The Role of Institutional Agents in Promoting Transfer Access


  • Alicia C. Dowd University of Southern California
  • Jenny H. Pak Biola University
  • Estela Mara Bensimon University of Southern California



community college, transfer, institutional agents, student identity development, professional development


A growing body of research points to the important role played by “institutional agents” in facilitating college access and success for students from non-dominant racial-ethnic and low socioeconomic status groups. Applying attachment theory, this study adds to that literature by demonstrating how institutional agents can provide a secure base, in a psychological sense, for such low-status college students in the United States to make successful postsecondary transitions and develop collegiate identities. Based on the life stories of 10 low-status students who successfully transferred from a community college to a selective college or university, our narrative analysis depicts the students’ collegiate identity development and how college practitioners in positions of authority were instrumental in raising their collegiate aspirations. The results demonstrate the role of college practitioners in facilitating students’ postsecondary transitions and warrant the professional development of faculty and administrators as institutional agents. We conclude by providing resources for practitioners to develop their professional knowledge and capacity to act as institutional agents.


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Author Biographies

Alicia C. Dowd, University of Southern California

Alicia C. Dowd, Ph.D., is an associate professor of higher education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education and co-director of the Center for Urban Education (CUE), whose mission is to promote racial-ethnic equity in postsecondary educational experiences and student outcomes.

Dr. Dowd’s research focuses on the political-economy of postsecondary financing, governance, and research.  Her work informs understanding of organizational learning and effectiveness, institutional accountability and the factors affecting student attainment in higher education. Contributing to federal policy, she presented testimony in 2010 on broadening participation in STEM to the subcommittee on Research and Science Education of the U.S. House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee and, in 2011, addressed issues of transfer and curriculum articulation as a panelist at the National Academies of Sciences’ Summit on Community Colleges in the Evolving STEM Education Landscape

Dr. Dowd has served as the principal investigator of several major, national studies of institutional effectiveness, equity, community college transfer, benchmarking, and assessment, which were funded by several major philanthropic foundations. The results of these studies have been published in numerous journals including the Review of Educational Research, the Harvard Educational Review, the Review of Higher Education, Research in Higher Education, and Teacher’s College Record.

As a research methodologist, Dr. Dowd has also served on numerous federal advisory bodies, including the review panels of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) Systems and Broad Reform Review Panel and the National Science Foundation's Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program (STEP-Type 2). She was also a member of technical working groups consulting on the evaluation design for the Academic Competitiveness and SMART (science, mathematics, technology) grants awarded by the U. S. Department of Education and an IES Adult Education Research advisory group. She served as a member of the advisory group for the Congressional Advisory Committee on Student Financial Aid (ACSFA).

Dr. Dowd was awarded the doctorate by Cornell University, where she studied the social foundations of education, labor economics, and curriculum and instruction. Her undergraduate studies were also at Cornell, where she was awarded a bachelor of arts degree in English literature with distinction.

Jenny H. Pak, Biola University

Jenny H. Pak  is an Associate Professor at Biola University, Rosemead School of Psychology. She holds a doctoral degree from the University of Southern California and her area of research focuses on narrative analysis, culture, and ethnic identity development.

Estela Mara Bensimon, University of Southern California

Estela Mara Bensimon, Ed.D., is a professor of higher education and co-director of the Center for Urban Education (CUE) at the USC Rossier School of Education. Her current research is on issues of racial equity in higher education from the perspective of organizational learning and socio-cultural practice theories. She is particularly interested in place-based, practitioner-driven inquiry as a means of organizational change in higher education.

Dr. Bensimon’s publications about equity, organizational learning, practitioner inquiry and change include: The Underestimated Significance of Practitioner Knowledge in the Scholarship on Student Success; Doing Research that Makes a Difference; Equality in Fact, Equality in Results: A matter of institutional accountability; Measuring the State of Equity in Public Higher Education and Closing the Achievement Gap in Higher Education: An Organizational Learning Perspective.Previously Dr. Bensimon conducted research on leadership in higher education and is the author and co-author of several publications on college presidents, department chairs, and administrative teams.

Dr. Bensimon’s publications have appeared in Change, Review of Higher Education, The Journal of Higher Education, Liberal Education, and Harvard Education Review. She is the co-author of Redesigning Collegiate Leadership: Teams and Teamwork in Higher Education(with Anna Neumann) and Working with Junior Faculty: The Role of Department Chairs (with K. Ward and K. Sanders).

Dr. Bensimon has held the highest leadership positions in the Association for the Study of Higher Education (President, 2005-2006) and in the American Education Research Association-Division on Postsecondary Education (Vice-President, 1992-1994). She has served on the boards of the American Association for Higher Education and the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Dr. Bensimon was associate dean of the USC Rossier School of Education from 1996-2000 and was a Fulbright Scholar to Mexico in 2002. She earned her doctorate in higher education from Teachers College, Columbia University.




How to Cite

Dowd, A. C., Pak, J. H., & Bensimon, E. M. (2013). The Role of Institutional Agents in Promoting Transfer Access. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 21, 15.