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Three higher education associations—the American Council on Education, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers—published a new statement Wednesday that outlines “sound, equity-minded” policies for accommodating transfer students.
The three associations, which first co-signed the statement in 2001 and last updated it in 2017, were motivated to update it this year to reflect new challenges brought on by the pandemic, according to an ACE spokesperson. The most recent version recommends that colleges and universities use consistent standards to evaluate transfer credits, remove unnecessary barriers to accessing transcripts and self-audit their transfer policies.
Lara Couturier, principal at the consulting firm Couturier Consulting LLC, called the statement a terrific first step toward solving transfer issues.
“I think it’s really exciting to see the players in this statement coming together—to have registrars and accreditors teaming up to talk about some of the more nuanced and knotty sides of transfer,” Couturier said.
Institutions should use consistent standards to evaluate credits, regardless of where incoming students earned them, according to the statement. This practice helps ensure that students of all academic backgrounds are considered fairly during the transfer process, said Gelsey Mehl, senior program manager for the college excellence program at the Aspen Institute (and a contributor to an Inside Higher Ed blog).
“We’ve observed that schools are open to having a conversation about more traditional kinds of transfer—existing community college students, not the high school students taking dual enrollment” or students who earned credits in the military, Mehl said. “To make sure that no matter where the credit is being earned, it is being treated the same—I think that is the most equitable way to approach it.”
Couturier noted that standard credit-evaluation policies help promote acceptance of all types of learning.
“There’s a lot of stigma in the field against certain types of institutions, against learning that’s done in the workplace and about the modalities of learning,” Couturier said. “I really appreciate that they’re pushing back to say we need to be equitable in our assessment of the quality of institutions.”
Similarly, institutions should not reject credits based solely on the accreditation of the institution where it was earned, assuming that the accrediting agency is recognized by CHEA or the U.S. Department of Education, according to the statement.
Institutions should work to apply transfer credits to a student’s major or degree pathway, the statement said.
“Awarding credit for students’ prior learning to fulfill electives or even to simply acknowledge their success with prior college-level learning, while sometimes helpful, must not be the focus of our efforts,” the statement reads.
Transfer policies should be transparent and easily understood, the three associations state. Incoming transfer students should know which credits will apply to their degree prior to enrolling. The statement also encourages cross-institution advising for students.
The three associations also encourage institutions to remove any “unnecessary obstacles” that keep students from accessing their transcripts, such as small unpaid bills or other institutional charges that students may owe. These obstacles can make it difficult for students to continue their education or get a job that would allow them to pay the outstanding bills.
All of what ACE, CHEA and AACRAO included in their statement are best practices, according to Mehl, but their recommendations are “sadly not universal practice right now.”
“Within institutions, a lot of times you’ll find that there’s a transfer center director who’s really leading the work, but perhaps the president or board doesn't realize it,” Mehl said. “Maybe it’s that some folks on the academic side of the house—who are for good reason controlling curriculum and the ones approving articulation of credit—don’t realize the impact of not being as flexible.”
While best practice statements like the one from ACE, CHEA and AACRAO are helpful, Couturier hopes that state agencies and accrediting bodies will soon implement rules around transfer that have more teeth and incentivize institutions to follow the best practices laid out in the statement.
“The next step is moving beyond statements where we suggest what institutions could or should do, because there’s a long history of institutions not engaging well on transfer practice,” Couturier said. “What I think we’re still missing in the field is the right mix of incentives and accountability for doing the work.”