Demanding Credit

GAO backs Republican plans that would make it easier -- too easy, some fear -- to transfer credits among institutions.
October 19, 2005

As Congress has reviewed the Higher Education Act, many Republican lawmakers have told horror stories about how colleges fail to grant credit to transfer students for work they did at other institutions. As the lawmakers tell it, it's a matter of snobbery, not standards. No college can believe that any other institution is good enough, so credits are denied, and students must retake courses. Graduation is delayed. More student aid is needed. Everyone loses.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report backing those claims -- sort of. The report said that some colleges reported that they rejected transfer credit based solely on the kind of accreditation a student's original college has. And the report recommended the Congress bar this practice -- a ban that for-profit colleges have been wanting for some time, and that both the House of Representatives and the Senate versions of a bill to renew the Higher Education Act would put in place.

But at the same time, the GAO report didn't offer evidence that the problem is widespread. And the GAO report listed a number of efforts by accreditors and states to deal with the problem without federal legislation.

In theory, everyone agrees that colleges have the right (indeed the responsibility) to review the quality of work for which they are being asked to award credit. But the GAO report focuses on how that is done, and whether it is done in a knee jerk fashion. The report notes that many colleges that are accredited by one of the six regional agencies will fairly automatically grant credit for work done at other regionally accredited colleges. At the same time, the report found that many regionally accredited colleges are pickier about -- and some automatically reject -- work done at nationally accredited institutions. (Many for-profit institutions are nationally accredited, although some are regionally accredited.)

The GAO endorsed the idea moving in Congress to require colleges to state their policies on transfer of credit and to state that they will not automatically reject credit from nationally accredited institutions.

Republican leaders of the education committees in the House and in the Senate praised the GAO report and said it backed up their contention that legislation was needed. The report "confirms what Republican lawmakers have been saying all along -- there must be greater flexibility and fairness in the transfer of credit process," said Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon, chairman of the subcommittee that drafted the legislation.

Becky Timmons, director of government relations at the American Council of Education, said that she thought that the provision would pass, even though it wasn't really necessary. She noted, for example, that the GAO found that for-profit colleges that get regional accreditation don't have difficulty with their students getting credit transferred. Seeking such accreditation would be a better approach, she said, than amending federal law.

The problem with the proposed revision in the law, college officials say, is that when colleges reject transfer credits in the future, disappointed students may assume that the rejection had to do with accreditation status, even if that has nothing to do with the decision. Timmons said that most credit denials have to do with a student's poor grades or his or her having taken a curriculum that doesn't meet requirements for a specific major.

"There are a host of reasons why credit may be denied, and it would be a shame if those reasons are obscured by legal wrangling," she said.

Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said that the GAO report had "incongruities" in that the evidence in it did not back its conclusion.

He said that the legislation on transfer credits will put colleges "in a terrible situation" because they will be accused, every time they deny credit, of violating the law.

Ultimately, he said that what is happening is that Congress is substituting its judgment for that of college officials. He said Congress would never tell a company that produces planes that it cannot decide whether certain parts are appropriate or safe to use, but that lawmakers are doing the equivalent here, telling colleges what parts are acceptable for the degrees they aware.

"This will certainly have consequences," he said. "The Congress of the United States is putting its political judgment in the place of the academic judgments of 4,000 colleges and universities."


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