“A Hare was making fun of the Tortoise one day for being so slow.
‘Do you ever get anywhere?’ he asked with a mocking laugh.
‘Yes,’ replied the Tortoise, ‘and I get there sooner than you think. I’ll run you a race and prove it.’”
As members of the Beyond Transfer Policy Advisory Board, we share a commitment to dismantling inequitable credit mobility and transfer policies and practices. We seek to center students and the recognition of their learning as they transfer across institutions and move through their living, working and learning experiences beyond high school.
Our work in recent years has focused on a number of policies and practices designed to recognize that in the year 2022, the majority of learners are mobile and would benefit from receiving credit from a variety of high-quality learning experiences. We have tackled topics that range from the lack of financial aid for students who transfer to the need to understand more about how credits are applied to student degree completion. While we will continue to elevate recommendations in a variety of areas, we are also turning our attention to how to engage accreditors.
Some have asked us, “Why?” Accreditation is complex, and to many a daunting and long-term, tortoise-like process. But we assert there is great power in engaging accreditors for (at least) the following reasons:
- Scale: Accreditation reaches institutions at scale. It is one of just a handful of processes or systems that is pervasive and crosses state, system and institutional borders.
- Culture and quality: Truly changing higher education’s approach to credit mobility and transfer will require deep culture change. There is no quick fix. Accreditation offers a platform for long-term change that hits at the heart of high-quality teaching and learning and how institutions operate.
- We are the them: While there are accrediting bodies with staff, the onus for accreditation lies with higher education practitioners. There is no them; accreditation is driven by us. Accreditation is, therefore, an effective way of engaging the experts—those who spend their days teaching and leading colleges and universities—in the process of advancing credit mobility and student success.
Experts focused on credit mobility and transfer often lament the lack of national and federal systems, policies and processes. There is no federal policy on transfer. No technology solutions used nationally. Even the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System reporting on student outcomes for students who transfer is universally lambasted as inadequate.
Accreditation may feel like an imperfect solution, but it is one of the only truly systemic levers available that is pervasive enough in nature to drive the type of change we seek. Accrediting bodies have tremendous oversight and influence. To access the billions of dollars appropriated for federal student aid (Title IV of the Higher Education Act), institutions must be accredited by an agency recognized by the Department of Education.
For the most part, changes in credit mobility and transfer thus far have been concentrated at the institution level or in regional partnerships. Accreditors, as a group, taking a harder-edged approach to asking questions, reviewing data and elevating criteria for credit mobility and transfer could serve as an embedded way to accelerate change designed to support students who would benefit from credit mobility across the nation.
Moreover, history shows that the market has reacted to changes in accreditation, creating solutions in areas such as learning outcomes assessment, student success data and accreditation management. It’s time for some new ideas in the credit mobility space, such as scaled technology solutions that automate credit evaluation. Scientists have sequenced the human genome, but it is still common practice for multiple people to weigh in on whether a single course will transfer. We think attention from accreditors can help generate some needed creative energy.
A note on language: Readers may notice that we are not using “transfer students.” This is an intentional decision on the part of the Beyond Transfer Policy Advisory Board. In the year 2022, the majority of students are mobile and would benefit from receiving credit from a variety of high-quality learning experiences, ranging from dual enrollment to work-based learning, military experience and digital badging. We celebrate the assets brought to postsecondary education by students who are mobile, while also recognizing a long history of bias and stigma used against “transfer students”—particularly those who start their educations at community colleges—and the ways that labeling students in this way can create the effect of othering them. Students will still transfer across institutions, but we need to support credit mobility writ large and build awareness that we are doing nearly all students a disservice by not recognizing the knowledge and skills they transfer from a host of settings, even if they don’t change institutions.
Culture and Quality
Accreditation is a signal that a college or university is an institution of excellence, one that is willing to examine itself and improve. If accreditors asserted that attention to credit mobility and transfer was an assumed marker of quality, institutions would respond, and over time the culture of higher education would reflect that assumption.
Our research and experience suggest that the accreditation process does not, at this time, explicitly elevate standards, ask critical questions or examine data related to questions such as:
- How long does credit evaluation take at your institution? Do students know which of their credits will apply to completion of a specified degree at the time of registration?
- How equitable are outcomes for students who transfer to your institution? In what ways have you disaggregated institutional data to understand differences in experiences and outcomes?
- How many credits are applied to degree completion, particularly for students coming from primary transfer partners?
- Do students who transfer receive equitable student supports and financial aid?
- What indicators is this institution using to determine if it needs to improve credit mobility?
Some of the hares are “much amused at the idea of running a race with the tortoise,” and feel that changing accreditation will take too long. We agree that engaging accreditors is not the only strategy to pursue and encourage our colleagues around the nation to simultaneously consider changes such as financial incentives for institutions, technology solutions and new ways of thinking about equitable affordability.
But we also point to some history—the way accreditors have shifted to embrace learning outcomes assessment, for example. There was a time when accreditation metrics focused on inputs—such as faculty credentials and the number of books in the library—as markers of quality. The idea of measuring learning outcomes was met with serious resistance—some might even say disdain. Accreditation’s embrace of learning outcomes assessment played a significant role in changing attitudes and culture; accreditation metrics now reflect an expectation that learning outcomes assessment will “yield data useful for and applied to institutional strengthening.” Our hope is that accreditation can similarly drive a culture change focused on credit mobility and transfer that matches the magnitude of shifting from inputs to learning outcomes, while always keeping quality front and center.
We Are the Them
Accreditation engages key institutional stakeholders—including faculty—in discussions of quality and decision making about whether institutions meet accreditation standards. Elevating discussions about credit mobility and equity in outcomes for students who transfer through accreditation is, by definition, a process that will engage the heart and soul of postsecondary institutions. It is a lever for stimulating change from within that is more likely to permeate the culture of an institution and result in long-term, sustainable change.
Throughout our careers as both faculty and administrators, as we have wrestled with credit mobility, we have often heard colleagues state, “Our accreditor won’t let us.” Some institutional actors fear doing the wrong thing because they fear it will impact the overall institution negatively, and as a result, they avoid taking steps that could improve student experiences and outcomes. From our experience, “our accreditor won’t let us” can also be a red herring to slow the pace of change.
Accreditors themselves push back on this statement, noting that they aim for quality in outcomes and do not dictate how an institution produces those outcomes. Stepping back, we can see that accreditors, in fact, share the student-oriented goals that drive institutions and educators. If we work with accreditors to put the student and the mobility of their high-quality learning at the center, we hope to break down some of these artificial barriers and create internally generated, long-term change.
Maria Hesse is professor of practice in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and former vice provost (retired) at Arizona State University. Shirleatha Lee is dean and professor, Mary Black Endowed Chair for Nursing, at the University of South Carolina Upstate. Both are members of the Beyond Transfer (formerly Tackling Transfer) Policy Advisory Board.