing the “evolving way students move through their educational experience,” said Joe Herrera, associate director of transfer admissions at University of St. Thomas.

One of the biggest data points that helped advance the discussion at St. Thomas, Herrera said, was looking at historical data and the number of transfer students they used to attract and there had been a significant drop, from the late 1990s until now. The faculty recognized a change in transfer policy was necessary to attract more transfer students to St. Thomas.

The opportunity to teach transfer students, even if it isn’t for all four years, was part of what appealed to other institutions as well. Larson tied this change to Concordia’s mission, which is to have graduates who influence the affairs of the world. “We can do this with students who are with us for two years; more transfer students will allow us to even better meet our mission,” she said. “And we have a good environment that will allow students from a variety of educational backgrounds to excel.” 

Looking ahead

These four institutions are seeing more steps ahead as they seek to more fully welcome and support community college students.

Strengthening relationships with individual community colleges and among faculty there are one key step. Larson noted Concordia College’s existing relationship with Minnesota State Community and Technical College, through the region’s Tri-College partners. And Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s have been working more closely with nearby Ridgewater College and St. Cloud Community & Technical College.

Expanding support for community college students and building a transfer-friendly culture is another priority, Larson said. “We had some conversations this spring with graduates who transferred to Concordia about how they were different - they came to Concordia with deep experiences and yet they wanted to fit in with others, but also have their distinctiveness valued. So attending to this is going to be important as well.” Reviewing and revising advising is another area to address, both May and Bock noted.

Increasing funding for community college students, to better address their financial aid, is an area that St. Thomas is addressing. That’s just one of the commitments the institution has made for further, cascading changes to address the needs of transfer students, work that is tied into the institution’s accreditation process and St. Thomas’ chosen quality initiative.

“As we really started to address and hopefully solve the transfer of credits, we are starting to layer in some of the financial aid funding for transfer students,” Herrera said. “We knew the importance of making it more affordable and increasing the financial aid opportunities that would help accomplish that goal.”

All these institutions see the need to take more steps to address the mechanics around how students bring credits, including major-specific plans to help ensure that a student coming with an associate degree, for example, is able to complete a major in two more years. At Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s, development of major-specific pathways with nearby community colleges has begun, with good progress for education, art and physics majors. The key to success, May said, has been bringing faculty from community colleges and the private colleges together.

“We are really trying to be more transfer friendly and honor the work students do elsewhere before they come here,” May said. “We’d love them in year one but we will welcome them in year three too.”

By John Manning