Promoting 'Consumer Friendly' Transfer

June 3, 2011

WASHINGTON — To make it easier for students to earn and transfer college credits across institutions, policy makers and educators should work together by supporting broader articulation agreements and adopting more prior learning assessments, several experts argued at a Center for American Progress event Thursday.

“Articulation and transfer is an old problem, but it’s begging for new solutions,” said Frank Chong, the Education Department’s deputy assistant secretary for community colleges. “I really believe this is a consumer protection issue.”

The average community college student earns 140 credits while pursuing a bachelor’s degree even though only 120 credits are typically necessary, according to a new CAP policy brief discussed at the event. For many students, these additional 20 credits repeat credits earned elsewhere or knowledge they may have gained outside the classroom.

“Just think about those 20 credits multiplied by thousands of students,” Chong said. “At a time when we’re rationing education … this is not an acceptable situation…. Pathways should be transparent, clear and seamless.”

Still, Chong added that there is not a “one-size-fits-all” solution to the problem of transfer. He pointed to divergent statewide responses, from Florida’s common course numbering system throughout its public institutions to a recently passed bill in California that mandates the state’s community colleges create transfer-specific associate degrees for full acceptance in the California State University System.

Amy Sherman, co-author of the CAP brief and associate vice president for policy and strategy alliances at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, offered some broad-based recommendations for how to make “a more consumer-friendly education system.”

Sherman suggested that states need to “create incentives for higher education to support mobile students,” or those who attend more than one institution, as many of today’s students do. She encouraged policy makers to expand existing institution-to-institution articulation agreements into statewide agreements and to eventually consider working to establish “cross-state” agreements.

“We should also learn more about the mobility and outcomes of students who cross institutional borders,” Sherman said. “We should define success more broadly. The student’s individual outcome should matter as much as the institution’s.”

Finally, in the spirit of pushing more transparency, she called on educators and policy makers to “demystify the path to degree process.” She favors a national database on articulation and transfer, building on what information is currently available, which would help students see clearly how their credits transfer before they enroll.

“I really think navigational assistance and advising is the missing link out there,” Sherman said. “Even if there’s great advising at institutions, it tends to be focused on 'my institution.' ”

Articulation and transfer practices vary across the country. The CAP brief notes that 14 states have a “general education common core curriculum” that is easily transferable from one institution to another. Only seven states have a “common course numbering system.” Twenty-two states have “statewide program major articulations” that allow seamless transfer between institutions if students maintain the same major. Twenty states have “block credit transfer” that allows students to transfer credit “en masse.” Finally, 30 states have “transfer associate degrees,” with which a student is guaranteed acceptance as a junior at a four-year institution.

Paula Compton, associate vice chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, offered a few successful examples of improved transfer policies adopted within her system. For example, Ohio has created Transfer Assurance Guides, or “groups of foundational courses that represent a commonly accepted pathway to the bachelor’s degree,” for 40 different degrees offered at institutions around the state.

Compton said faculty support is important for these types of initiatives to succeed. She added that faculty members need to see that, for example, they are not being told what learning outcomes are wanted but rather that they need to work to help create them on their own by becoming leaders in the process.

“We have over 50 faculty panels to write and review learning outcomes,” Compton said. “If articulation and transfer is to work, it has to be based on trust. In a culture, it might take time to get that. But if you get people … to understand the overarching goal of what you’re really trying to achieve, it’s amazing.”

Regarding prior learning assessments, Sherman and other panelists admitted that these credits are not universally available, are often accepted in limited ways and are often not accepted if a student transfers. Unlike with articulation agreements, there are fewer examples of statewide adoption of prior learning assessments.

The prior learning assessment most commonly accepted by institutions is credit earned by passing an Advanced Placement test with a certain score. Still, there is room for improvement in the assessment and acceptance of AP credit, Compton said. In 2007, the Ohio Board of Regents standardized that a score of 3 or higher on any AP test would earn credit at any college within the system.

Ohio’s public institutions are all members of the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges and offer the acceptance of some military training for college credit through the College-Level Examination Program. Still, Compton said the state has to do more work so that other prior learning assessments will gain wide acceptance.

“I think there’s this big fear that when you step outside of this box that quality and rigor will go down,” Compton said. “We have to assure people that that’s not the case.”

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