Digest No. 10 - March 2022

It’s Not Just Exposure: Adjusting Institutional Engagement and Behavior to Improve Transfer Student Enrollment and Success

Wang, X., S. Y. Lee, B. R. Nachman, and X. Zhu. 2021. “It Matters Long Before: How Early Exposure to Faculty and Advisors at Baccalaureate Institutions Relates to Upward Transfer.” Educational Researcher.


Although many community college students desire to transfer to a four-year institution and earn a baccalaureate degree, less than one in five fulfill this aspiration—prompting questions regarding how receiving institutions can mobilize their resources to support transfer student retention. This longitudinal study was conducted at three Midwestern community colleges and focused on 860 transfer students who had received STEM training. The scholars reported that community college students who had early exposure to faculty members and/or advisors from a baccalaureate institution were almost twice as likely to transfer successfully over the next three years, even when accounting for other methods of interacting with baccalaureate institutions and personnel.

Discussion of the Findings

While much research has examined the role of community colleges in preparing students for successful transfer experiences, less energy has been dedicated to the crossover space of transfer itself. The findings presented in this study indicate the continuing importance of interaction with faculty members and advisors in generating aspirational momentum among students and providing them with the various forms of capital needed to actualize these aspirations. The study also clarifies several concrete actions baccalaureate institutions can take to effectively strengthen their partnerships with community colleges beyond the usual development of articulation agreements and provision of campus visits.

By broadening the “web of transfer support” (p. 111) institutions may be able to contribute to the efficacy of these partnerships and better support the readiness and sense of belonging experienced by transfer students who are disproportionately drawn from historically marginalized communities.

Implications for Action by Campus Leaders

The importance of creating genuine connections between institutions is critical for success with transfer populations. While colleges and universities may enter into agreements to ensure curricular integrity for students, these institutions should also ensure that transfer students are supported by faculty and staff at their incoming institution.


Xueli Wang is a professor of educational leadership at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Seo Young Lee is a psychometrician with Prometric.

Brett Ranon Nachman is a doctoral candidate in educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Xiwei Zhu is a doctoral student in educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Fink, J., and D. Jenkins. 2017. “Takes Two to Tango: Essential Practices of Highly Effective Transfer Partnerships.” Community College Review 45 (4): 294–310.

Hatch, D. K., and C. E. Garcia. 2017. “Academic Advising and the Persistence Intentions of Community College Students in Their First Weeks in College.” Review of Higher Education 40 (3): 353–390.

Wang, X. 2020. On My Own: The Challenges and Promise of Building Equitable STEM Transfer Pathways. Harvard Education Press.