Best Path for Transfer Credit

Moving along the community college to four-year university pipeline is the most likely to lead to successful credit transfers in higher education, a new federal study finds.

August 20, 2014

Students are most likely to be successful in transferring academic credits when they have higher grade-point averages and move between community colleges and four-year institutions, according to a new federal study released Wednesday.

Conversely, the study found, “reverse or horizontal transfers” -- in which students move or from a four-year university to a community college, or between two institutions of the same type, respectively -- were less likely to yield transfer credits.  

The study, by National Center for Education Statistics, looked at a number of factors -- such as academic performance, institutional control, and accreditation -- that may affect whether students are able to successfully transfer credits between institutions. The study examined a cohort of about 17,000 students who entered higher education for the first time in the 2003-4 academic year, and looked at their first transfers to another institution over the next six years.

More than one in five of those students transferred once and an additional 11 percent transferred more than once, the study found. Among the students who did transfer, 39 percent lost all of their credits in the switch, while 28 percent were able to transfer some credits. Only one-third of transfer students were successful in getting all of their previously earned credits to count at their new institution.

Accreditation status was one indicator of whether students were able to successfully transfer credits. The vast majority of students -- 90 percent -- transferred among regionally accredited institutions, and roughly two-thirds of them were able to transfer some credits.

But among the remaining population of students who moved among nationally accredited institutions or between nationally  and regionally accredited institutions, more than 80 percent had no credits transfer. Many regionally accredited colleges that accept transfer students have a much higher bar for awarding credit for work at nationally accredited than at other regionally accredited colleges.

Students transferring among regionally accredited institutions lost an average of 12 credits, while those transferring between nationally accredited institutions lost an average of 16 credits.

Many community colleges and public four-year universities have articulation agreements that spell out a clear path for students who want to transfer between those institutions. 

Academic achievement was also correlated with credit transfers. About two-thirds of students with a GPA below 2.00 had no credits transferred while only one-third of students with a 3.00 or higher GPA lost all of their credits in switching colleges.

“Overall, the findings suggest that when student transfer is aligned with how the higher education system is designed to accommodate credit transfer (e.g., from 2-year institutions to 4-year institutions), when students perform successfully in their coursework, or when students transfer to a public institution, credit transfer is more likely to occur,” wrote Sean Simone, the NCES statistician who authored the report. 


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