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Taming Transfer Swirl

A new lens for recognizing transfer credits

March 31, 2022

Studies have consistently shown that adults with bachelor’s degrees earn significantly more over their careers than those without one. Yet a huge number of adults who have started the degree process find themselves stuck in the “transfer swirl” — the trend of transferring to one or more institutions without earning degrees. In 2019, about 36 million Americans had some college credits but no degree and were not currently enrolled in a degree program.

These people are at a constant disadvantage in the job market compared to their degree-holding peers. In 2020, even as economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to leave no corner untouched, the spike in unemployment was not evenly felt. Among workers with some college but no degree, the unemployment rate was 8.3%, compared to 7.1% for workers with an associate’s degree and 5.5% for those with a bachelor’s degree.

Transfer swirl contributes to the number of some college, no degree workers. It creates messy educational trajectories that add time and money to degree attainment.

Often, the responsibility for avoiding transfer swirl is placed on the individual. Students are told to research their destination school and seek prior approval for credits. If they’re transferring from a community college to a four-year school, they’re told to look for an institution that has an articulation agreement with their current institution.

That’s all good advice, but it can only ever have a marginal impact on transfer swirl: Many students transferring from a two-year to four-year school entered community college without a clear idea of what they wanted to study. Meanwhile, horizontal transfers, between two community colleges or two four-year colleges, are often the result of circumstances the student couldn’t foresee — a desire to switch majors, unhappiness with the social scene, a sudden life event or financial hardship.

As a growing number of learners take nonlinear paths to degree completion, they grapple with lack of clarity, inconsistency, and confusion over standards and policies. This causes many – particularly those coming from nontraditional, first generation, low income backgrounds – to fall into the frustrated limbo of transfer swirl.

Last year, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), the American Council on Education (ACE), and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) revised their Joint Statement on the Transfer and Award of Credit. One particular sentence leaps off the page, “However, denial of credit without a reasonable basis and clear rationale undermines both students’ and the public’s trust in our system of higher education as a societal good and a driver of upward mobility.”

Institutions can be proactive in keeping transfer students on track to a timely graduation — making it easier for the aforementioned 36 million to turn their time and money into a bachelor’s degree. How? By rethinking the role of transfer credit and applicability standards within their transfer credit policies.

Thinking in terms of program objectives

Unless there is a prior agreement between the two institutions, decisions to recognize transfer credits are made after officials at the receiving school read the sending school’s course descriptions. If the course objectives, as represented by often nominal course descriptions, differ too much from those of the class offered at the receiving school, the credits are not honored.

However, course objectives only provide one way to frame credit recognition. Program objectives provide another. When the credit recognition process considers whether the prior course is similar enough to fulfill the role of a required course[s] in meeting program objectives — rather than a one to one match of course objectives — far more transfer credits can be recognized.

Interstate Passport does something like this. Students who complete lower-division general education courses at any of 67 participating two- or four-year institutions earn a “passport,” which allows them to transfer those credits as a block to any other participating institution — no individual course review required. This concept should see application beyond general education courses and include learning common to like majors.

Institutions can also bear in mind that the classification of courses as vocational, lower-level, or upper-level are guidelines, not rules. What one institution teaches with a 100/200 course code may be taught at a different institution with a 300/400 course code. As long as the appropriate learning has been achieved, how an institution categorizes their course is immaterial.

Expanding applicability standards

Traditionally, schools will only recognize transfer credits earned with a grade of C or better, even if they’re less demanding for their own courses. As a result, a lower GPA correlates with more credits lost to the swirl.

Credit recognition could be expanded simply by the destination school recognizing lower grades in transfer. Lower your acceptance to a “C-” or even a “D”. If you would accept the grade as fulfilling the requirement if issued by your own institution, accept the same grade issued by a transfer institution.

Schools could also end their policies of withholding transcripts due to students’ financial obligations. While this doesn’t facilitate greater recognition of credit into their own school, it will help rescue those stranded credits that contribute to the transfer swirl.

A better educational on-ramp

Applying these changes wouldn’t just straighten the path to an associate’s or bachelor’s for adults with some college but no degree. It would also make two-year schools better on-ramps to higher education.

A two-year community college program is, for many students, a smart first step toward a bachelor’s degree. Students get a relatively affordable way to earn credits and a chance to establish an exemplary academic record. This approach can be especially useful to students from low-income households, first-generation students, or other at-risk populations eager to reap the benefits of higher education.

Right now, there are 30 states that have some form of statewide articulation in place for the traditional 2-year to 4-year transfer student. But, by themselves, these agreements are not enough to impact the attainment of a four-year degree. As a result, many students are effectively punished for beginning their studies at a community college or for taking breaks in their education journey. And many students do not follow the traditional vertical transfer path. Taming the transfer swirl has clear benefits for students and, thus, for society – but is not possible unless we address it at the system and institution level. It’s time to make it happen.

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