Developing interstate course sharing to boost graduation rates

Expanding course sharing between higher education institutions in different US states would help students pursue more flexible learning pathways and transfer credits to complete their studies and secure a degree, as Jay Field explains

Jay Field's avatar
28 Apr 2022
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Image depicting US interstate connections

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Student success data for 2022 is disheartening and familiar: less than half of college students graduate on time in the United States. Even after six years, less than 60 per cent of students at four-year colleges have earned a bachelor degree. Since the start of the pandemic, enrolment in colleges and universities has declined steeply. If these trends continue, we will face significant losses of student learning and potential in the US.

One reason for these trends in higher education is that students don’t always have access to the courses they need to graduate on time. Students working towards graduation often get knocked off track by the inability to earn or transfer credits. According to a 2020 Eduventures study, 18 per cent of students said ensuring course transfer is the toughest part of the process and that they often end up losing credits as well as limited resources of time and money.

A simple way to address these challenges is to develop and expand course sharing into an interstate delivery mode. Course sharing within a state, system or consortium is common practice. With new and innovative collaborations, institutions can partner with one another to offer course sharing across state borders that enable students to access the classes they need to graduate.

A common scenario may be that only one school in a state offers a specific programme (for example, agriculture). If that state wants to provide its agriculture students with more course or credential options than their single location provides, not only do these schools need to look beyond their institutional walls, they may also have to look beyond their state borders. Similarly, states without such a programme may be looking outside their own state for their students who are interested in pursuing that course of study.

On the international stage, sharing across boundaries is more common. Many institutions have already implemented course and programme sharing across borders. More than 450 universities around the world established partnerships in 2021 alone to accelerate progress towards their institutional objectives. But American colleges and universities have traditionally been slow to embrace these interstate institutional partnerships.

How to help students earn the credits they need

Institutions have implemented a wide range of policies to help students graduate on time, and collaboration is lauded by higher education leaders as a way to advance institutional and student success.

Now they need to capitalise on the widely used technology to link educational offerings and remove geographical constraints. Interstate course sharing can give students access to programmes that may not be available in their home state, such as those based on specific regional strengths. For example, few institutions could hope to match the expertise that Napa Valley College or Sonoma State University bring to their viticulture- and winery-related courses.

Course-sharing technology enables institutions to expand their reach to remote or place-bound students, widen options for underserved or disabled students, and solve complex transfer requirements. Most importantly, it enables students to earn and transfer cross-institutional credits with confidence, allowing them to graduate on time. Expanding this solution to interstate collaborations greatly increases the options for students and improves their ability to graduate in a timely manner.

Transfer articulation agreements

Transfer articulation agreements are crucial to any interstate course- and programme-sharing efforts. These agreements allow course credits from one school to be transferred towards a degree at another school, and can include general education and specific programme requirements as well as established transfer paths. The accreditation status of the teaching institution and acceptance of transfer credit at the home institution have to be taken into account, and this can be challenging when different accreditors are involved.

Yet these are not new practices, and agreements are already in place to enable schools to accept transfer credits from out-of-state institutions. Students who attend university in one state but go home for the summer might take courses at a local institution and want to transfer these credits back to their “main” institution.

Institution-to-institution or system-to-system agreements can help to resolve any transfer difficulties. States can join the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA) to participate in interstate online course sharing. This voluntary membership provides a reciprocal approach to state oversight of post-secondary distance education. When institutions participate in SARA, they agree to a set of compliance requirements that the members have approved.

Harnessing new course-sharing solutions

Successful course sharing needs to be transparent in showing students exactly how their credits will or will not transfer. There are course-sharing partners that can facilitate this, or institutions can join networks that allow them to find like-minded partners that might want to collaborate.

A course-sharing network can provide access to experts with experience in this area and help institutions navigate hurdles, including getting the right agreements in place. Course-sharing networks can also handle the integration of multiple student information systems and the automation of financial aid workflows.

We need to recommit to the definition of institutional success as student success. Innovative networks now exist to permit institutions to establish effective, efficient interstate programme sharing. We can harness that technology to provide the pathways for students to achieve their goals and graduate on time.

Jay Field is senior vice-president for institutional partnerships at Quottly.

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