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Financial disincentives for colleges impede progress on transfer pathways, according to a new white paper.

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A number of financial disincentives deter colleges from smoothly transferring students’ course credits from one institution to another, according to a new white paper by the Beyond Transfer Policy Advisory Board (PAB), a group of experts dedicated to transforming the transfer process.

The paper, released Thursday, concludes that improving the transfer process has been hampered by short-term thinking by campus leaders concerned about how allowing credits to transfer into their institutions affects their revenues. Colleges also have overly cumbersome, expensive processes for evaluating students’ past credits and are often subject to state funding models that do little to encourage better practices.

Lara Couturier, a principal at Sova, a higher ed consulting firm that facilitates the advisory board, and lead author of the paper, said students face all kinds of barriers to transfer, but “there was a huge conversation that wasn’t yet happening, which is what are the true incentives for colleges and universities to actually accept and apply transfer credit to student completion? How can we really think about influencing institutional behavior?”

She believes financial factors play a “huge role” in how college leaders craft transfer policies and processes.

“The way that the business model is currently structured leads to financial disincentives to really do good work on transfer, and we’ve got to find solutions for that,” she added.

Marty Alvarado, an advisory board member and executive vice chancellor for equitable student learning, experience and impact for the California Community College system, said many of the conversations campus leaders have about improving transfer focus on adding student supports and advising, but she believes the more campus leaders focus on student supports alone, “the more we continue to re-enforce this paradigm that the issue with transfer is a result of the students’ capacity or lack of capacity. And that’s a false narrative.”

“The strength of transfer is really grounded in the structures that are in place within four-year institutions and community colleges and whether or not we are benefiting from the transfer pipeline and the transfer processes,” she said. “There’s a huge element of self-preservation in all the ways that transfer has been approached.”

The paper suggests that the default approach at many colleges is to reject credits in part because campus leaders think it costs them to do otherwise. It notes that transfer students with unaccepted course credits need to retake classes, which creates immediate tuition revenue for colleges and universities—a financial gain in the eyes of administrators. But the paper argues that students who transfer with fewer accepted credits are more likely to drop out before graduating, which means students ultimately take fewer courses and colleges receive less tuition revenue over time. Lower persistence and completion rates can also hurt colleges’ reputations and result in lower state funding in areas with performance-based funding formulas, the paper says.

Alexandra W. Logue, a member of the advisory board, said people are psychologically hardwired to want to take care of their immediate needs first, rather than think long term. She believes this dynamic is exacerbated at colleges with unstable budgets and at a time when campus presidents are serving shorter tenures.

“If you are worried about having enough money for your institution, or if you’re thinking you want a new job at a better place, you want to do something that has an impact now,” said Logue, who is also a research professor at the Center for Advanced Study in Education of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “That’s a problem, because there are a lot of things, and transfer is one of them, where it takes years to see the fruits of your labor.”

She noted that basing these decisions on financial incentives might be an “unconscious” choice for some leaders, but the result is the same: a harder transfer process for students.

Colleges also tend to have cumbersome evaluation processes to determine which credits are counted from one institution to another, according to the paper. It cites the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), which found that fewer than a quarter of institutions share transcripts with each other electronically, even though doing so would speed up the transfer process and cut costs for colleges. Meanwhile, only about half of colleges and universities nationwide have “automated articulation rules,” which govern which credits count and are automatically applied. More than 30 percent of institutions have no articulation rules at all, meaning each course on a student’s transcript is individually evaluated. The paper notes that multiple faculty and staff members are often involved in these evaluation processes, a drain on employees’ time and on institutional resources.

Couturier noted that, even though it costs institutions and students, “there remains an assumption that every credit that a student comes to an institution with must be interrogated and proven worthy.”

“Until we can change that default mind-set, we’ll continue to see current student outcomes and current policies and practices,” she added.

Alvarado said she believes colleges misinterpret “academic rigor” as needing to weed people out and that contributes to these complicated credit evaluation processes.

“We have to give up our belief that there are individuals who are trying to get something they don’t deserve,” she said. “And that’s really fundamentally what’s underneath this that is problematic. Institutions are not trying to streamline this and maximize the amount of credit that individuals receive coming into their institutions, because there are financial disincentives and core beliefs that people don’t either deserve it, belong there and/or are trying to get something for nothing.”

The paper also puts some of the onus on state lawmakers for not doing enough to encourage progress. It notes that state funding models generally offer little incentive to colleges and universities to better serve transfer students. Most states don’t have funding formulas that reward institutions for taking transfer students or accepting their credits, and few formulas incentivize both two-year and four-year institutions to prioritize equitable outcomes for transfer students. Research by HCM Strategists, an education consulting firm, cited in the paper, found that just 12 states reward two-year institutions, two states reward four-year universities and four states reward both types of institutions based on their transfer rates or transfer student outcomes. The paper also notes that community colleges are underfunded and may not have the resources to provide adequate supports to help students transfer.

“The underlying business model for institutions, including the level and orientation of funding provided by the state, runs counter to supporting strong transfer and prior learning policies for students,” Martha Snyder, postsecondary managing director at HCM Strategists, said in the paper.

The paper offers a number of suggestions to campus leaders, including calculating how much increasing the number of transfer students, and the credits they come in with, can benefit them in the long run. It recommends a tool called TransferBOOST, which helps colleges assess how much transfers could increase enrollment, the costs associated with improving supports for these students and the potential returns of increasing enrollment, retention and completion rates through transfer. The paper also offers suggestions for using technology to make the credit-evaluation process speedier, less burdensome for institutions and more transparent to students, among other recommendations.

One of the goals of the paper is to get campus leaders to “actually crunch the numbers, look at what it would mean if we served transfer students better” and see the potential financial benefits for themselves, especially at a time when many institutions are “really strapped for enrollments,” Couturier said.

Logue emphasized that financial incentives for colleges to improve transfer processes, or a lack thereof, have deep effects on the lives of students who are often juggling other priorities, such as working and caring for children and other family members.

When credits don’t transfer, students “don’t finish,” she said. “They don’t get their degrees … and it’s not right.” Students are often maintaining a “very difficult balance,” and colleges shouldn’t be creating more obstacles to transfer and graduation.

“What you want to do is get them through with a high-quality education as efficiently as possible,” she said. “If they have to repeat courses, that is not the way to do it.”

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