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Allison Akalonu joins Matt Sheldon to discuss ways to fix the broken transfer system. The two point to data showing the precipitous decline in transfer enrollments and explore ways to identify and fix institutional barriers that frustrate students and cause them to look elsewhere for a more receptive landing spot.
They also offer guidance on better ways to engage students at every stage of the transfer funnel by using technology and human touch points more effectively.
0:00:14.1 S1: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today, we take a look at why so many institutions make it harder than it needs to be for students and the credits they've earned to transfer. With so many schools today facing both lower overall enrollment and dwindling transfer enrollments in particular, there's never been a better time to tackle this problem. Our experts examine the changes you need to make to remove institutional barriers, usually tied to process and technology to make your university more transfer-friendly. Give these folks a listen and enjoy.
0:00:58.5 Matt Sheldon: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Matt Sheldon and I'm Associate Director on the Transfer Team here at EAB, where we help schools improve transfer pathways, improve their transfer websites and improve their overall transfer programs. If you're tuning in to this podcast, I'm not telling you something that you don't know, but transfer is a challenge right now. We have a system that is broken, our students are unable to find the answers to key questions about how they transfer, and we want to ensure at EAB that we are helping these students find their best ed institution. I am joined today with my colleague and our director of our Transfer Team, Allison Ray Akalonu. Alison, would you mind to tell us a little bit about yourself?
0:01:45.6 Allison Ray Akalonu: Hey Matt, thanks for that. My name is Allison Ray Akalonu, and I lead our Transfer Portal Division here at EAB, that includes helping our partners implement our technology solution and also site support resources to ensure that they're implementing their right services to become a transfer-friendly institution, because we know that technology alone can't solve this problem, but the people and process behind that technology are really can be the drivers to that. So Matt, before we get started, you and I have worked with each other for a while now, and you know one of my favorite things to do in our conversations together is really spitball about random things happening in our world. So, before we dive into today's topic around building that transfer-friendly destination, I'd love to ask you something a bit random.
0:02:49.1 MS: Fire away.
0:02:51.2 AA: Alright. So, we're currently in the peak of summer, and I'd love to know what is one of your favorite summer sounds and why?
0:03:00.8 MS: Yeah, I absolutely love this question because I live in a small mountain town, Durango, Colorado, if anyone is familiar with it, and we have a river that runs through the middle of our town, and so when I go running in the mornings, the sound of the river washing up against the rocks is very peaceful and it's just kind of a great way to start any day. So the sound of water, primarily rivers or streams or really any water sound is my favourite sound of summer. And you gotta tell me, now that I've put myself out there on this podcast, tell me what is your favorite sound and why?
0:03:38.9 AA: Alright. Well, a little similar to yours, I have a pond near my house where I also go on walks and runs in the morning or late in the evening, and it is very common for me to hear the loud and rambunctious chirping and or croaking of the local frog population here in Maryland, and it's just a lovely sound to hear it, it's quite relaxing, and they're particularly strong after some summer rain that comes in, and yeah, and I think it's a bit nostalgic for me as well.
0:04:19.0 MS: Okay. And now that the people are a little bit more familiar with us, where we live, what our favorite summer sounds are, I think one question, Allison, I get asked all the time, people are just surprised that we have this incredible Transfer Team, the work we do at the portal, the work we do on best practices, would you mind giving our listeners just a bit of understanding how do we get into this work? What is EAB's role within the transfer space?
0:04:43.2 AA: Absolutely. So, for those who don't know, back in 2014, EAB conducted a research study pretty in-depth where we surveyed and talked to vice presidents of enrollment management, conducted strategic conversations with community college presidents alongside of university presidents, and conducted a number of interviews with students looking to transfer, thinking about transfer, or have already transferred. That resulted in a study which we can provide in a link from this podcast called Paving the Pathway to Transfer.
0:05:26.1 AA: And from that work, we identified a couple of themes. We know that transfer students, like other non-traditional populations, can be very difficult to reach, oftentimes, they're either unengaged or come much later in the process of the enrollment funnel. Oftentimes, I know many of my partners right now are in the middle of summer are doubling down on transfer enrollment efforts for the upcoming fall, and so transfers are much later in the cycle, and identifying who those self-shoppers are was a key theme and key problem that our partners were thinking about. The other key theme that was pulled up in this research was this concept of keeping students on track to transfer, and also thinking about those academic planning components that go into a successful transfer and or transition across institutions, and ultimately, lots of research was done simultaneous to EAB's efforts by other partners out in the field, and I think one of the staggering statistics that we point to in reference quite frequently is that 80%, around 80% of community college students express interest in transferring, but ultimately 25% of those students actually do. And so we had to ask ourselves, why is that? And gave us room to pause and think about the potential causal factors into institutional barriers to transfer, and that's ultimately what led us to building a Transfer Consulting and Advisory Practice and Support Technology, which is in place today, our Transfer Portal.
0:07:12.2 MS: Yeah, I think it's really very exciting to see what we've been doing over the last eight years, so thanks kind of for that background.
0:07:21.2 AA: So Matt, the transfer landscape is radically different than it was eight years ago when we did the study, and I know you spend a lot of time day in and day out looking at the latest research, talking to partners, so what are you seeing now? What are some of the key trends?
0:07:37.5 MS: Yeah, absolutely. I think high level, everyone knows how challenging it is out there within the current transfer landscape. I'm not telling folks anything that they don't know, but I really wanna kinda put that into context for folks. So one of the things that we see a lot is that when EAB started this work in 2014, that was really a high watermark for transfer. Between 2014 and 2019, we did see a little bit of the decline, held steady across the board, some schools were up, some schools were down, but nothing major happened. COVID has made the transfer work that we all do extremely challenging. And so what does that kind of mean in terms of actual data and actual statistics that folks on the line can kind of take away to it and talk to their teams about, so we put into context what's going on in the transfer space. So between 2019 and 2020, we lost about 191,000 transfer students across the board. So these are students that didn't go from a two to a four-year institution, from a four to a four-year institution or from a four back to a two-year, they just completely fell out of the funnel.
0:08:45.4 MS: What was really fascinating then is that between 2020, fall of 2020 and fall of ‘21, things actually held steady. We didn't lose very many students at about 11,000 or about 1% of the overall transfer population, and I think myself, all of the research here at EAB, we're kinda scratching our heads because we're wondering, we're seeing that community college declines are double digits every semester since this... There have been double digit declines every semester since COVID started. So what is going on within the market? Why is transfer kind of holding steady? And we're gonna link this in the show notes, but that kind of floor that we've seen propped up this past fall fell out, kind of fell, the floor fell out from underneath us this past spring. So we saw a 16% decline from spring of '21 to spring of 2022. So significantly down across the board, as I'm talking to folks currently, and we know it's still early in the process, July and August are always the biggest months for recruitment, but people are down again, and we're definitely expecting to see a significant decline. The one area that I do wanna point out to folks, and they're thinking about okay, yeah, great.
0:10:02.5 MS: We all know things are down. What does that mean for me? The thing I want people to really think about is the fact that with the decline in enrollment, there has been one area where transfer enrollment has gone up, and that is at highly selective and flagship institutions. So not only are we losing students out of the community college pipeline, but we're also starting to see schools that have not traditionally focused on transfer making a significant effort to recruit more transfer students. So as you are thinking about ways that you can improve your overall transfer programs, know that it's a very competitive market and rise to meet that challenge. Allison, anything else that you're kind of seeing there?
0:10:44.7 AA: Well, you know, Matt, I think shifting a little bit away from the data that we're seeing from the National Student Clearinghouse and others, so much of my work that I do day in day out with institutions who are on the ground, working with students and thinking through how they can successfully transition students into their institution, I do this exercise commonly, and in asking partners what their up at night issue, transfer issue is. And actually Matt, we do this a lot when we're out on the road, talking to folks, doing conferences and presentations, and we've been collecting anecdotal feedback now for over four or five years. And it falls into four buckets in terms of what we're hearing from staff, faculty, and those on the ground working with transfer students as to what they're hearing and experiencing and what those up at night transfer issues are.
0:11:53.2 AA: The first is, plays into really what you were just speaking to, the actual enrollment transfer market and the unpredictability that COVID has laid on these institutions and in bringing their actual transfer numbers up or even just stabilizing. And part of that has been thinking about their strategy, given the increasing limited resources that they have at their fingertips. The other component in thinking about the enrollment landscape is community college declines. So, I know this kind of plays into that larger number that you were talking about, but when their top feeders are not seeing the growth or stabilization of their own students, it's hard to translate that into a population that you can then pull from.
0:12:46.1 AA: The second big area that we hear about is around admissions and just general staff capacity concerns. We know that the types of admissions activities that happened across the last couple of years have been radically different, moving from traditional mechanisms of in-person visits, campus visits, tabling events, that type of thing, to not being able to go on campus at all and having to invest in virtual and or remote resources to provide admission support. And this concept of doing all of the things as an admission staff member or even someone in the registrar's office, depending how an organization is structured, it really resonates with people. Folks that work with transfer students, they're having to figure out how the transfer credits actually transfer in, they're trying to figure out how much financial aid is remaining for that particular student depending on what they've already used in the past, and sometimes these are students who are coming directly from another institution, but sometimes they might be more non-traditional or adult learner, degree-completer students who are coming back and have credit, that's another kind of whole population that becomes a bit more complex to work with. The third bucket is around that credit evaluation piece and some of the process technologies and data management components that go into successful transfer.
0:14:25.7 AA: We know that the number one question that transfer students, prospective transfer students have are how their credits will transfer, but how they will apply to degree. And what might seem like a pretty simple question is actually pretty complex for admission staff in particular to answer, because as you can probably imagine, degrees are constantly changing, degree requirements change year to year, other schools are updating their catalogue, they may not be synchronized across the institution, it may not be centrally located, there's a lot of moving parts that go to that piece, but then how they translate the degree requirements alongside of the course of prevalence into their systems to create automations and processes are things that a lot of schools have yet to invest in.
0:15:19.1 AA: We are seeing some shifts there, and we'll talk a little bit more about that later, but then the last area falls into this concept of successful transitions, like advising, registration and on-boarding for transfer students. We know that historically majority of institutions didn't actually provide dedicated holistic transfer student advising or even orientations that had been crafted and customized for transfer students, and that could lead to issues with the onboarding into the institution, getting connected to those early resources that we know will help them be successful, finding like-minded and like background peers who are also transfer students or come from non-traditional backgrounds, and also thinking about registration. This is a very specific thing, but registration depending on how a school operates can be a real barrier and getting transfer students in particular into that process.
0:16:31.5 MS: Allison, I think that is also what I hear as well when I'm talking to partners, and it always feels so overwhelming to me, there's just so much going on in the transfer space, and the concept of transfer folks are doing all of the things. What I see that I see happening is that doesn't lead to a lot of willingness or interest in fixing the problems because we have thrown so much at our teams, asking them to do more with less every year. So as we kind of think about this and your brainstorming of partners, like why now? Why is now the time to really focus on transfer students and fix these problems?
0:17:13.0 AA: Well, given the state we're in relative to the enrollment market, it is imperative that institutions are successfully deploying resources and strategies that are going to enroll all students, not just first-time full-time freshmen, and that they re-evaluate how they treat those non-traditional students in a way that's going to successfully get them on board, otherwise we're gonna continue to see institutions really flounder to fill their class and to find the students to help them do that. So I think some of it is bottom line in terms of helping institutions survive and successfully meet their missions to their local communities.
0:18:06.5 AA: I think in particular, when I think about the student experience, I'm almost building upon those three themes we heard from staff and faculty working with students out, there's a lot of, I think, lateral points or pain points that incoming students feel that are connected to each of those areas I mentioned. And if we were to describe this as a visual, you could imagine this road, you can kinda get on this path. And you and I just mentioned earlier, we like to walk and run, we're hearing all the birds and nature along the way, we're on this pathway to wherever we're trying to get going, and for prospective transfer students, they are trying to find the signs, the road signs to navigate their way, they're trying to use their GPS on their phones to get where they're going, but the tools and technologies [laughter] and those maps are just not working for them. And in practical terms, students are having a hard time finding things on a website, navigating a website, clicking through, really trying to answer that question around how the credit will transfer and translate to degree, understanding what prerequisites are required of them to even get into a program, not to go on a tangent, but what's a notoriously difficult transfer program, but oftentimes one of the most is the highest requested program by our transfer students is nursing.
0:19:52.0 AA: My niece who is entering college just this next year, wild... Is pursuing currently planning to pursue a degree in nursing, and for a period of time, she was seriously considering starting at a community college for a wide variety of reasons, but she really wanted to pursue the path with nursing, and for the local community college she was looking to attend and the potential theater she would go to afterwards, the pathway was pretty complex and had a lot of potential loopholes and even things that could potentially in a year's time or two-year's time become a barrier that would ultimately prevent her into the nursing program. Often, nursing programs are cohort-based. They only admit a certain number of students that didn't initially start with the program, so there's a number of things that really translate back over to students that have direct correlation and connection to those issues that we talked about relative to staff and faculty.
0:21:02.7 MS: Yeah, and I think what we see is like we want schools to take this on so that they can build out a pipeline for the future. Every time we talk to a partner, we're saying, "Hey, this is not something you're gonna solve tomorrow. We want you to solve this for the long term and really think about, everything that you just mentioned, how do we make it better for the students? So I think we've kind of done quite a bit of like doomsday here. This is a challenging subject. There's a lot of things going on. What are some best practices that you're seeing in market? The schools that are doing really well within transfer, how are you seeing them take on this challenge?
0:21:37.7 AA: It's such a great question. And I know earlier in our conversation, I kind of started to tee up this concept of people, process and technology, so our model has always been, you have to have those three components in synergy with one another. Oftentimes, you see technology being implemented and it takes up a large space and capacity of your team members, and ultimately, that technology isn't implemented well, or maybe the people and process behind it are not considered until after you've already gone live with it, and that results in a lot of issues.
0:22:17.7 AA: So for us, when we think about transfer best practice, it's layering those three components together in equal fashions such that you're using technology as a lever for change and for instituting and capturing the documenting processes that transfer students can benefit from and your staff and faculty can also benefit from. To really move towards the scale and thinking about scaling your support and resources, taking what you've learned from first-time, full-time freshman support and translating that into other populations like non-traditional students, like transfers and adult learner degree computers. And from that, we've developed different work that really centralizes around seven best practice areas across a student life cycle. And the life cycle if we were to do a visualization is starting with a foundation, so if you're building a house, you gotta lay the groundwork. You have to put in the concrete to build a house, the structural framework to even have the house to live in, so you have to do your due diligence to have a substantial foundation in place before you can even start serving transfer students successfully, creating that transfer-friendly destination, and two components within the foundational area is around prioritization of transfer student support at your institution. We'll dig into this in just a few more moments.
0:24:05.2 AA: The second area is thinking about pathways, both in a traditional sense from your community colleges, but also thinking a bit more non-traditionally as to K through 12 pathways, going even a step earlier in the process, thinking about transitional pathway. So a lot of students, this concept of two plus two doesn't necessarily hold true any longer, actually. We see a lot of two plus one, three plus one, or even one to two to one, just transitioning between a multitude of institutions, actually.
0:24:44.7 AA: The second bucket is around, after you've built that foundation, you've started to build up your house, well, you gotta put it on market, you gotta promote it. So if I've built a house and I'm trying to sell it, people need to know it's on the market. So I don't know about you, Matt, but I'm on Zillow a lot, [chuckle] just looking to see what's out there. It's a little just side hobby of mine. And when you're on Zillow, you're seeing houses that are in your respective area, within a certain proximity. You've identified within that proximity where you wanna live, and so building up awareness about your program is important, and ensuring that the website and your marketing materials are up in front of prospective transfers, promoting your program effectively, is a key thing to consider.
0:25:48.3 AA: And then lastly, our third bucket is this concept of yielding and supporting, so thinking about, alright, you have your house, it's on a foundation, you've promoted it, you have some buyers, your buyers have raised their hand and are thinking about purchasing your home, but they have a lot of questions, and maybe there's even someone... Again, depending on your student, maybe there's a parent... Maybe there's another spouse or family members a part of the decision, and you're thinking about qualifying and engaging those perspective leads and ultimately getting them to closing, kinda going back to this house analogy of getting them through to make that decision. But as an informed buyer, they're gonna have a lot of those types of nitty-gritty questions for you, and you have to be really responsive to keep them engaged and interested. And this concept of speed to lead is such an important one that we can take from of how we've nurtured other types of students to deploy ultimately to transfers.
0:27:02.0 MS: As you were kind of thinking... One thing I was kind of thinking about here, as you were talking, it's like, who in market is doing a really good job of this? I will carry a little bit of water for one of our partners who I love their website. They clearly answer three key questions for students. How many other credits will transfer? How long will it take them to complete and get a degree? And then who do they need to reach out to? To get all these questions answered, so they do use our transfer portal, so you'll see it on the website as the credit navigator, but that's [credit mapping, so if anyone is listening and want's to check out a really great website, and then just so we don't look kind of like just straight shells for EAB. Another school that I love what they're doing in this space is Virginia Commonwealth University. They have a centralized location that is taking a lot of these best practices that they have a transfer center, and their website goes directly to that transfer center where students can get these questions answered, start thinking about advising, start thinking about how they're current students transfer, and really getting them moving through that pipeline so that we can recruit as many students as possible and make sure that they're successful.
0:28:14.0 MS: Kind of switching gears a little bit, as you are seeing folks in market, we've talked about some of these best practices. Could you talk a little bit about that hand-off for the student transition process? So this is I think where we talk about the foundation, we talk about awareness, we got the student in the door, but where students are struggling a bit is once they know how they're going to get transferred, they're excited about the process, getting them involved in classes and things like that can be a pretty big pain point for institutions. Can you kinda talk about what you do with our partners and how you really support those efforts?
0:28:52.0 AA: Yeah, absolutely. So in terms of effective yielding and ultimately supporting students into an institution, would recommend that partners are thinking about your qualification and engagement strategies, so this can range from your lead structure, how you're managing your metrics. I already mentioned before this concept of speed to lead, but ultimately, are you capturing those metrics in a CRM? Are you using those metrics to inform marketing and recruiting efforts in real time? Are you assessing yourself on kind of set goals and how you're performing against those goals? Are you using various lead sourcing structures, both from a technology component, RFIs, that type of thing, to even source a lead in the first place? Like I mention before, transfer students are notoriously stealth, so getting creative and how you can identify them earlier in the process is really important. Once you do have them identified, you get them into some kind of technology to track them, to ultimately better engage them, answer their questions and communicate with them, how are you driving your communication channels in an effective and synchronized way across the institution?
0:30:11.0 AA: I can't tell you how many times I've heard partners that have advising admissions, the registrar's office, financial aid, all of these different departments communicating with the same individual, but not tracking those communications in a centralized entity. And what that feels like from a buyer's perspective is that you don't really get me. You don't understand me, I've had to ask the same question five times and I've yet to get an effective answer. So we're working with this generation of humans that have been exposed to the internet from early, early, early on, from children, really from kind of early ages, and even for you and I, Matt, we've been normed to expect a response from companies and vendors within seconds. We have been exposed to chatbots to 24/7 help customer service. And when your new potential buyers, these transfer students are coming in and don't get the same level of coordination, care and quick outreach, they're gonna become dissatisfied and skeptical that your institution is the right fit for them.
0:31:40.8 AA: And so institutions really need to be brutal in assessing the effectiveness of their lead engagement strategy and how coordinated or not it is. I think a couple of other pieces of this area I would emphasize, going back to credit evaluation, this is such an important part of the decision-making process for a student, and if you're unable to quickly and effectively within days, provide either an on-demand self-service credit evaluation platform, but then also follow up with an official shortly thereafter, students are gonna go elsewhere to get that answer. So going back to that home buyer analogy, let's say I'm looking for a home, I love this house, but I have a lot of questions about it because I went on a tour and there were some things that came up that just didn't really jive with me...
0:32:47.5 AA: If the seller doesn't respond to me in weeks, months, to core questions, I'm gonna go elsewhere. I'm trying to transfer in a couple of weeks, and so again, getting those key questions answered in a timely way is really important, and ensuring that the information is consistent across your buyers is also important, and that goes back to ensuring that your data and technology is up to par really, and that you're storing this data in a way that can be consistently reused and again, creates scale across your processes. So by storing course equivalency data, building rules, investing the upfront human... People components into doing that, it's ultimately going to help you repurpose this information time and time again. And then last thing on this, Matt, because I just think it's so important. This concept of transfer advising, start early. I think if I were to just leave you with nothing else on this area, it's getting and building your relationships with community colleges and other feeders to talk to students much earlier in the process about perspective transfer options for them and what courses they can start taking at the community college that will ultimately set them up for success, because we hear so often that students are looking to transfer, but they've just not taken the right prerequisites or the right courses or what have you, to ultimately maximize that degree completion once they do transfer.
0:34:41.9 MS: Yeah, I think it's amazing going back to a point you made earlier, how many different departments are talking to a transfer student and how many of those departments report up to different executives on campus? And so the more that you can do to centralize the better. So we are coming up on our time here, so I just wanted to summarize for you really what I've learned from this amazing conversation, and folks can take action, kind of three things that they can do. So one, is be able to very clearly answer key questions for students. So how many of my credits will transfer? How long will it take for me to complete my degree? And then most importantly, how much money will this all cost me? The second thing that I really hear you saying is centralized support, make sure that everyone is working together to ensure that we are moving the students from inquiry all the way to enrollment and that we're supporting them through their overall journey. And then going back to the transitory curve, having a strong foundation, care about transfer students. Really think about this as part of your overall strategic plan. Because without that component, nothing can really get done.
0:35:56.5 MS: Do you feel like... Did I learn the right pieces here? Am I capturing the essence of what you're saying?
0:36:04.2 AA: I think so, Matt. And if I was going to push on this even further and put myself in our listeners' shoes, I think I'm a very practical person and all that sounds really great. I'd love... Matt, I'd love to be able to have a transfer-friendly institution, I'd love to have our institution put transfer into strategic plan, but what if it's not within my wheel house, what if it's not outside... What if it's not in the scope of my day-to-day responsibilities, what can I do? Alright, a couple of things, practical. Practical takeaways for you all. Surveys. I have background in qualitative research, and I think surveys and focus groups and this idea of process mapping can be very informative and powerful to show your team to actually capture the student experience for your institution and what their specific pain points are. So I would take that away. I'd survey your colleagues, so an internal survey of staff and faculty about their experience, I would do an external survey or process mapping or focus group with actual students that have transferred, or maybe even talking to your community college advisors.
0:37:20.8 AA: There are sometimes where community colleges... I didn't mention this before, but in a past life, I worked very closely with community colleges, and I know that in the world of transfer sometimes there still is this lingering fear or belief that their students are getting poached or stolen, and sometimes there are underlying trust issues and it can be helpful to have a third party facilitator at times to help you collect research, so that would be a good investment. Hiring a contractor or a consultant who is not affiliated with your university to actually talk to your partners in a neutral capacity. I would audit your website and other materials. If you have any student workers, even if they're not transfer students, just ask them to go in to your website and try to pretend like... To do a scenario of pretending like they wanna transfer into your school or they're looking to transfer out or whatever you're trying to evaluate, and just make notes of pros and cons, like what went really well, what didn't. And make note of that.
0:38:27.6 AA: And then the last thing I would say is very practical in terms of gathering data, IPEDS have a lot of really good data. Now, I won't go on my rant about this particular topic, but if you don't collect data from your partners or other feeders, this is a good, at least starting place to see of proximate community colleges, what majors are they actually conferring degrees? So when you're thinking about program growth and opportunities, you can go to this national database and see if it's a couple of cycles old, I think right now fall of 2020 is what is currently published, but that's another tangible take away for folks to think about.
0:39:12.3 MS: Well, thank you. That really helps to think about how do we move the ball forward. So everyone on the line listening in your car or on your run, thank you so much for joining us for this episode of EAB Office Hours. As you could tell, Allison and I actually love talking about transfer. So I just wanna put in a couple of notices for everyone how they can get in touch with us. We will have our bios... Our bios are available on the EAB website. We will also be presenting as a pre-conference session at NACAC in Houston this year, so we'd love to dive deep with you about how you can get everyone on campus to support transfer students. The title of the session is, It Takes A Village. So going back to that area of how many folks are touching and supporting the transfer recruitment areas. If you are not going to NACAC, we would do a series of webinars throughout the year, and we're always available to talk one-on-one. So thank you so much, and Allison thank you as well. Looking forward to meeting folks who've listened in.
0:40:17.5 AA: My pleasure. Thanks everyone.
0:40:27.3 MS: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when we explore why addressing the faculty shortage and securing clinical placements for graduates are the keys to generating enrollment growth in your nursing program. Until then, thank you for your time.
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