An effort by Tarleton State University -- a founding member of the Texas A&M University System -- promises to make an impact on both higher education access and outcomes. Tarleton is combining partnerships with community colleges and dedicated scholarships with the goal of better supporting a group of students that is often under-supported: part-time students who transfer from other institutions.
We recently spoke to James Hurley, who became President of Tarleton State University in 2019, about Tarleton’s efforts to remove these barriers: “We wanted to simultaneously create access and opportunity and start addressing affordability. It is our goal for Tarleton State to become one of the five most affordable public universities in Texas.”
Partnerships and institutional scholarships for transfer students are not rare (though they are also not widespread enough), but Tarleton’s approach is unique in some important ways.
Tarleton started with the question: Which students are faced with the highest barriers to opportunity right now?
Hurley and his Tarleton colleagues visited their local community college and K12 partners, and learned that the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic had hit transfer students particularly hard. A high percentage of transfer students (45 percent) are part-time, and especially susceptible to the job losses and other challenges of 2020. Hurley explained, “Everywhere we went, we were seeing students who were unable to continue because life happened. Maybe they suddenly needed to work two jobs instead of one, or they had loved ones they had to take care of, or daycare for their children was no longer available. The students we were losing were those six- and nine-hour part-time students.”
With data and the voices of students in mind, Tarleton strategically directed its financial resources.
Every organization deals with limited resources, and Hurley determined that targeted investments in transfer students would have a significant impact on the university’s mission to increase access while remaining financially sustainable. He elaborated, “We decided to have our deans, our provosts, and our CFO gather resources. We tapped our strategic initiative funds and other funds that we had available inside the university. It was a strategic direction of funds to invest in our incoming class.” The scholarship minimums begin at $500, and can go up to $2,500 based upon GPA and course load.
In doing so, Tarleton helped fill a gap in financial aid resources available to transfer students. At most universities, the majority of admissions and financial aid resources are focused on incoming first-year students. Transfer students generally receive far less support. State-funded aid is generally targeted toward students who begin as freshmen--according to senior research associate Elizabeth Salinas at HCM Strategists, only three states have financial aid programs that specifically target transfer students. And upper division scholarships are often distributed by faculty and individual departments. On top of that, transfer students face unique administrative obstacles. These and other factors combine to restrict financial aid opportunities for transfer students.
Tarleton is making sure students know about the opportunity, and that it won’t disappear for students.
Communicating well to students about financial aid is critical, but all too often students are met with a maze of information, and opportunities sit unused. Tarleton is combating that through robust communications. They are sharing student databases with partners so that they can communicate well to potential students, and collaborating with community colleges on emails, letters and social media designed to “inform those students that we would love for them to consider Tarleton as their next step of their educational journey.”
The transfer scholarships are also guaranteed for students for three years. Students don’t have to apply -- if they have above a 3.0 GPA and enroll for at least six hours, it’s guaranteed. That way students, “don’t have to worry about if their grant disappears in one year….This money’s always going to be there for you,” said Hurley.
By building strong partnerships, Tarleton is working to ensure transfer students can smoothly complete their degrees.
Providing students with a guarantee of financial aid is great, but institutions must also stay focused on supporting students through to graduation. Tarleton recently announced a new agreement with the Blinn College District that makes it easier for Blinn students to transfer. As a member of the Distinguished College Partnership, Blinn will be able to offer its students a smoother path. Tarleton will provide annual scholarships from $500 to $2,000, renewable for up to three years, to students with a minimum 3.0 GPA. Application fees will be waived for those with demonstrated need. The colleges have also agreed to embrace dual admission, opening up access to shared spaces, faculty, research, and networking opportunities for students.
Tarleton is developing similar agreements with other two-year colleges in the region. Hurley highlighted that the agreements are beneficial for all involved: “We may compete with those community colleges in getting students here as freshman, but after that the competition is over. Then the question becomes: what can we do to support the students in their next step?”
Tarleton invested significant time and energy in getting the details right in order to make the experience as smooth as possible. For example, any discrepancy between course numbers or descriptions can create administrative hurdles for would-be transfers. His team worked to eliminate them. “We wanted to ensure that it was truly seamless and that what we were advertising was in essence what was happening.”
Tarleton’s Distinguished College Partnership initiative has its roots in a successful program the university devised for high school students at the beginning of Hurley’s tenure. He explained,”During the 2019-20 academic year, the distinguished High School Partners Program clearly worked. We had an all-time high enrollment. We had the largest, most diverse freshman class or incoming class in the history of the institution. Our thinking was: How can we mimic this, replicate it, and offer it to our community college students?”
The Texas A&M University System is helping spread this innovation across the system.
It has no doubt helped to have a supportive partner in the Texas A&M system, including A&M Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs James Hallmark. Hallmark is a member of the Texas Transfer Alliance and co-chair of the new Texas Transfer Advisory Committee. Hallmark’s extensive work on improving transfer student outcomes statewide has led him to a deep appreciation for key aspects of Tarleton’s effort, in particular the limited financial aid available to transfer students and the importance of deep partnerships and relationship-building with community college partners. Hallmark highlighted a spirit of innovation as one of the important factors that have contributed to Tarleton’s success thus far, and he hopes to see others in the system learn from and replicate the effort: “There’s this culture in the system of trying stuff. When it works at one place, we see how we might disseminate it to other places. And it’s okay to fail. It’s okay for something not to work.”
The next frontier? The Tarleton team aims to continue evolving these partnerships in a deliberate fashion to make sure they are sustainable long-term. They also plan to watch student outcomes closely and make sure that the investments are paying off and creating equitable transfer student outcomes. Then, they have their sights on the graduate and doctoral level. Hurley also hopes the program serves as a model for other efforts nationwide. “We’re hoping, and the community college presidents are hoping, that others copy what we’re doing. At the end of the day, it’s going to provide more opportunity for students.”