As higher education issues go, "transfer of credit" is about as mundane and arcane as you can get. It's roll-your-sleeves-up-and-get-your-hands-dirty type work, involving transcripts and course numbers and modes of delivery and degree audits and other nuts and bolts details of the college admissions and registration process.
Yet over the last few years, the question of whether and how students are able to transfer their academic coursework from one college to another has gained a relatively prominent place in the higher education policy world, earning prominent mentions in the 2006 final report of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, a role as one of the most hot-button issues in last year's negotiations over possible changes in federal rules governing accreditation, and becoming a key battleground in debate over renewal of the federal Higher Education Act.
What became clear Monday, though, on the first day of a two-day meeting on transfer of credit sponsored by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, is that the transfer of credit issue atop the federal agenda -- whether or not academic credits accumulated by students at nationally accredited institutions (many of which are for-profit) will be accepted if their students try to transfer them to regionally accredited public and private nonprofit colleges -- is not the transfer of credit issue that most higher education officials are worrying about and working on.
What is consuming the 200-plus admissions officers, registrars, transfer coordinators and state higher education officials at Monday's meeting is the reality that students from all types of colleges and universities are changing institutions (or studying at multiple colleges at the same time) in ever-greater numbers, and that students too often find themselves having to repeat coursework because of a lack of coordination and alignment between their previous and current institutions. But as a 2005 Government Accountability Office study showed, and as various speakers at Monday's meeting reaffirmed, the vast majority of those students are seeking to transfer from community colleges to other public or nonprofit private institutions in their states.
And most of the work that is occupying college and state higher education officials is in trying to knock down the barriers and smooth the connections within state systems or between individual colleges, to ease students' transition from one institution to another.
"Transfer and mobility is a good thing, and we want to facilitate them when they are appropriate," said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director at the registrars' group. "Our job is to bend over backwards to say Yes when we can. But there are times that it is appropriate to say No."
Nassirian and AACRAO have been among the leading opponents of federal legislation that would in some way dictate transfer of credit policies, and they have criticized the single-minded focus of federal policy makers on the narrow piece of the transfer of credit problem that is related to students from nationally accredited institutions seeking to switch to regionally accredited ones. This, Nassirian said, despite the fact that the 2005 GAO study showed that just 4 percent of transferring students nationwide move from a for-profit to nonprofit college.
Monday's meeting was not meant to dismiss that problem, Nassirian said; his group, like most other higher education associations, has endorsed the idea that colleges should not have policies that reject a student's academic credits based solely on the accreditation status of the institution from which he or she earned them. (Those pushing for federal transfer of credit legislation note that significant numbers of colleges still have policies that are biased against students from nationally accredited institutions, and argue -- so far unsuccessfully -- that federal legislation may be the only way to end such discrimination once and for all.)
Instead, the AACRAO meeting was designed to lay out the complexity of the transfer of credit issue and to showcase the efforts that various states and colleges have adopted or are adopting to improve mobility where they see it impaired the most.
Administrators at Anne Arundel Community College, in Maryland, described the confounding number of factors and types of decisions that the institution's three-person transfer staff must consider as it weighs thousands of requests (nearly 9,000 from 4,500 students since August): The "dizzying array of types of credit that can be transferred," as Judith Coughlin, Anne Arundel's registrar, put it (traditional courses from individual institutions and nontraditional credits such as AP exams, military experience and work force training); the varying layers of requirements (state, regional accreditor, etc.) to which the college must adhere; and the many institutions to which and from which the college's students transfer.
Officials from Iowa State University and the University System of Maryland discussed elaborate transfer systems in their states -- Maryland's, which has been around in one form or another for nearly two decades, and those that Iowa's public universities are building now in response to a 2005 legislative mandate.
In both cases, enrollment numbers gave a sense of why the transfer issue has risen on the agenda of state policy makers. The proportion of new students entering the University System of Maryland who had transferred rather than starting as full-time freshmen grew to 59 percent in 2006, up from 55 percent in 2000. (About half of the transfers were from community colleges.)
And of the 4,347 new students at Iowa State University in fall 2007, 1,527 (or 30 percent) of them were transfers. About two-thirds of them were from community colleges, and 416 of the transfers were members of ethnic minority groups, a far greater proportion than the university's student body as a whole. So not only is transfer a crucial source of students for a university in a state where the traditional college-age population is expected to dip sharply in the next decade, but it is an important outlet for minority access to higher education, said Marc Harding, director of admissions and enrollment services at Iowa State.
Much work remains to be done in those states and nationwide to make it easier for students to transfer credits from one institution to another, Nassirian said. But given the complexity of higher education and the diversity of mission and standards of the country's 6,000 colleges and universities, he said, the degree of student transfer "is already breathtakingly remarkable in its own right."