Doing Transfer Right

ACE task force releases recommendations.

March 29, 2021
(Anastasiia Konko/Getty Images)

For all the time colleges spend on admissions, the reality is that lots of students do not stay where they first enroll.

"A 2018 snapshot found that one-third of the 2.8 million students entering college for the first time in fall 2011 earned credits from two or more institutions within six years" is a reminder of this fact. It comes in a letter from the members of the American Council on Education National Task Force on the Transfer and Award of Credit, which issued its report on Monday.

The report largely features recommendations that have been made before -- repeatedly -- by advocates for transfer students. Those who transfer generally do well academically at the institutions that let them in. But they struggle to get credit for their prior work -- at community colleges or four-year institutions. This turns the 2+2=4 equation that transfer students want into a 2+3 (or more). The result is that the more affordable higher education is lost to students, some of whom drop out.

The problems caused by transfer may be getting worse now, particularly for minority and low-income students, the report says.

"The need for higher education leaders to reform transfer policies took on a new urgency in 2020," the report says. "No one could have anticipated that the worst pandemic in a century would place unprecedented stresses on students and their families and the institutions that serve them -- and raise awareness of this particular issue. The global health crisis and the resulting economic fallout have widened equity gaps and threaten two decades’ worth of gains in access to higher education for first-generation, low-income students, and students of color. In addition, changes in enrollment patterns exacerbated by the pandemic may result in more students moving between multiple higher education institutions, as well as between higher education and the workforce. While improving transfer and award of credit practices is insufficient on its own to address the unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is a necessary and critical component to supporting student success going forward."

And the numbers are huge. "Of the 2.9 million undergraduate students who enrolled in fall 2019, the task force projects that roughly 1.1 million of them will transfer to another institution at some point over the next six years," the report says.

The panel recommended that colleges:

  • "Prioritize the award of transfer credit and credit for prior learning, and its application to degree requirements, as an essential component of student success. Embed this priority throughout the culture of your institution.
  • "Adjust your institution’s end-to-end policies and practices to improve the ability of students to receive credit for learning already acquired, including removing unnecessary obstacles that prevent students from accessing their transcripts to continue their education at another institution.
  • "Leverage innovative technologies to facilitate the review of credit, to provide greater consistency across credit award determinations, and to increase the efficiency and timeliness of the process.
  • "Improve transparency by making clear upfront what credits will be awarded and how they will be applied to a student’s degree pathway.
  • "Dedicate the resources necessary to ensure quality advising that provides students with early, knowledgeable, and personalized information and guidance at key points throughout the course of their learning pathway. Implement a cross-institutional advising approach with key transfer partners to the maximum extent possible.
  • "Partner with your most frequent sending or receiving transfer institutions to implement articulation agreements and structured pathways to increase the transfer and award of credit toward degree requirements."

Education Secretary Miguel A. Cardona called the question of transfer of credit a "critically important issue" during a talk at the ACE meeting Monday. He said that in Connecticut, where he formerly was commissioner of education, he saw students who "struggled four to five years out of high school" with transfer credits. "We need to look at it from the perspective of the consumer," who is the student, he said.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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