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Transfer has been given considerable focus over the past year as the pandemic exacerbated systemic inequities and caused many learners to retreat from higher education. We hope to recapture those students in a post-pandemic environment as we refocus on building better pathways and strengthening our transfer advising.

But here’s the problem. When we talk about transfer, we are generally talking about the narrow example of students transferring from one higher education institution to another -- either upward from a two-year or laterally between four-year institutions. But based on data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, we know that nearly 40 percent of learners enrolled in higher education have credit from at least one another institution; half of those learners have credit from more than one. Based on 2019 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, there were just over 19 million postsecondary students in the U.S.; yet the number of degree-seeking undergraduate students who were enrolled in postsecondary institutions as transfer-in students was just under 1.4 million. While different data sources understandably don’t match, this tells us that transfer credit is embedded much more deeply in an institution’s student body than simply in the population designated as “transfer.”

We won’t be able to solve for transfer until we solve for overall credit mobility.

If we are going to address the issues surrounding transfer equitably, we need to recognize that the issue isn’t about transfer, which has a particular meaning in the higher education lexicon in the United States. We have to broaden the conversation and deal with our institutional policies, biases and assumptions surrounding the more broad concepts of credit mobility. Under the larger concept of credit mobility, we can look at the underlying systems that inform transfer, and perhaps solve for more than the defined pathways between common sending and receiving institutions and consider the larger issues surrounding the recognition of learning the way it is evolving in the current environment.

The good news is that we already have a good starting point to this work -- we simply need to remove our narrow understanding of the concepts and consider them more systemically.

  • Remove policy barriers that limit recognition. The U.S. Department of Education makes no distinction between national or regional accreditors when it comes to the award of federal student aid; institutions should also consider the issues of inequity when denying credit for work previously completed in an accredited institution. If the transfer work aligns with the institution’s degree program and the content of the course compares favorably with the materials and topics covered in the receiving institution’s curriculum, there should be no barriers to recognizing that work.
  • Re-evaluate credit caps. An additional common policy barrier concerns the amount of credit that can be transferred. Most institutions, some states and some accreditors have policies concerning the number and type of credits that can be accepted in transfer from another institution. While it is generally agreed that an institution should retain control over the curriculum by which their learners earn a degree, ultimately the learning outcomes of a degree are more important than the individual courses. Limits on credit earned should be fairly weighed against the best interest of progressing the learner toward a meaningful credential. Denial of credit from an institution that is recognized by CHEA or the Department of Education should have a clearly documented rationale for doing so.
  • Make learning outcomes more transparent. Institutions have been developing and documenting the learning outcomes of their courses and programs for decades in order to meet internal assessment and accreditation requirements. Often when a learner is attempting to transfer a course, they are asked to provide a syllabus, learning objectives and work completed in order to make the course applicable to their degree program. If course descriptions were to include clear indicators of learning outcomes aligned to a standard, it would be easier for evaluators and faculty to make that determination without requiring a learner to gather further documentation.
  • Recognize learning that has already occurred. A learner should not be required to retake subject matter that they can document that they already know. Higher education is costly, both in dollars and in time. There are a multitude of institutionally driven best practices, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning’s Credit for Prior Learning programs or quality third-party learning assessments like the College Board’s College-Level Examination Program, the American Council on Education’s military credit recommendations, and more. When we consider the accelerated rise in informal and digital learning opportunities from extra-institutional sources, the number of learning experiences institutions will be asked to evaluate for credit will also rise. As these experiences become more in line with standards of documentation and quality-assurance processes, their inclusion in learner portfolios can be considered a tool for access and degree completion.
  • It’s a global conversation. The U.S. isn’t alone in tackling this problem. Credit mobility conversations focused on access and equity to postsecondary education are happening around the globe. In November 2019, the Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications Concerning Higher Education was adopted by UNESCO’s General Conference. The GCR lays out a set of universal principles and creates a framework for fair, transparent and nondiscriminatory recognition of higher education qualifications to enable interregional academic mobility.

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