CUNY project improves credit transfer

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When students lose credits during transfer from a community college to a four-year institution, they also lose time and money. The Articulation of Credit Transfer (ACT) project through the City University of New York (CUNY) aims to help students transfer seamlessly from one CUNY institution to another.

A new report from Ithaka S+R looks at one of the innovations of the ACT project that’s improving the transfer process.

The ACT project began in 2019 with grant funding from the Heckscher Foundation and the Petrie Foundation. The project’s goals are to cut the length of time required to evaluate credits, reduce the percentage of transfer credits that don’t count toward a degree and eliminate credit evaluation decisions that contradict CUNY policy.

Seven institutions are participating in the project: Bronx Community College, Brooklyn College, Guttman Community College, Hostos Community College, Lehman College, Queens College and Queensborough Community College.

Opening the black box

Before the project began, it was impossible to know the actual number of credits that didn’t count toward a student’s degree following transfer. CUNY’s degree audit software, Ellucian Degree Works, would overwrite a student’s degree audit data whenever there was a change in the student’s record. There was no way to track degree applicability changes.

“The transcript evaluation process is effectively a black box,” says Martin Kurzweil, director of the educational transformation program at Ithaka S+R and ACT project director. “That’s true for the students, but also for advisors, faculty and staff, and administrators. They see the part they’re viewing, but don’t understand why the outcome is what it is.”

There needed to be a way to monitor “fallthrough” courses — courses that don’t fulfill the requirements of the program a student is pursuing. But, due to the way Degree Works functioned at the time, staff couldn’t see which courses, departments or schools generated the most fallthrough credits, and they also couldn’t notify students if one of their courses moved into fallthrough if the student changed majors or for other reasons.

Having a better understanding of “how many students are affected by fallthrough courses, which courses are in fallthrough, and the idiosyncrasies of Degree Works and its treatment of transfer rules is crucial to improving credit transfer and graduation rates,” according to the report’s authors.

To fix this, CUNY instituted a daily archive of Degree Works data for students transferring between CUNY institutions. The focus was on getting aggregate-level analysis of student transfer outcomes, course-level analysis, and real-time monitoring of transfer students’ fallthrough courses.

This work is essentially “opening up the black box of credit articulation to understand what’s going on in a granular way,” Kurzweil says. The information gleaned can be used to directly intervene on behalf of students to help ensure their credits are counting toward their degree.

A powerful tool

In 2019, Degree Works archiving began for students transferring from Hostos to Lehman. In September 2020, that expanded to include transfer from Bronx Community College (BCC) to Lehman, and then to include all participating ACT project colleges in January 2021.

Each term, project team members have identified students who are direct transfers from an ACT community college to an ACT bachelor’s college, and students who are enrolled in an ACT bachelor’s college.

The archive allows the ACT project team to view changes in how students’ transferred courses counted toward their degree programs at their new institution. That helps researchers get a better picture of how many transferred credits count toward a student’s degree program. The archive also can be used to look at the ways transfer affects the degree applicability of different courses under different circumstances.

Having this information can inform improvements to administrative policies and processes.

The archive also improves student support. Advisors can monitor changes in students’ degree audits when they transfer and jump in to help them make decisions about courses and programs that make the best use of their credits. Advisors can see if a new transfer student is registering for a fallthrough course and can suggest the student add a minor, change a major or swap a course.

This real-time monitoring is “really powerful,” Kurzweil says. “It’s another tool in the toolbox to help students course correct.”

This model of advising at Lehman has led to 600 transfer applicants heeding recommendations from their advisors and making changes to their course schedules since spring 2020.

Promising outcomes

Since the project began, there’s been a decline in the share of students with any course in fallthrough. The share of Hostos to Lehman students with at least one transfer course in fallthrough fell from 42% for the fall 2019 cohort to 28% for the fall 2021 cohort.

When looking at BCC to Lehman transfer students, the share with at least one fallthrough course declined from 29% for the fall 2020 cohort to 21% for the fall 2021 cohort.

Despite these improvements, data show that, for those who did have at least one course in the fallthrough, the mean share of their courses in fallthrough slightly increased. For example, while only 28% of Hostos to Lehman transfer students in the fall 2021 cohort had at least one transferred course in fallthrough at Lehman, the mean share of their courses in Fallthrough was 20% — an 11% increase. The trend is similar for BCC to Lehman transfer students.

The Degree Works archive can help figure out why this is happening by identifying fallthrough patterns, such as which community college courses most often end up in fallthrough. Archiving has helped identify that interpersonal relations, introduction to sociology and expository writing have been among the top courses that end up in fallthrough for students transferring from Hostos to Lehman.

Having that information can lead to course requirement changes, as well as changes in how Degree Works treats courses. Expository writing, for example, is a pathways general education course at Hostos, so it should transfer as such, but “basic courses you would think would translate easily are getting bumped out of degree requirement,” Kurzweil says.

“Opening up this data and looking at it and examining it and scrutinizing it with fresh eyes identifies all sorts of issues,” he says. 

Impact on student aid

For students, the archive also can make the difference between them receiving or not receiving state financial aid. The New York Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) provides financial help for students taking 12 or credits per semester that are applicable to their degree requirements. If students’ transferred courses cause any current term courses to be in fallthrough, they may fall below the 12-credit threshold and lose TAP eligibility.

By being able to better understand and audit fallthrough courses, 19 Lehman students in the fall 2021 cohort were contacted and able to make registration changes that made them TAP-eligible.

According to Kurzweil, the project will expand to other CUNY institutions and the project team will continue to make improvements that better student transfer outcomes.

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
Tabitha Whissemore is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.