Transfer students still lose lots of credits

Source: U.S. Government Accountability Office, "Higher Education: Students Need More Information to Help Reduce Challenges in Transferring College Credits," August 2017.

Community college students lose a substantial amount of credits when transferring to a four- or two-year institution, which is due in part to poor coordination among the participating colleges and an inability to effectively communicate the transfer process and policies to students, according to a new U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

Overall, transfer students among all postsecondary institutions lost an estimated average of 43 percent of credits, according to a GAO analysis of a selected cohort of students. Students moving from public two-year to public four-year colleges — the most common transfer path that accounts for 26 percent of transfer students — lost the fewest estimated credits at 22 percent.

Public two-year college students transferring to another public two-year institution — the second most common transfer path that accounts for 13 percent of transfer students — didn’t fare as well: They lost an estimated average of 69 percent of their credits.

Also, students transferring from a public four-year college to a public two-year institution — the third most common transfer path, comprising 9 percent of all transfer students — lost more than three-fourths of their credits.

Students at for-profit two-year colleges transferring to a public two-year college — which accounted for only 1 percent of transfer paths — saw the largest percentage of rejected credits at 97 percent, according to the report.

Federal lawmakers are interested in the data as they examine college costs and federal student aid. Credits lost in a transfer can result in additional costs not only for students but also for the federal government in providing student aid. Almost half of transfer students receive Pell grants and almost two-thirds received Federal Direct Loans, according to GAO.

For its analysis, GAO used the most current U.S. Education Department data and interviewed stakeholders from 25 higher education organizations and schools, including the American Association of Community Colleges.

Building connections

Many postsecondary schools have transfer agreements or partnerships, often called articulation agreements, that specify which course credits meet program or degree requirements at one or more schools. Based on GAO’s review of school websites, articulation agreements were more commonly listed among public schools.

The report noted that it’s often easier for students to transfer credits to a school in the same state, especially in states that have policies outlining how credits should transfer. It cited Florida as example, noting that it has a statewide articulation agreement that generally guarantees students who earn an associate degree from a Florida community college can transfer at least 60 credits to one of the public four-year schools in the state.

Watch “Cuppa GAO: Coffee with Our Experts,” which features a discussion around the agency’s new report on roadblocks in the college transfer process.

However, nearly one in five students who start at a public two-year school and one in four who start at a public four-year school transfer to a school in a different state, GAO said, citing a recent National Student Clearinghouse report.

One program that has successfully facilitated transfers for students across state lines is the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education’s Interstate Passport program, the report said. That program focuses on common learning outcomes across schools in different states rather than determining how individual courses compare to each other.

Various misalignments

But having articulation agreements doesn’t guarantee a smooth transfer of credits. Sometimes poor advising or information about transfers to help students plan their path is the hurdle, the report said.

“One study based on student interviews in Illinois found that advising quality was inconsistent across the schools that students transferred between, and stakeholders we spoke with similarly cited such challenges for students,” it said.

Fewer transfers to four-year institutions: Fewer students are transferring from community colleges to four-year colleges and universities, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

One stakeholder gave an example of a student who received inconsistent information about transfer credits from advisors at two different schools. The student met with an advisor at her starting school, a community college, to plan which courses she needed to transfer to a four-year business degree program. After she transferred, she met with an advisor at the four-year school only to learn that much of her coursework would not apply to her intended degree because the business classes she previously took were not in an applicable field.

This is why participating colleges must provide students with adequate advising and transfer resources as early as possible to maximize the chances a student will transfer successfully, stakeholders told GAO.

The challenges

Providing quality advising can be a challenge for some schools — particularly community colleges — many of which are under-resourced. One community college interviewee told GAO that it’s difficult for schools to identify which students intend to transfer in order to connect them with available advisors to help plan their path.

On the other end, four-year schools can also face resource challenges. They cite many of their efforts to help transfer students, but their registrar and admissions staff do not have the capacity to meet with every student individually, and students therefore can go without advising as a result.

The timing of advising and sharing of transfer information is also important. Much of the transfer process is influenced by student decisions made early during their college career. For example, without early information about the transfer process, students may change majors or sign up for technical courses at their starting school without knowing the implications such choices have on the transferability of their credits.

Calif. ‘transfer maze’ costly for students, economy: Despite recent reforms, transferring from California’s community colleges to one of the state’s public four-year systems is so complex and cumbersome that it’s costing students time and money — and it also can have an effect on the state’s economy.

Stakeholders also said that it is important for students to meet with advisors from both schools. The destination school generally has the final say on how credits are evaluated and accepted, so it is important for students to confirm with the destination school that the information they receive from their origin school is accurate, the report said.

The timing of when the destination school completes an official credit evaluation can also pose challenges for students, according to stakeholders from some higher education organizations and schools.

“Students may not know prior to enrollment at the destination school whether their credits will transfer because some schools do not complete an official credit evaluation until after the enrollment deadline,” the report said.

Even if a student’s credits transfer, they may not apply toward fulfilling degree requirements for their intended major. For example, according to one stakeholder, a biology course may count as a general science elective but not count toward the science requirement for a degree in biology.

“In these cases, a student will likely have to take additional courses at the destination school, which could potentially delay graduation,” the report said.

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