There’s a lot more to Eileen Strempel than her title and academic record might suggest. While the inaugural dean of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music and accomplished soprano’s scholarly interests have advanced understanding of the contributions of history’s most influential female composers, Strempel is a longtime champion for transfer students and a firm believer in the democratizing effects of high-quality public education.

Strempel and UCLA alumnus Stephen Handel, former chief admissions officer for the University of California system and executive director of higher education assessment use for the College Board, have previously worked together on the two-volume book “Transfer and Transformation: Fostering Transfer Student Success.” The authors recently discussed the ideas highlighted in their new book “Beyond Free College: Making Higher Education Work for 21st Century Students” (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2021), what inspired them to write it and its recommendations for higher education institutions.

In your new book you discuss the concept of “Free College.” What do you feel are its limitations? Where should we be focusing our attention as a nation?

Strempel: There are 36 million Americans with some college credit and no degree. And 40% of those students have debt. We’re all proponents of the transformative effects of higher education, so the gap we’re really talking about is degree completion rate.

As a country, if we’re thinking about our investments, we need to be mindful of our desired outcome. What we urge in the book is a metric of cost per degree completed. How much does it cost to actually get someone through that door with the credential that they want? What’s the most effective way of doing that?

The research is fascinating. There are a lot of actually low-hanging fruit: inexpensive things we should be doing — like blocking classes into compressed timeframes, acknowledging that many students are working adults — that dramatically move the dial toward helping people obtain the degree that they walk through the door hoping to receive. Of course, we want the whole enchilada, but that’s a great place to start.

Handel: We’re very sympathetic to those individuals who are advocating for free college. That’s why we have the title “Beyond Free College.” We appreciate the importance of students going to college and obtaining some kind of post-secondary degree, but the book is about what we need to do to increase degree completion.

You are both passionate advocates for transfer students. What is the source of this passion and why are transfer students so important to America’s higher education landscape? 

Strempel: Sometimes at an institution like UCLA, we don’t have as clear of a picture about the national landscape, so it’s pretty stunning to contemplate some of the statistics that the pandemic is only accelerating. One of the statistics that touched our hearts was 27% of American college students are parent students. 27% is just enormous.

Traditionally, four-year institutions have been pretty focused on the 18-year-old leaving mom and dad’s house, then moving into the residence halls. But that’s not the normal anymore. The new normal is that 76% of today’s students are either from a historically underrepresented group, are parents, are older, are first-gen or are low-income. We end up coining the term “neo-traditional student” to capture this trend, because these students are the new normal. When we recognize that in our institutional policies, approaches, culture and ecosystem, then we can truly meet the needs of those students proactively and help them graduate. If our policies don’t shift to respond to the new normal, then higher education is not well positioned to serve our public.

Handel: I’m a transfer student myself. Community college was precisely the place where I needed to be at that point in my life, and it was very nurturing. But the transfer process itself was somewhat problematic. I did transfer, I got my bachelor’s degree and then I eventually went on to UCLA to get my Ph.D. and M.A. But it wasn’t as seamless as it could have been.

Community colleges are vastly welcoming places. But for students from underrepresented groups — who often don’t know the lingo or the strategies or have the social capital — to make their way successfully through a very tortured process, four-year institutions and two-year institutions need to work together more closely to ensure that transition happens.

What surprised you in your research?

Strempel: I think one of the things I was completely shocked by was the role that many influential corporations and companies are playing in education and the different certificates that students can earn working for McDonald’s or Starbucks.

We urge actual partnership between higher education and corporate or industry partners. At that the end of the day, do you want a hospitality certificate from the Four Seasons or from the Cornell Hospitality School? Which one will carry more weight in the marketplace?

Unless we in higher education as a sector proactively reach out and start to influence the directions of these conversations, we’re not actually going to be benefiting American society in the way that we should be.

Handel: We’ve both been transfer advocates for many years, but I think — at least in my case — probably a little too narrowly. We were thinking just about the community college to a four-year institution journey. Transfer students today are online, they’re getting credits in high school — transfer is everywhere. It’s a much broader swath of America and it needs to be represented better in higher education institutions.

Strempel: The pandemic has accelerated the trends that we identified in the book. For example, students are increasingly amassing credit from a variety of sources. Many professors were wary of teaching online, and now we’re all teaching online whether we wanted to or not.

We found that with place-based supports and artificial intelligence, online education ameliorates the learning gaps with historically underrepresented students and their more “traditional” counterparts.

Handel: It’s a book for higher education that says, let’s look upon ourselves and decide where we want to be in 20 or 30 years, and if we don’t do anything different, the Four Seasons is going to be providing hospitality training, not us.

Music education traditionally struggles with issues of access and representation. How can we improve this and what steps have you taken at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music?

Strempel: Now, here I’m going to speak with a lot of Bruin pride. I arrived almost two years ago. Of course we’re very blessed at UCLA, at the school of music, by the generosity of our naming donor Herb Alpert. He and his namesake foundation, co-founded with his wife Lani Hall, also gave a $10.1 million gift to L.A. City College.

In conversations about my fit for the dean job, it was one of the things that both institutions were really interested in: How do we leverage these investments to truly create a visible, viable and affordable pathway for music students? It’s been a wonderful way of marrying my love of music and my lifelong commitment to access and to transfer students. We have instituted our first articulation agreements ever at the school of music.

This fall, we’re anticipating about a 100% increase over the past two years in the number of transfer students, so having transfer champions really does matter — and so does having generous benefactors. Philanthropy counts. It makes a difference for the students, and it’s probably one of the best investments that we can make.

How does it feel to be invited to participate in a congressional staff briefing and what message do you hope to impart to our nation’s political leaders?

Handel: People there were interested in what we had to say. Reasonable people will differ on what we need to do in higher education, but what is so great right now is that we’re having substantive discussions about where the nation will go in terms of its investment in higher ed. We have a particular perspective that we’re passionate about, we presented that and we got asked hard questions. But we were both heartened by the fact that people are grappling with some really tough issues in higher ed.

We feel like whatever comes out of that discussion will be an advancement for all of the stuff that we’ve devoted our lives to.

Strempel: It was an honor to be there, and I love the idea that we’re talking about how to make higher education more affordable. It was great to make the case that we really have to look at the needs of our nation’s neo-traditional students. We have to reduce the cost-per-degree by increasing degree production and by supporting our students wisely and well.