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Higher education leaders need to understand the barriers and enablers of the transfer student experience. Over a million transfer students enrolled for fall 2018 at degree-granting institutions, and 31.5 percent of community college students transfer to four-year institutions within six years. These numbers alone support why transfer students are, and will remain, part of our student population and deserve our best level of service. Service can only improve when we understand the student experiences in navigating not only the transfer-related institutional procedures and policies, but also the transfer culture of the institution.

A recent report from the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, commissioned by the American Council on Education, revealed that 43 percent of students did not know why their credits did not transfer. This response from students is not surprising given what we know about the institutional permutations and intricacies of transcript evaluation policy and practice. However, institutions are not overtly trying to be opaque about why credits did not transfer. On the contrary, Title IV-eligible institutions are required to make available to students the conditions under which credit is evaluated for transfer, and most criteria are posted on institutions’ websites. The disconnect is that we often expect transfer students to seek out, read and understand these policies, and we assume they know why their credits did not transfer. The data on the read/open rate of college-issued email should tell us otherwise. Few students will take the time to read these policies, and even fewer will take the time to ask questions about why their credits did not transfer.

Best practice in this situation would be for all institutions to send a comprehensive report to the student explaining why credits were not accepted in transfer. However, in a recent AACRAO report about institutional policy and practice for transfer credit evaluation, we found that 63 percent of institutions provide transfer students with an explanation of how their credits apply to their selected program of study, but just 51 percent tell students why credits do not transfer.

There is clearly a gap in practice we should address. All students need to be made aware of both and in a way (or multiple ways) that is easy for them to understand. We also need to make it easy for students to seek institutional guidance if there is a lack of clarity.

Advising and degree pathway models should be adapted

Academic advising -- both from the sending institution and receiving institution -- is an area students identified as needing significant improvement. The aforementioned AACRAO report with ACE examines transfer credit evaluation and advising practice research based on transcript data, transfer credit evaluation policy and advising policy. One of the data points from the statistical analyses showed a strong relationship between the type of advising a transfer student receives and the percentage of earned credits awarded in transfer. In addition, the transfer policy research mentioned above included a question about when a transfer student met with an academic adviser. Surprisingly, initial data indicates that 13 percent of institutions never require a transfer student to meet with an academic adviser, 5 percent require students meet with an adviser only before registering for their second term and another 4 percent require a meeting sometime during their first semester of enrollment.

In total, nearly a quarter of all transfer students are not required to meet with an academic adviser before they register for classes for the first term at their new institution.

Most, if not all, pathway models support requiring students to meet with an academic adviser on a regular basis. This should absolutely be the case if the student intends to transfer to another institution. Anecdotal and qualitative data tell us that consistent, well-informed academic advising plays a strong role in the courses students take. One published AACRAO case study used a qualitative approach to understand more about barriers and enablers for transfer students. A key finding is that “transfer students are often ignored or are given individualized attention only after ‘things settle down’ in the semester.” This supports the data we collected on transfer student advising practice and reflects some students’ perceptions of the transfer experience. Quite possibly, there is a significant link between effective academic advising engagements and the percentage of credits that transfer that has yet to be quantified.

What institutional leaders need to effectively serve transfer students

Although some of the data points highlight areas in need of improvement in the transfer of credit experiences and processes, we should not lose sight of the fact that more than half reported that all their credits transferred. In addition, among the students who were not able to transfer all their credits, most were not displeased with the fact and understood the reasons it happened. Reasons included: changing major, major exploration, personal enrichment, grade earned in a course and dual-enrollment courses completed in high school. We should not discount the value to the student of exploratory courses for those who are undecided in their major as well as courses taken solely for personal enrichment. The dual-enrollment credit-loss issue could be at least partially addressed by eliminating any policies that do not allow for college credit earned while in high school to be awarded in transfer.

Although not specifically tied to this research, institutions often have a lack of access to data to help understand the transfer student experience. There is a lack of data on the impact of policy and practice on how credit is accepted and applied to a student’s degree program. Few institutions, therefore, can make a quantitative assessment of these aspects of the transfer student experience and examine the data for issues of inequity in practice by student characteristics. This leaves institutions in the position of making policy and revisions based almost entirely on anecdotal information. The same type of policy changes and decisions around admissions requirements and enrollment indicators would not be made with a similar lack of quantitative data. This summer AACRAO will examine practices like these and others at its Transfer Practice Summit.

In summary, institutional leaders should conduct a review of all the transfer credit evaluation policies and practices for unnecessarily complicated and restrictive practices. Where they are found, a concerted effort should be made to simplify and create an environment aimed at giving credit where credit is due. Students should not be put in the position to retake credits for which they have already earned a passing grade in a course at another institution because of idiosyncratic institutionally based transfer credit evaluation practice or policy.

Wendy Kilgore is the director of research for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. With more than 20 years of experience as a higher education administrator, researcher and consultant in the U.S. and Canada, Kilgore currently heads the AACRAO Transfer Credit Work Group with the goal of identifying a list of transfer-related policies and practices that indicate an institution is effectively focused on transfer student success.

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