Transfer students are losing time and money

Are you thinking of transferring colleges? Depending on the school, you might be better off flushing the cash for your first year's tuition down the toilet and starting from scratch at the new school.

A new report released this month by the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics found that 39 percent of students who transferred colleges at least once lost all of their earned credits in the process. Those students who were unable to transfer a single credit ended up losing, on average, 27 credits. That's more than an entire academic year's worth of work at most schools. Meanwhile, another 28 percent of students lost some credits along the way during the transfer process. For them, about 13 of their credits — or an entire semester's worth of work — didn't transfer.

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Research suggests that students who lose credits when they transfer are less likely to earn a degree. One study, for example, found that community college students who could transfer almost all — at least 90 percent — of their credits to a four-year institution were two-and-a-half times more likely to graduate than students who could transfer fewer than half of their community-college credits.

That's no minor problem: Nearly one in three students transfers colleges at least once within six years of enrolling in school for the first time. A significant proportion of students — 37 percent — take what we think of as the traditional transfer two-year school to four-year school route. But 43 percent also move laterally, from one two-year to another two-year school or from a four-year institution to another four-year school. And more than 16 percent of transfer students were "reverse transfers" — students who moved from a four-year college to a two-year college.

For state and federal policymakers, those lost transfer credits translate into lower college attainment rates — and wasted taxpayer dollars, if those students who lose credits during a transfer paid for the credits with Pell or other state grants, student loans, or other federal and state aid.

The solution thus far has been for colleges and universities to arrange "articulation agreements" between and among themselves, particularly from two-year to four-year colleges. But too often, those agreements are hard to understand and difficult to navigate, with lots of paperwork to complete and a jumble of coursework to match up; or students transfer between schools that don't have agreements set up. Moreover, according to the Department of Education report, nearly all of the credits that students were able to transfer occurred only between regionally accredited schools. Students who attended nationally accredited (mostly for-profit) colleges found their credits worthless once they transferred to a regionally accredited school.

So what's a policymaker to do?

There aren't many options on the table from a federal policy perspective. A competitive grant program like the president's proposed Race to the Top: College Affordability and Completion could encourage some states to design more and simpler-to-use articulation agreements among its public colleges. For example, the feds could provide incentives for public colleges to create common course numbering, like Florida has put in place, to make credit transfers easier; or for states to establish laws that require general education classes be transferable across schools.

But any real, overarching changes will probably come from reforms to the accreditation system. Implementing new federal requirements — enforced by accreditors and backed up by the expensive risk of losing access to federal financial aid — that schools establish more articulation agreements with each other and that states make those agreements transparent and easy to maneuver could help more students stay in school until they graduate.

McCann is a policy analyst with the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation. Follow her @claremccann.