For Dustin Meador, it seemed as though the nagging, complex and contentious issue of college transfers was the Texas legislature’s Moby Dick: The problems were big and obvious, but solutions were elusive.
“It was just the white whale of public higher education policy. Legislators said it was the number one issue they heard about, and they very much wanted to get something done, but it just never could get traction,” says Meador, director of government relations for the Texas Association of Community Colleges.
It’s a situation frequently faced by those working in this arena, where the interests of four-year universities, community colleges, lawmakers, taxpayers and families of college students often diverge, stymieing efforts to resolve a problem they all agree needs to be addressed.
A broader problem
Before they tackled the issue through legislation last spring, Meador says state lawmakers regularly reported constituents were hounding them about the transfer system, which discouraged community college students and often depleted them financially. A state foundation estimated that about 40 percent of Texas students were losing credit when they transfer, costing about $60 million.
Nationally, a 2016 study by Education Northwest showed that, on average, students lost 13 credits and about 40 percent received no credit upon transfer. Transferring from a public two-year college to a public four-year institution means students, on average, lose eight credits, and half of those transferring from a community college to a public university have some credit loss.
And anecdotal stories abound about students expecting to be juniors or seniors when they transfer, but finding they may even just be first-semester freshmen.
Increasingly, states are finding ways to incrementally improve the process, including in Texas.
“This legislation is significant for students across the state,” says David Hinds, president of Victoria College, who advocated for Senate Bill 25, which was passed in the spring and took effect in late June. “It will help us make major strides in clarifying academic pathways to our four-year partner institutions, and if it’s implemented as intended, community colleges will be better able to advise students so they can transfer successfully.”
Meador says the bill will establish more and earlier advising for students, require schools to report their non-transferrable credits and establish recommended course sequences, which Hinds says is critical.
“This is the one I am most excited about because if we do this right, a lot of confusion will simply go away. Students will be able to go to Texas public university websites and see what lower-division courses from their own college will transfer,” he says. “This leverages the reality of 700,000 students as a market force. Four-year schools will be eager to show them how transfer-friendly they are.”
The legislation also sets up a process for standardization of the core curriculum and fields of study, establishing statewide standards for what lower-division courses are guaranteed to transfer across the state as a minimum, Meador says.
“There is a lot of good stuff in the legislation, but the core curriculum was too much to tackle for now in the heat of the legislative session,” he says, “and I think it was a good idea to have a committee representing various interests study it further and come up with a recommendation.”
In other states
Lexi Anderson, senior project manager at the Education Commission of the States, has tracked transfer policy and legislation in all 50 states. A “transferable core of lower-division courses” was one of the key metrics she sought for a report she wrote in 2018. She also prioritized common course numbering, guaranteed statewide transfer of an associate degree and statewide reverse transfer, which retroactively grants an associate degree to students who had not completed those requirements before they transferred to a four-year institution.
Anderson says in her research, which she intends to update next year, that 30 states require a transferable core of lower-division courses be established along with statewide guaranteed transfer of an associate degree.
Another key finding was that reverse transfer policies were established in legislation or board policy in about 17 states, and 22 states “provide reverse transfer opportunities outside of policy, including through institutional agreements, MOUs and statewide programs.”
She notes that Iowa is considering extending reverse transfers to stop-outs and those not currently enrolled who have credits but no credentials.
“I think there will be the most refinements to current policy in transfer data reporting, aligning core curriculum across two- and four-year institutions and flexibility for undecided transfer students,” she says about forthcoming attention to the issue at the state level, noting that policies about guaranteed transfer of associate degrees and prior-learning credit transfers will also be addressed.
What other states are doing
Anderson notes research by Northwest Education also indicates that states are considering policy changes to more rigorously support undecided students (who often are the least efficient in the transfer process) and to give more attention to “transfer college knowledge” to better inform students about transfers.
“Existing policies do not address the common reasons students lose credit: student uncertainty and resource-constrained advising,” the Northwest report concludes.
ECS reports that Louisiana led the country in 2009 with one of the first major pieces of transfer legislation that gave priority admissions to transfer students and established a centralized database of courses and course substitutions for all degrees.
Florida also is considered a leader in transfer policy, Anderson says. It requires students in associate programs to choose a preferred bachelor’s degree program at a four-year school and includes transfer rates in performance metrics for schools. It now guarantees that a student receiving an associate degree can take all their credits with them to a state four-year public college or university, and it has developed transfer agreements with several private institutions.
In Washington, most of the state’s public four-year universities must recognize associate degrees from community colleges, and in Maryland a student with a 2.0 GPA and diploma from a community college can directly transfer to a public four-year university and a general education program at one school is applicable at any other.
A look at California
California, one of 10 states studied in the Northwest Education report, began to address the issue in 2010, according to Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, a college advocacy group that has made transfers in the state’s massive higher education system a priority.
Its legislation called to create a two-year, 60-unit “associate degrees for transfer” in a major or area of emphasis that would be automatically accepted at California State University (CSU) schools. It also would place students as juniors, who then only needed 60 credits to complete their four-year degree.
In March, EdSource reported that while the number of students transferring from the state’s community colleges to the 10 University of California institutions and 23 CSU campuses had increased by about 3 percent, it needed to rise by 7 percent annually to meet ambitious state goals.
Siqueiros says that over several years state officials also have tied state support to success with transfer students, most recently providing additional funds when students participate in the associate degree for transfer, including those attending private non-profit colleges and historically black colleges and universities in other states. She believes the various efforts are paying off.
“We’ve made progress, but there has been considerable resistance along the way. And there is still a lot of work to be done and implementation varies widely,” she says. “But we are on the right track.”