The nation’s K-12 and higher education accrediting bodies play a significant role in ensuring that transfer is efficient, fair, and equitable; supports students success; and maintains the integrity of institutional processes and the academic enterprise. Historically, in the early 20th century, the ability to transfer courses was a hallmark of accreditation for high schools.
Around the turn of the 21st century, regional accrediting associations agreed that a student who earned credits from an approved institution and transferred to another, generally, would be granted credit acceptance. In the past, the credits came from the same kinds of schools that taught a curriculum comprised of much the same narrow array of courses. In colleges, regional associations were influential in establishing the credit-hour system of accounting that the nation’s colleges and universities use to set a shared floor for quality of academic programs and make transfer possible. This document is a statement on ways to improve transfer in K-20 education.
Key Issues and Strategies for Improvement
The explosion of online providers across K-20 education and the ability of college students to transfer for reasons of cost, program choice, and convenience means that every year, more students at all levels of schooling and postsecondary education are seeking to transfer.
K-12 students can increasingly learn anywhere at any time and patch together courses from multiple places to earn credits toward graduation. Students seeking to make up ground or accelerate their learning through outside supplemental education (tutoring) organizations also can earn additional credits through transfer.
In college, it is routine for students to attend more than one institution. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, “Almost two in five of the students who began their post-secondary career in fall 2011 enrolled in more than one institution within six years before earning a bachelor’s degree.” Students regularly transfer from community colleges to senior institutions. Students transfer from one senior institution to another and, ever more frequently, “reverse transfer” back to community college to earn credits for their degrees. Adult learners and military personnel typically enroll in several institutions.
Students are trying to navigate the best educational experience for themselves and are facing a bigger array of options.
But today, students in K-12 and higher education are likely to find that many credits will not be accepted for transfer. Too often, students must repeat courses or take additional courses to earn a certificate or meet graduation requirements at a given institution, which adds significantly to the cost of their learning.
In 2017, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that postsecondary students who transferred across public institutions of higher education lost an average of 37 percent of their credits.[i] A study conducted by the Community College Research Center (2017) determined that credit loss was the strongest predictor of failure to complete a degree. Additionally, a study done in 2018 by the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) found that 38 percent of students transfer to a second institution at least once in their educational career; 27.2 percent cross state lines to do so.[ii] This issue is no longer just an academic issue but is also an economic issue because it (1) delays one’s entrance into the job market, and (2) increases the cost of obtaining a college certificate or degree.
In our public schools, transfer and loss of credit is less frequent than in postsecondary education. That is because 75 percent of courses in major subject areas are similar across states, though the sequence of courses may vary, and end-of-course testing may be required to graduate. Students typically experience problems transferring from nonaccredited schools to accredited schools or if courses from the previous do not meet certain requirements of the new school, because it does not cover specific topics, meet for the required number of hours, or include certain exams. Sometimes there are problems when students transfer from larger districts to smaller schools where courses are not offered or may not be equivalent, and students are often given partial credit for different types of courses, such as electives.
College-level courses completed at regionally accredited institutions generally will transfer…
Why College Courses Do Not Transfer
College-level courses completed at regionally accredited institutions generally will transfer, provided that the student gets a grade of at least a C and the course is similar in content and scope. Some students however, transfer from unaccredited institutions, take courses in one institution that do not align with the next, or attend a specialized school that may have significantly different types of instruction or assessment requirements. The discretion for accepting or rejecting credits lies with the institutions accepting the transfer student. Institutions also limit the total number of credits they will accept from other institutions for graduation. Generally, 60 credits from a community or two-year college or 60-90 credits from a combination of two and four-year institutions may be applied toward a degree. Students are required to complete at least the final 30-60 credits in residence (at their new institution) to earn a degree.
K-12 schools have residency requirements and defined boundaries for residents to attend particular schools. Many districts also have choice programs that rely on a specified mechanism such as a lottery to determine who will be accepted. Most open-enrollment schools in the United States accept transfer credits from other U.S. accredited schools and from schools all over the world. They will accept transfer credits from other Department of Education recognized, accredited schools, public schools, charter schools, qualified homeschools, and from accredited international schools that are recognized by a foreign Ministry of Education. Students are often awarded partial credit for different types of courses (electives, vocational, etc.). As with colleges, typically students are required to pass the course or receive a stipulated grade or above. Also, high schools will accept only a certain percent of transfer credits (sometimes around 75 percent) for high school graduation. This means that regardless of how many credits a student has earned from a previous school, students must complete several credits at the school before a diploma will be issued.
One useful source of consumer information, How to Transfer High Schools: A Complete Guide, notes that if this happens, a student’s new school will not award credit for that class, it will not show up on the new transcript, and it will appear (to the new school) as if the student never took that class. This poses the danger of delaying graduation or possibly having to take extra classes to make up for the credits that do not transfer. Typically, however, students often have taken extra courses so that they do not need to return for summer school. The best way to deal with the problem is to work directly with the academic advisor right after registration. Schools have some flexibility over which classes they accept.
Improvements in Transfer Policy
For decades, postsecondary education has sought to improve transfer by creating a common course number system, particularly at public institutions in the same state. Institutions also have developed articulation agreements with other institutions. The Interstate passport program—a national effort based at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education—has evolved to help institutions make transfer more efficient for students. The program enables a block of lower-division general education courses to transfer to institutions that belong to the Passport regardless of the course titles and course numbers. This is highly desirable, but the program, which was established in 2015 is still only at a nascent stage of growth. Currently, only 59 public and private accredited institutions take advantage of the opportunity.
At first glance, the notion requiring institutions to accept all transfer credits would save money, speed up time to graduation, and help institutions live up to their obligation to help students graduate efficiently. It also would reduce or eliminate many complaints among students, parents, and employers, while earning higher education greater public support for operating more efficiently and with the concern of students in mind.
But requiring all institutions to accept all credits has not proven workable for institutions, because it would take away authority from institutions to determine whether transferred courses are comparable to their own. It would cause difficulties for institutions with missions that require a specialized curriculum or student experience, making it difficult for them to accept all transfer work. It also would cause significant compliance challenges for institutions that are not part of common course numbering systems or cooperative agreements with community colleges.
In effect, institutions would lose the ability to enforce special curricular approaches (e.g., writing and/or research emphasis in courses) and deprive the student of the experience that most other students at the institutions will have had. In other cases, an institution may not offer the courses or fields and the prestige—and financial wherewithal of an institution would be minimized if all –or the vast majority—of the credits did not come from that one institution.
Further, not all institutions have specialized accreditation of programs that are required in some states and institutions are not staffed to be in the business of reviewing transcripts in a timely manner.
Improvements in Transfer
Recognizing that universal agreement on accepting all transfer credits is a nonstarter, accreditors suggest several improvements that can be made voluntarily by institutions. These include:
- Encouraging all states to adopt and enforce common course numbering systems or crosswalks to guide the transfer
- Encouraging all senior institutions to have articulation agreements in place with as many institutions as possible
- Encouraging all institutions to participate in projects such as the Interstate Passport for seamless general education transfer
- Encouraging all institutions to identify specific competencies for every course, therefore, making it easier to compare courses for transfer.
K-12 accreditors say that schools and colleges can increase the transparency of the system of credit transfer so that students can know the rules and that they are fairly, equally, and equitably applied. For example, typically in dual enrollment programs acceptance of courses is built into the system. Students know exactly what credits they will earn and whether they will be accepted before they take the course.
Keeping pace with COVID and the future
Students are trying to navigate the best educational experience for themselves and are facing a bigger array of options. During the COVID-19 pandemic, more students were at home who could look at all options and chose to take courses from other institutions, some of whom are thriving and staying at those institutions. And many students who did not take advantage of options or return to school now want to get back on schedule. They have lost a year or two of learning but may not be able to find the courses that they need for graduation without taking online classes offered elsewhere.
In the future, students will have even more possibilities to mix and match courses to earn enough credits for high school and postsecondary degrees. They will take courses and derive learning content not just with schools but from a combination of educational institutions, museums and cultural agencies, as well as corporations that certify skills.
We will shift from an institutionally centric system that we have now where the institution controls who gets how much credit, to a system where each student will control his or her own transcript. The changes that we suggest in this document will further encourage easier transfer without significant loss of credit.
As we move toward a system where students can learn on their own and stack credentials and courses to degrees, it is likely that more states will act to ensure that institutions within the state will accept transfer credits. Some states have introduced legislation that require institutions to accept transfer credits and Ohio guarantees that students can transfer credits in a streamlined manner among the state’s public institutions of higher education to find the best pathways to degree completion and launch successful careers. In some states, such as Pennsylvania, however, the improvements have ended up still in course-by-course, not degree, articulation.
In the future, accreditors will remain third-party validators that ensure that the institution is a quality provider with learners free to choose from multiple providers to control the development of key courses and competencies for their own transcript.
[i] Higher Education: Students Need More Information to Help Reduce Challenges in Transferring College Credits
GAO-17-574, Published: Aug 14, 2017. Publicly Released: Sep 13, 2017. https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-17-574, Accessed April 14, 2022.
[ii] Shapiro, D., Dundar, A., Huie, F., Wakhungu, P.K., Bhimdiwali, A., Nathan, A., & Youngsik, H. (2018, July). Transfer and Mobility: A National View of Student Movement in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2011 Cohort (Signature Report No. 15). Herndon, VA: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. https://nscresearchcenter.org/signaturereport15/ Accessed April 14, 2022.
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