When she isn’t renovating farmhouses from the 1860s or making homemade jams and salsas for her staff, Patricia Parker is wrangling more than 1,500 higher education professionals from Virginia’s two-year and four-year institutions, the K-12 sector, and leaders from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and Virginia’s Community College System. Her goal: to improve the transfer pathways— specifically for students.
It takes a force of nature to manage, coach, and convene that many stakeholders on transfer—and Parker, the program director for Transfer Virginia, is a powerhouse. Transfer Virginia, in a nutshell, is a statewide collaboration between the State Council of Higher Education, the Virginia Community College System, the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, HCM Strategists, and Sova, and is part of the Tackling Transfer initiative. Transfer Virginia aims to reform and improve the transfer experience in the state to bring about measurable progress on student success and equity.
In just over two years, Transfer Virginia leaders have taken key steps to align course learning outcomes between institutions and degree programs, develop common two-year curriculum, and statewide maps... plus a statewide transfer portal for students and advisors that will launch this summer... and more!
The bad news? It takes a lot of work. The good news? Others can replicate this work. Really! The Aspen Institute College Excellence Program asked Parker to briefly share Transfer Virginia’s most important actions, so that other states can try.
Aspen Institute: First, I want to praise your team a bit. Hundreds of people worked together to better serve the more than 14,000 community college students across Virginia who will continue their education at one of the over 40 universities in your state. Whew! How did you folks make such a dramatic shift in Virginia’s approach to transfer?
Patricia Parker: “Our high level of stakeholder engagement and collaboration—we took the time and the energy to develop this organically. Period. We had the advantage of state legislation that is specific to transfers. And we used a collaborative, inclusive process to turn that legislation into ideal practices and then into policy, centering on transfer students. Educators and folks who work with transfer students day to day were part of the development from the get-go. By bringing people together who had never had the opportunity to collaborate with one another on one issue, we unearthed a new perspective on transfer in our state.”
Aspen: What practical advice might you have for educators, policymakers, and students looking to make such an impact on transfer?
Patricia Parker: “First, you need that strong transfer vision with concise goals supporting it—keep going back to ensure that each step you take is in line with that vision. Whenever we got pushback, we held to that vision. And we did get pushback! Collaboration does not mean no conflict.
Second, you need a dynamic but simple communication structure: Everybody needs to know where you are in the process, what you're doing, and when. So it's simple—maybe it's not simple, but in a sense, it is: We rely on a Google Doc folder, not a website. We were in this work phase, with everything changing so fast, we simply beat the heck out of Google folders. Google folders give people working on different pieces a safe place to work. Then we have folders for public information. We have tracking tables for over 120 courses under development; the deans can pull up the table and immediately see which part of the process their team is in, for example.
Third, we had regular update and action meetings for all the Transfer Virginia partners, universities, and community college partners. We got everyone in the same room focused on the same topic routinely, to move forward, to push transfer from a sidebar topic to a front and center conversation. We have monthly check-ins with the deans and vice presidents. We needed the top leaders, not just the boots-on-the-ground folks, to engage and set transfer as a priority. Once or twice a year, I talk to college presidents and to both the State Council of Higher Education and the State Board of Community Colleges to provide updates on the planning and impact. I also talk to the transfer point people at each institution weekly or monthly. And our Transfer Virginia Steering Committee meets twice a month, so those are the go-to transfer folks.
Aspen: Any words of wisdom for the transfer advocates out there looking to start working at this scale?
Patricia Parker: “Don’t wait! I worked with transfers for years as a teacher and instructor, but I was not the transfer expert. I am still learning, but we got together and fused a vision for transfer and learned along the way. We all need to keep the work going: Transfer students need all of us.”
Heather Adams is a senior program manager at the College Excellence Program, leading the development of transfer initiatives.