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Across the higher education sector, there is increasing focus on improving the experience and the success of transfer students. We must do better by building equitable pathways into higher education, between two- and four-year institutions, into meaningful credentials and into high-value employment fields. The building of these pathways is crucial to ensure that learners, regardless of background, can find the path that fits their aspirations and talents.

But it’s not just about pathways.

As institutions set about building macro pathways, broken credit transfer policies within the pathway can be addressed. This will help many students. But if a learner drifts or comes in from outside the pathway, that credit is likely to be evaluated under a completely different set of policies. In other words, the transfer process works so long as you stay on the path. Fall off and you might be surprised by your result. With nearly 40 percent of learners in higher education holding some sort of transfer credit, there are many who walk outside the prescribed pathways.

The 2021 National Task Force on the Transfer and Award of Credit report provided six recommendations for both sending and receiving institutions, each meant to reduce time to degree, limit student financial burdens and, ultimately, minimize long-standing equity gaps. Of those six, four are embedded into the administrative structures and academic culture of individual higher education institutions.

  • Normalize and prioritize transfer students, acknowledge the various types of transfer credit they may acquire and make it part of the institution’s culture;
  • Increase transparency of transfer credit policies and processes;
  • Review and update policies to remove unnecessary barriers to transfer and diminish credit loss; and
  • Utilize technology to ensure the accurate and unbiased review and application of transfer credit.

On the surface, these recommendations may seem rather obvious; if we are focusing on transfer student success and increasing equitable pathways to meaningful credentials, of course we should do these things. But if one looks below the surface, you will see there are numerous places where policy and practice don't align with the end goals. Like many good and well-intentioned ideas, the above recommendations are easier said than done. Anyone who has worked in student enrollment or academic services will understand that transfer policy is generally complicated and not transparent even to the institution staff, let alone the learner.

The convergence of academic and administrative policies and practices becomes a complex matrix of who, what, when, where and why.

The fact is that transfer happens across departments -- the admissions office, the records office, the transfer office (if it exists), the advising office and multiple academic departments. Additionally, no two institutions structure the transfer process exactly the same, and despite discussing their scenario with a number of competent professionals prior to enrolling in most cases, students will not know the final outcome of their transfer evaluation until four to six weeks after they have already begun.

Why? Because the skilled transfer evaluator must effectively bridge the chasm between administrative and academic policy, one unique student case at a time. When faced with any transfer scenario, they have to ask a variety of questions -- who initially awarded the credit? For institution-based credit, is the quality assurance or accreditation regional, national or specialized? When was the credit awarded? At what point in the learner’s educational journey was it awarded? Was it a dual-enrollment program (and does the institution accept dual enrollment)? Is it a part of a completed degree? What else was the learner doing at the time? Is it upper-division credit or lower-division? Is it remedial in nature? Vocational? Is it in a discipline that is offered at the institution? Is the credit a part of a larger institutional articulation agreement or pathway?

Each of these questions has an impact on the evaluation. Courses that appear similar on a transcript might have different answers -- creating a very different credit transfer scenario for the student.

For each course, the evaluator must also determine if they are able to award a direct course equivalency. This is the gold standard and enables the most efficient time to degree for the student. A new set of questions must be answered: Is this aligned with an articulation agreement? If not, what institutional precedents exist? Has the institution awarded credit for these courses previously? What discipline is it in? Is it upper- or lower-division? Does the office have the power to make equivalencies for both upper- and lower-division coursework in that school or college at the university? How about the department -- does the chair of that department allow equivalencies to be made by staff, or do they require approval? Will they require course descriptions and syllabi to make that decision?

The balance between equivalency decisions made administratively and academically varies widely by institution and even by academic department within a single institution.

Decisions that must be routed through the department necessarily add more time to the process. Furthermore, the above question sets apply to credits that come from accredited institutions -- but transfer credit comes in a variety of forms from a variety of sources. In addition to credit awarded at community colleges and four-year institutions, there are also extra-institutional flavors: credit by examination, advanced standing or prior learning credit documented by a variety of methods (AP, ACE, CLEP, DANTES, Edexcel, GAC, IB, to name a few), military credits, career and technical credit -- the list is growing every day. And we won’t discuss the rising tide of employment-based credentials and alternative digital credentials offered by both corporations and universities, which we are as a sector only now beginning to address.

You can’t build an equitable pathway with manual, inconsistent policies.

Properly applied technical solutions can improve the speed, accuracy, consistency and transparency of the credit equivalency process. Solutions such as Electronic Data Exchange, which have existed for decades, have not been widely adopted. There are a variety of emergent technical innovations available through in-house programming or third-party solutions that can allow learners to receive credit evaluations prior to enrollment and integrate with administrative systems that drive advising and degree audit. Newer models, like the comprehensive learner record, could provide a key into learning outcomes that might further provide machine-readable data to speed transfer. Many of these emergent technologies and usage cases will be explored at the AACRAO Virtual Transfer Summit this fall.

Ultimately, equitable transfer must be addressed by an examination of inconsistent and manually applied institutional policies to move toward a more consistent and fair process. Thoughtfully applied technology can increase transparency to complex internal academic and administrative policy, to the benefit of continuing students as well as the incoming transfer populations. A transparent understanding of the value and applicability of learning earned externally could provide a means to more efficient time to degree for all students.

Melanie Gottlieb is interim executive director for AACRAO, a professional development association dedicated to re-envisioning institutional transfer practices to better serve students.

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