US bids to rejuvenate credit transfer as cost-saving tactic

States pursuing new models to overcome old institutional objections

November 9, 2020
 Crowds on escalator at the convention center in San Diego, California.
Source: Getty

State higher education officials in the US are making a new effort to ease the transfer of credits between institutions, seeing the Covid crisis as moment for critical reform.

With education costs rising ever upward, students have long understood the benefit of beginning their undergraduate careers at lower-cost community colleges before finishing their degrees at four-year campuses.

But institutions often have been reluctant to cooperate outside of limited situations – both to protect their incomes and to ensure academic integrity – even though course content in the early years is often similar in many places.

Higher education leaders across the country are now making clear that they regard that as an unacceptable waste of resources, and they see the coronavirus pandemic and rising concerns over racial inequities as providing important new impetuses to fix it.

“This is an area where we can dramatically increase service to our students,” the president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO), Rob Anderson, told his members.

SHEEO, representing the heads of statewide higher education agencies, hopes to make progress by choosing four states where it will develop models for institutions to recognise credits earned elsewhere.

The initiative, funded by the ECMC Foundation, will focus on states that feature varying types of governance structures and locations with high percentages of ethnic minority students, Dr Anderson said.

While institutions have legitimate concerns about ensuring the quality of their degrees, students trying to transfer credits regularly experience problems that appear to reflect factors other than academic merit.

A survey this year of administrators handling transfers at two- and four-year institutions, conducted by Inside Higher Ed, found that three-quarters agreed that their incoming transfer students performed as well as or better than their existing students.

Yet institutional data show that while four-fifths of community college students plan to transfer to a four-year institution, not even a third successfully accomplish that.

Most, if not all, states have some type of stated policy that allows credit transfers. But in practice, students too often fail to get the necessary authorisation, said David Baime, the vice-president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.

“They’re just extremely difficult to work in the way that they’re designed, or in the way that they should be able to work,” Mr Baime said. “It’s hard to generalise, but we certainly hear of widespread instances in which credits that appear to meet the standards that are required for acceptance at a four-year institution aren’t accepted.”

The problem appears especially dire during the coronavirus pandemic. Colleges at all levels appear to be losing students who do not want to cope with the challenges of in-person or online instruction. Enrolment losses, however, are especially deep at two-year institutions, as students move up the academic hierarchy to fill available slots.

While average enrolment at four-year institutions has declined this semester by about 2 per cent, it has fallen by more than 9 per cent at community colleges, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The number of incoming freshers at the two-year campuses plummeted by almost 23 per cent, while the number of two-year students moving to four-year institutions increased almost 3 per cent, driven entirely by non-black students, the clearinghouse reported.

There is little information detailing the potential savings from a more efficient system of credit transfer, although one estimate by congressional auditors affirmed that it could be massive. The 2017 study by the US Government Accountability Office estimated that transferring students lose an average of 43 per cent of their earned credits.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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