When Metropolitan State University in Minnesota launched 50 years ago, its mission was to serve students who were falling through the cracks of traditional higher education. Like other “universities without walls” launched around the same time, it had no physical campus but rather served working adults in rented spaces around the Twin Cities in Minnesota. It was exclusively an upper-division institution focused on degree completion, so by definition its students were 100% transfer students.
Today, even as the institution has grown into a comprehensive university with a physical campus, between 85-95% of its 10,000 students still are transfers. “Serving transfer students is in our DNA,” President Virginia (Ginny) Arthur says. “Transfer isn’t something we do at Metro State, it’s who we are.”
Once an outlier, Metro State is now a harbinger for other access-oriented universities as those once ‘non-traditional’ students are increasingly the ‘new traditional’ students. Over decades of serving first-generation and 1.5-generation college-goers, students from low-income communities, returning adults, and transfer students, the institution has learned important lessons about how to support today’s students and build a business model around them. Chief among them is the importance of commitment to maximizing the applicability of credits, strong partnerships, and robust advising structures.
1. Strong Commitment to Maximizing Applicability of Transfer Credits
Students arrive at Metro State with an average of three transcripts, though upwards of seven is not uncommon. About a decade ago, Metro State expanded its transcript and credit evaluation team to 10, making it by far the largest such team in the system. Through particularly robust and creative use of a variety of tools and systems, including a Degree Audit Report System (DARS), the Transferology tool, and a new Transfer Appeal Tool, Metro State shows what it looks like when an institution commits itself to maximizing applicability of credits. Across these tools, Metro State is committed to getting students information early, to looking at the full range of credit, and to providing layers of review.
- Getting students information early: The Transferology tool assists advisors and students in making educated decisions when transferring credit. Students can enter coursework and instantly see how credits transfer to member institutions, and how their coursework would apply to different academic programs.
- Evaluating every credit: The Degree Audit Report System (DARS) team at Metro State prioritizes maximizing credit applicability through a complete and rigorous review of incoming transcripts. Unlike many institutions, the university reviews every single credit a student brings to see how it might apply, as opposed to handpicking what credits to evaluate, based on the student’s intended program. This approach ensures that students are provided complete information about the most efficient path to a degree as they choose a program and major.
- Appeal and additional review: Metro State was the first to pilot the Minnesota State System’s Transfer Review and Appeal tool, which provides an electronic method for students to request a review of courses and credit and to appeal course transfer denials. Students are able to easily provide transfer data, identify missing transfer course work, and upload syllabi and transcripts. The tool is designed to improve communication with students and to provide an efficient, consistent approach to transfer reviews and appeals across the system.
The next step in this evolving process, led by the system, is ongoing implementation of at least 26 statewide Transfer Pathway degree programs, developed by faculty and staff work groups. The pathways present a tremendous opportunity for the system to improve course applicability and ultimately help institutions improve transfer student success.
2. Multi-Level, Equity-Minded Approach to Building Partnerships with Community Colleges
In recent years, as its demographic profile has shifted toward younger students transferring directly from community colleges, Metro State has intentionally deepened its relationships with local community colleges. With 50% of its students from historically marginalized and persistently minoritized communities, Metro State has expanded the role and number of admissions counselors to ensure that they reflect and are dedicated to serving its diverse student population. It has four admissions counselor positions focused solely on different populations: African American, Asian American, American Indian, and Latinx students. Those counselors, as well as additional “generalist” admissions counselors, are a visible presence on the campuses of several community colleges in the Twin Cities region, visiting at least once a month.
This work focuses heavily on building relationships, with students and also with key staff and faculty on the community college campus. “There may be concern from some colleges about what they get from partnering with us, concerns about us stealing their students,” says one admissions counselor. “So it’s really important to be continuously building those relationships…”
That work is undergirded by Metro State’s role as a leader in the transfer pathways work in the state. Through the Metro Connect initiative, Metro State is not only working on traditional transfer but also on baccalaureate degree completion opportunities on several community college campuses.
3. Advising Structures & Practices to Support the Full Student Journey
Metro State has invested significantly in providing pre-advising to community college students, and maintains a physical presence on a number of two-year campuses for that purpose. The university also works to bring students to campus to meet with an advisor and become familiar with the campus environment prior to matriculation. In student focus groups Sova conducted at Metro State as part of the Tackling Transfer project a large majority of participants said they had met with an advisor from Metro State both while at their previous institution and at Metro State prior to enrolling. While highly unusual, this effort to connect early with students is important for diminishing “transfer shock” and strengthening students’ sense of academic purpose and belonging. It is part of what is entailed in building truly a truly transfer receptive culture.
In addition to significant pre-advising efforts, the institution also is working to bring more consistency to its advising practices, caseloads, technology use, and communication. By interrogating its practices, and examining its structures with the student experience in mind, Metro State is working hard to create a “culture of advising” to ensure students are effectively supported.
Metro State is deeply committed to improving transfer, but it is not deeply resourced. Thus, its commitment to serving transfer students better must not only be mission-based, but also aligned with its business model. It shows that it can be both. The progress it’s made in redesigning and strengthening key areas — the applicability of credits, partnerships, and advising structures — demonstrates what is possible with clarity of focus. Universities can build both a better transfer experience and healthier institutions at the same time.