by Jenna Watts

Although the majority of Texas community college students intend to transfer to a four-year institution, only 35% actually do, and of those, only 15% graduate with a bachelor’s degree within six years. Transfer students who graduate often do so having accumulated more credit than their peers. GTF granted $500,000 to The University of Texas at Austin (UT) to develop a solution to inefficient transfer. With this support, UT conducted in-depth interviews with students and advisers to understand the transfer experience. This research will inform the development of MapMyPath, a user-friendly web-based tool students will use to plan a seamless transfer pathway. Jenna Watts, Associate Director for State Policy at UT, discusses lessons learned from the MapMyPath project:

Our goal for the MapMyPath research was to see the transfer process through the eyes of students so we could understand how to improve their experience. We partnered with Modernist Studio, a design firm that specializes in qualitative ethnographic research, to engage with transfer-intending students, students who had already transferred, and advisers. Modernist interviewed each student participant in a familiar locale of the participant’s choosing, focusing the conversation around artifacts presented by the students including four-year plans, degree lists, and adviser notes as well as the student’s behaviors.

Students participated in exercises meant to reveal their thought processes, assess their sense of self-efficacy, and determine whether they understood their degree or credential requirements. Exercises for advisers asked in what ways incoming freshmen and incoming transfer students differed in their decision-making regarding various aspects of degree planning. Allowing participants to drive the interview resulted in rich qualitative data regarding student experiences with degree and course selection and transfer planning, as well as their need for greater clarity throughout these processes.

Researchers found that during their search for the “right fit” academic pathway, students often lose time and money. As a primary finding, the research team proposed recommendations designed to make efficient degree pathways and transfer pathways more transparent to reduce time to degree and excess credits.

The MapMyPath tool will build on these findings, helping students make informed decisions by making recommended course sequences aligned with their postsecondary aspirations more transparent and accessible. Simple designs with straightforward flow and language to improve transparency are incorporated in the design recommendations for the tool. Students valued ease of comparing pathways and course equivalencies between those pathways. These designs were validated through usability testing with students. One student who tested an early version said, “[The side-by-side comparisons] are the biggest added value of the site. It can be a jumble in your head … Organizing things in your mind is hard, and this is great.”

The completed design work will help ensure that the tool responds to students' needs, which will increase the effectiveness of course taking and credit transfer. We continue to work closely with the National Student Clearinghouse to design the infrastructure necessary for data storage and exchange and for building and scaling tool adoption across Texas and beyond. Partners anticipate moving into the development phase in fall 2019.



What advice do you have for institutions that want to improve the transfer process for their students?

We have learned through the research and design phase that students find great value in increased transparency of recommended course sequences and in a web-based tool that aids student navigation through
postsecondary academic pathways. Students rely on their advisers for guidance but expressed the need for an online tool to use in conjunction with their advising sessions to improve their time with their advisers. As a first step, we encourage institutions to adopt and make readily available recommended course sequences for students.