• Beyond Transfer

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Earning Credit From Multiple Sources Is the Norm in Higher Ed

Let’s act like it is.

December 1, 2022

Today’s postsecondary students earn college credit in different ways and from different sources. A winding path, through multiple institutions and modalities and with multiple starts and stops, is typical. Yet our higher education institutions and the policy and infrastructure that support them are generally structured as if students follow a straight line from the beginning to the end of their postsecondary journey. That mismatch is to students’ detriment, and a new approach is needed.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a full 45 percent of people who earned an associate degree and 67 percent of people who earned a bachelor’s degree did so by accumulating credits from at least two postsecondary institutions. Many more students have earned credits by exam, through military or job training, or through dual-enrollment programs. Moving between institutions and obtaining credits from multiple sources is the norm.

This isn’t to say that mobile students are well served. The Government Accountability Office estimates that, across all institutional types, transfer students lose about 43 percent of their credits in the process. And students who lose that much transfer credit are far less likely to earn a degree.

Our higher education institutions and policies aren’t built for this. Credit articulation policies are frequently less than generous, and the transfer process is often remarkably difficult to navigate, suffers from a lack of clear communication and is inconsistent from student to student or from institution to institution. The student and the receiving institution are generally left patching together previous learning, while the institution the student exited from has very little role in supporting the transition.

To be sure, there have been important efforts to address aspects of this mismatch between students’ lived experience and institutional policies. Many such efforts have focused on improving how institutions articulate one or more of the inputs—prior learning assessment, dual enrollment or military or corporate training—that don’t quite fit the standard template. But by considering these components separately, these efforts may overlook how they fit together in the student’s learning experience.

In a recent issue brief, we propose an alternative approach that shifts the perspective from particular inputs to student learning as the outcome.

The concept of holistic credit mobility encourages institutions and systems to center student learning in assessing progress toward a credential. It embraces the multisource, multimodal credit accumulation of mobile students and empowers those students to chart a path that counts all their learning toward a credential. Specifically, that means that the totality of student learning is assessed to apply toward a credential, whether that learning occurred in a dual-enrollment setting, through military experience, in the workforce, demonstrated through an exam or in a traditional classroom setting.

Technology, policy and practice interventions can all act as necessary supports for the adoption of the holistic credit mobility framework. The diagram illustrates how centering learning impacts each of these three areas.

centering learning impacts technology, policy, and practiceAs they are currently constructed, technological solutions developed to support mobile students generally exist to provide information about course equivalencies. To be most helpful, these solutions should be broadly accessible to students regardless of admissions status and contain reliable information. They should also be designed with students in mind, meaning that flexibility and clarity are key. Finally, solutions should be scaled across as many institutions as possible—but especially between institutions that already share significant flows of mobile students. Moving forward, technological innovation to better serve mobile students may push past providing information about likely course acceptance to advising on other types of learning students may count towards a credential, or providing information about what learning a student has left to complete their credential.

In addition to technology, policy has a role to play in driving the adoption of holistic credit mobility. To date, public policy has largely focused on clarifying linear pathways from high schools to community colleges to four-year institutions. These laudable efforts can be complemented by acknowledging a broader array of student mobility patterns, such as transfer between two-year or four-year institutions, recognition of learning done outside of the classroom, or the role employers can play in supporting student learning. To do so, state policy can begin or continue to support necessary inter-institutional collaboration.

Funding policy may also specifically attend to the financial disincentives that exist for institutions to maximize the learning applied toward student credentials. By and large, public postsecondary institutions are disproportionately reliant on tuition revenue to support their operations. This financial model exists at odds with the needs of mobile students, who may take fewer courses over more institutions rather than making one larger investment in one institution.

Finally, institutional practice reforms can better serve mobile students. Students that move between institutions may do so at various points in the academic term. Historically, supports focused on students who withdraw have been scant—however, assisting students as they navigate the withdrawal process and doing so in a way that centers future re-entry is an opportunity to better serve mobile students. Additionally, upon re-entry, all students stand to benefit from decreased student-to-adviser ratios and advising that assesses the totality of student learning—not just learning done in a traditional classroom context.

Enacting a holistic credit mobility framework within institutions and systems will come with challenges. However, aligning to a goal of student-centered service for mobile students can support greater degrees of success for students seeking valuable postsecondary credentials. Already, there are places where these types of reforms are being seeded, such as through Ithaka and CUNY’s Transfer Explorer, state policy reforms in Oregon and Maryland, innovations in cross-state transfer through WICHE Interstate Passport, and new opportunities for institutional course sharing.

Readers: What are you doing to center learning and serve mobile students holistically? Please share your examples or reach out to discuss your ideas.


Martin Kurzweil is vice president for educational transformation and Sarah Pingel is a senior researcher at Ithaka S+R. They are the co-authors, with Chau-Fang Lin, of “Holistic Credit Mobility: Centering Learning in Credential Completion.”

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