A Holistic Approach to Transferring Credits

Institutions have long sought to improve the credit transfer process. A new report from Ithaka S+R outlines strategies to help students earn credit for all types of higher learning.

November 30, 2022
Students sit on the McKeldin Mall at The University of Maryland College Park
At a time when over half of bachelor’s degree earners attend more than one institution, a new report from Ithaka S+R outlines a holistic approach to credit transfers.
(The Washington Post/Contributor/Getty Images)

Students are obtaining postsecondary education from more places than ever—on-the-job training, military service and high school dual enrollment, to name a few, in addition to two-year and four-year colleges. That makes the already-challenging process of transferring credits from one institution to another that much more complex.

A new report by Ithaka S+R, the research arm of the academic technologies nonprofit Ithaka, outlines a detailed framework—referred to as “holistic credit mobility”—that aims to ensure students get credit for any higher learning they do, no matter where, without having to repeat any courses or subjects they have already completed.

Colleges and universities have long struggled to find the best ways to transfer credits across institutions, as well as count education received outside of traditional institutions of higher learning (known as prior learning assessments). According to the Government Accountability Office, students lose approximately 43 percent of their credits upon transferring from one institution to another.

The Ithaka S+R report outlines three key vehicles that institutions, higher education systems and state governments can use to combat disappearing credits and address shortcomings in existing transfer policies: technological tools, policy and responsive practices.

Technological tools include everything from a basic online transfer catalog to more advanced tools that automatically match course equivalents or allow students to track their own learning. For instance, the report cites a tool created by Ithaka S+R and the City University of New York that “display[s] easy-to-navigate, real-time data on how any course taken at any CUNY college will be treated if a student transfers to any other CUNY college.”

Examples of policy-based solutions include convening leaders of local institutions, K-12 schools, employers and other stakeholders in a task force dedicated to developing transfer standards and procedures. The report also recommends that legislators focus on creating incentives for four-year institutions to accept transfer students’ earned credits and for institutions to “take a holistic approach to evaluating the totality of student learning.”

“We think for the holistic credit mobility framework to work, institutions are going to have to work together and collaborate and communicate with one another, especially those institutions that historically have shared and will likely continue to share significant flows of students,” said Sarah Pingel, senior researcher at Ithaka S+R.

Some states have already implemented such task forces; Oregon, for example, established a Transfer Council that promotes communication among the state’s institutions, according to the report. The state has also passed laws to expand the types of credits that universities accept and to facilitate credit transfers between universities by developing transfer agreements, among other measures.

The report also notes that Maryland passed legislation in 2021 requiring colleges and universities to provide a report explaining any instance in which it denied a student’s transfer credit to both the student and the institution where they originally earned the credit. Institutions must send a yearly report to the Maryland Higher Education Commission outlining those denials, as well.

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Wendy Kilgore, the director of research for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said that she would like to see additional research on what compels colleges to accept credits—or not.

She noted, however, that in her experience, external incentives and disincentives have little impact on how colleges manage transfer credits in practice; most colleges are motivated to make the transfer process as seamless as possible simply because it helps them build a reputation as a transfer-friendly institution and encourages students to transfer there.

“I do not believe those are major factors in whether or not credits are applicable to the degree,” she said.

The responsive practices that the report recommends institutions employ include being prepared to support students transferring midsemester, increasing students’ access to advisers and “shift[ing] practices to assume student mobility rather than avoid it.” Indeed, according to the report, 45 percent of individuals who have earned an associate degree and 67 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree have attended multiple institutions.

Kilgore said that while the report did not really introduce any new solutions or concepts, it synthesized the existing research on credit mobility well.

“It is absolutely a useful document for people who want to understand those components of the transfer model,” she said.

Pingel said that what differentiates Ithaka S+R’s research from previous work is its focus on holistic solutions, meaning those that can be effective not only in the case of vertical transfers—from two-year to four-year colleges—but for any and every type of credit transfer.

She added that the holistic credit mobility framework is designed to help institutions “set agendas.”

“What we’re hoping is that this report will come in and say, mobile students are not a monolith, right?” she said. “They are a group of diverse students that could be better served and could potentially be coming back and re-enrolling if we didn’t send all these messages to students that mobility is bad and should be avoided at all costs.”

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Johanna Alonso

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