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Six major higher education groups issued a set of principles Thursday for accepting academic credit during this tumultuous time.

The statement, drafted by the American Council on Education and signed by the leaders of groups representing public, private nonprofit and community colleges, highlights eight practices institutions should follow to best help students navigate the transfer of credit process -- which is difficult to negotiate in the best of times -- during the coronavirus pandemic.

Students often find that some or many or their academic credits from one college aren't accepted when they try to transfer to a different institution, especially if they are attempting to move from two-year to four-year colleges, or from nationally accredited colleges to those accredited by regional agencies.

At the center of each principle is the acknowledgment that this is an unprecedented time that calls for institutions to respond in unprecedented, flexible ways, said Ted Mitchell, president and CEO of ACE. Institutions also need to put their students at the center of their decisions and remember that this situation is only exacerbating existing inequities in higher education.

"Institutions are hard at work trying to figure this out, and there are a variety of things that they need to balance," Mitchell said. "We thought it would be helpful for those institutions to just put forth what are the principles we all agree on to guide decision making."

The statement asks institutions to recognize what students are going through; to be cognizant of existing inequities; to provide flexibility for students, staff and faculty members; to be transparent about their transfer policies; and to make their decisions known as soon as possible.

There has been some concern that colleges enacting universal pass/fail grading policies could be hurting students in the long run if those students hope to transfer to another institution or enroll in a graduate program, as pass/fail courses often don't transfer for credit.

ACE and other organizations are asking that, if institutions are being more flexible in grading policies, they also be more flexible with admissions and credit policies with their students, Mitchell said.

Timing is also critically important, he said. ACE anticipates that many students are likely going to get some education elsewhere and seek to bring that learning back to their home institutions due to the public health pandemic.

"While institutions probably have a while to come up with these policies, students and their families are making decisions today about what to do," Mitchell said. "Students and families need the most information that they can get to allay their anxieties and help them make plans. That’s why we think that institutions need to tackle this now."

For member institutions of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, this is especially important.

"Our institutions accept a large share, probably the majority, of community college students that transfer into public regional universities," said Mildred García, president of the association. "​It’s important that we are open to being flexible in these new options because of this terrible situation."

Several states and institutions are already discussing this issue, ​García said. For example, the higher education system in Utah recently released a transfer guide to help students see how their current coursework will apply to programs at different institutions.

The statement is not meant to be a mandate, Mitchell said, because each institution is different. But it is meant to highlight the importance of flexibility and compassion during this time.

"There has been a general consensus that the process needed to be more transparent, equitable, easy to navigate, and that students needed quicker decisions about the status of their transfer requests," said Bernard Mair, chief academic officer of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. "In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, APLU heard from our members that they were addressing this issue along with many other academic processes and regulations, so we felt it was the right time to provide some very general guidelines relating to transfer credits. The fact that many campuses were moving operations online made it even more important to communicate to students about how they would be able to transfer credit. This is not meant to dictate what credits can or should be transferred, but rather a high-level set of guidelines that we are suggesting institutions consider as they streamline their academic processes."

The transfer dilemma has been a hot topic in higher education for some time, and the realities of COVID-19 might finally move the needle on the issue.

About one-third of college students attempt to transfer credits between institutions, Mair said. The average student also looks different now than they did a few decades ago; many are older, working adults.

"I think it’s quite possible that institutions will get more comfortable with a higher degree of flexibility, and I think that would be a good thing," Mitchell said.

Northern Virginia Community College has a nationally recognized example of a successful transfer partnership with nearby George Mason University. The community college's president, Anne Kress, said it's important to help college students, many of whom are now dealing with several crises at once.

"The statement and the unified support for these principles provide a powerful indication that higher education recognizes its responsibility to honor the work done by students facing the uncertainty created by the pandemic," Kress said. "This statement also makes clear that the impact of the pandemic is not uniform. Colleges must consider the equity implications of their credit transfer policies."

As colleges learn throughout the pandemic, Kress hopes they realize all institutions can get better at serving students.

"We talk about higher education as a system: now is the time to start acting like one," she said. "The central strength of NOVA’s nationally recognized transfer partnership with George Mason University, ADVANCE, is that all credits count when students transfer. Imagine if a guarantee like that extended between institutions across all of higher education. It would be transformational -- and it is possible."

For today's students, García said, the stakes are especially high.

​"They are working very hard to get themselves through higher ed with so many challenges even before the coronavirus hit," she said. "I am pleading with institutions to be as flexible and compassionate as possible and yet make sure they can be successful so that we can educate the new majority."

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