In 2021, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education reported that two out of three learners—we call them learners, not students, to dispel the image of the 18- to 22-year-old residential student—come to college with previous credit or prior learning. Today, equity and the competitive race to increase enrollments, coupled with the call for return on investment in higher education, have forced a conversation about learners and their transfer success. Effective transfer policies require collective action by both the sending and receiving institutions, including the fair treatment of all learners and all credits. There are too many broken links in the transfer chain. “Bought versus brought” credit, coined by the authors (Gentle-Genitty and Weber 2022), continues to fuel a war of sorts—a war where learners are the casualties and institutions fight among themselves, armed for battle and holding their ground.
For institutions, the war is over the relevance of money and value:
- MONEY: Do we make or lose money?
- VALUE: Do we enhance or devalue the program or degree if we accept all credit?
An Incentive Business Model
- Bought credits refer to credits learners purchase (tuition paid) at the institution at which they are enrolled.
- Brought credits refer to the credit learners bring into their receiving institution.
Calls for enhanced credit for prior learning practices and a push by policy makers to shore up the ROI for public higher education leaves some institutions tussling over whether to accept more credits. Cummings and colleagues (2021) report that institutions’ concerns coalesce around reduced income, impact on faculty load, straying from mission or becoming obsolete, to closures. Thus, they saddle up for battle emphasizing bought credit. The foundation of the institutional budget and business model is bought credit. Tuition is charged and faculty pay and workload are measured by bought credits. The relative or comparative success of many academic programs are in part measured by the full-time equivalent enrollments in their programs. Decreasing state support of higher education adds to the economic pressure at many public institutions who rely on external funding. Ultimately, it is more fiscally sound for the institution if learners buy or earn the credit directly. For outsiders, this translates into strict transfer policies and fewer resources dedicated to the transfer process, resulting in limited articulations, slow credit evaluations and scattered or absent prior-learning policies for learners other than the military. In sum, institutional transfer acceptance practices may cause an incentive business model where learners must buy credits (NECHE 2004). Receiving institutions place credit limits, accepting only a few credits beyond the associate degree (Moody 2019), with little regard for applicability to the learner’s next-level degree objective.
Brought credit is the most common currency in the transfer process. When packaged, it includes high school credit (Advanced Placement, exam, dual, concurrent and enrollment credit); two-year college credit (remedial education, general education, exploratory, prerequisites and major); four-year college credit (general education, campus required, major, minor and elective); international credit (varies based on degree and other credits); and other credits (prior learning, military, exam, test or portfolio credit). The previously discussed financial disincentives create a culture that favors bought credit at the expense of equity and learner centricity.
Do Institutions Really Embrace a Transfer-Receptive Culture?
Many institutions claim maintenance of rigor, curricular control or accreditation standards, but the true question at play is whether the institution embraces a transfer-receptive culture (Taylor and Jain 2017). Much institutional behavior shows a self-fulfilling process shaped by management practices (Fabrizio, et al. 2005) around what can or cannot be counted. Crisp (2021), in an ACE report for their transfer task force, reviewed transfer and articulation agreements and noted that, although they meet a need as one of the most actionable ways to impact transfer, many lacked the curriculum alignment necessary to make any inroads for learners and the ability to apply their earned credits. In fact, institutions push such decisions to advisers far removed from the actual credit evaluation.
The most common result is that learners’ plans to leverage gained credits to save time and money toward the purchase of a credential fall short. They become disheartened when they learn that their credits are treated like foreign currency, feeling hoodwinked when they learn there is no standard exchange rate to convert their credits. Such inconsistencies hamper precision in converting brought credit even when both the sending and receiving institutions are accredited by the same body and based in the same state. Without a clear avenue to the conversion of credits to the local currency, learners are prevented from knowing how much their credit is worth or how much of the credential they can purchase with those brought credits. Such inconsistencies perpetuate inequity.
A Hindrance to Learning Mobility
Institutions have historically been resistant to transfer credit, despite it being an essential component of student success. National organizations such as AACRAO, ACE, CHEA, the federal government, the Beyond Transfer Policy Advisory Board and more are asking for institutions to look inward, redefine transfer and engage in transfer reform and reset. Use the past to guide the future, fix barriers to fair outcomes and address the broken system with a village. Solutions have been self-maintained at the status quo. Common metrics have masked successes, calling for more articulations and technology, when in fact fewer than 14 percent of transfer students complete and graduate with a bachelor’s degree, as reported by the Aspen Institute (Jenkins and Fink 2016).
Across the globe, learners are becoming mobile, and they expect to be able to engage in preferred learning opportunities or credentials that best suit their personal and career goals. Institutions must evolve to keep up with changing learner needs and the opportunities for improvement abound. Leaders like those in the academic services and enrollment management community are positioned to disrupt the status quo of relying on self-serving, self-fulfilling decision models, which handcuff institutions’ ability to see credit as currency and to change institutional equivalency practices. Using outdated mechanisms to process, accept and apply credit will continue to constrain universities and colleges, resulting in the loss of large numbers of learners and negatively influencing the long-term financial health of the institution. Transfer should be a priority to our institutions for our equity obligations, societal responsibility and to our revenue bottom line, even more so as we navigate a pandemic, a demographic shift and changing consumer demands. Repurposing our resources and prioritizing the fixing of the transfer problem is a necessity. It requires consistency. It requires someone intricately tied to the value of education to manage the tug-o-war over bought and brought credits. “To design a transfer student experience supportive of persistence and completion, higher education institutions must work collectively to create clearer transfer pathways with aligned guidance and support” (Fink 2021, 48).
Carolyn Gentle-Genitty is an AACRAO Member, an ACE fellow, tenured professor, research scholar and transfer expert with 24 years in higher ed and serves as Indiana University’s assistant vice president for university academic policy. She is a former director of the universitywide transfer office. Leading reverse transfer, articulation agreements, guaranteed admissions, transfer pathways, eight-week strategic transfer initiatives, best practice assessments and data alignment, she stands as a leader in transfer at the state and university level in Indiana. Jeff Weber is an AACRAO member with more than 30 years of experience in higher education policy and research. He is known for his acumen on transfer policy, transfer articulation for degrees and the analysis finesse for application to students. He currently serves as the universitywide assistant director for university academic policy and programs and is a former assistant program director for the University Transfer Office at Indiana University.