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Exchanging money for graduation cap

Lawmakers and credit transfer policy experts hope the legislation will save students time and money, boosting degree attainment rates in the state.

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Inefficient credit transfer has been a chronic problem in higher education, costing countless students extra time and money to complete their degrees. But legislation recently passed in Colorado could change that and help bolster degree attainment numbers in the state.

The bill, which refines the state’s existing transfer policies, passed both chambers with overwhelming bipartisan support late last month. Local and national education policy experts expect Governor Jared Polis, a Democrat, to sign the bill into law by early next week.

Advocates for easing college transfer say that, if passed and enforced, the bill could become a commonly replicated model as states across the country increase their focus on better supporting adult and working learners and look for new ways to get them to and through college.

“Transferring college credits is becoming more and more common as students look for opportunities to save time and money in their higher education careers. However, it’s currently a confusing and time-intensive process that, when done incorrectly, can result in students losing a full semester of credits,” state Senator Janet Buckner, a Democrat and co-sponsor of the legislation, said in a statement to Inside Higher Ed. “My hope is that this commonsense, bipartisan bill will stand as an example for other states so that we can improve educational attainment and economic mobility for students across the country.”

Closing Loopholes, Ensuring Transparency

There are four key provisions in the bill designed to standardize and strengthen the transfer pipeline for in-state students, whether it be from a community college to a four-year university or from one bachelor’s degree program to another.

The first would update the existing statewide pathway system to guarantee that the core courses of about 40 popular majors (including business, psychology, engineering and education) not only transfer to another institution but are seamlessly applied to the major itself.

This would close a common loophole in which a registrar may accept a learner’s credits but only acknowledge them as electives rather than credits that fulfill major-specific requirements.

“It’s an issue that can specifically hurt low-income students, minority students, and first-generation college students who are more likely to start their undergraduate studies at a community college,” said John Mullane, president of College Transfer Solutions, a national research, policy advocacy and consulting group. “This clarifies that they must apply those courses directly to the student’s bachelor’s degree.” (This paragraph has been updated with the correct descriptor of College Transfer Solutions.)

The second and third go hand-in-hand, mandating a 30-day time limit for credit transfer evaluations immediately following a students’ acceptance and requiring a universal appeal process overseen by the state Department of Higher Education so students can challenge any credits that were rejected.

Last, and perhaps most important, Mullane explained, is the establishment of an annual report from each public institution that outlines all of the credits it accepted and rejected that year as well as the number and types of students who transferred. The policy, which would be the first of its kind nationally, is designed to ensure full transparency and encourage college registrars to start accepting more credits.

Filling Gaps on a Pioneering Framework

The bill passed with wide bipartisan support, unanimously in the Senate and a landslide 59-to-4 vote of approval in the House. It’s another example of Colorado’s status as a pioneer in the realm of credit transfer policy.

The state was one of the first to implement both a common course numbering system and statewide transfer pathway agreements back in 2008. But much has changed in the years since the system was first codified, with more students participating in dual enrollment and, as focus on workforce development grows, there are more short-term certificate programs that provide foundational credits that can be stacked towards a degree.

Students are also transferring more often. Nationally, more than 1.2 million students transferred in the fall of 2023, up 5.3 percent from the same time a year prior, according to the National Clearinghouse Research Center’s annual “Transfer and Progress” report.

The state’s current transfer system was designed around traditional trajectories, community college to four-year university, but that’s no longer the norm. Students now earn credits in high school and may enter the workforce temporarily before going to college, adult learners re-enroll after stopping out, and others transfer online to find a program that better aligns with their schedule.

The system has fallen behind, and it’s time for it to catch back up, said Katie Zaback, vice president of policy at Colorado Succeeds, a business coalition that focuses on education policy and implementation.

“We know that students are no longer going on a linear pathway,” Zaback said. “It’s important that if we’re investing in things like concurrent enrollment, that those things transfer. And unfortunately … What we’re seeing in the limited amount of data that we have, is that it’s not working as well for students as you might think that it would.”

Up until now, the state has had transfer policies in place, but failed to ask if they were actually working as they should, she added. The hope is that this new bill will help ensure proper answers moving forward.

“We have the frameworks in place.” Zaback said. “This is a step toward filling some of the gaps.”

A National Model to Boost Enrollment

Kim Poast, the Colorado higher education department’s chief student success and academic affairs officer, is “thrilled” to see the passage of a bill that gives students more transparency and guarantees. Some other states, including Missouri, are already working on improving their own credit transfer policies this legislative session, but she hopes that Colorado will serve as a model for many more in years to come.

It elevates the conversation in a way that “puts students first, as the primary customer,” which is something institutions and legislatures across the country must do if they want to revitalize enrollment numbers, Poast said.

With enrollment numbers on the decline nationwide and the number of traditional-aged students expected to plummet, there is “a ton of advantage” to bringing in transfer students, she explained.

According to a research brief from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, community college students who transferred to a public flagship university were just as likely to graduate as those who started there, students who transferred to less selective public institutions had a greater chance of graduating than native students.

And legislation like this that ensures a timely statewide recognition of credits and produces comprehensive outcome data can be a key point of leverage when it comes to attracting them to enroll.

“If I’m a student, I know that I can save a lot of money by taking two years at a community college, or entering the military and getting a military occupation credential of some kind,” Poast said. “And it’s a pathway that I think institutions are starting to recognize as beneficial to, honestly, their bottom line and the overall success of the institution.”

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