Carrots, Sticks and Transfer

The right incentives could be used to truly make it possible for community college students to go on to four-year institutions, writes Kevin Carey.

June 23, 2008

Before becoming a DC think tank person, I worked for the Indiana Senate, advising the chair of the State Budget Committee. Much of this job consisted of listening to people ask my boss for money. The state universities were frequent supplicants, so we regularly traveled with other legislators and staffers to various flagship and regional campuses, where we would all pile into a university shuttle bus, drive to a vacant lot, disembark, and listen to an explanation of how, for the bargain price of $20 million, this expanse of grass and rubble could become a biotechnology business incubator, space-age student center, or other vital structure that would surely pay for itself 10 times over in the long run.

On one such visit, we stood on a sidewalk looking at two different higher education institutions and the space between them. One was a branch campus of the Indiana University system; the other was part of the state's two-year career and vocational system. They were literally across the street from one another. Local civic leaders wanted to build a physical connection between them, a "front door" to a unified higher education complex where students could seamlessly enter and then travel to whichever courses suited them best.

It seemed like a sensible idea, and the area was represented by one of the most powerful legislators in the state. Then one of his staffers raised her hand and asked one of those questions that's really not a question at all: "It won't just be the building that's seamless, right? If student take courses there (pointing to the two-year college) then the credits will automatically be accepted there (pointing to the IU campus)?"

Representatives of the two institutions looked at each uncomfortably. "Well," they said, "of course -- of course -- that's our goal, but it's actually not quite that simple...."

As it turns out, the institutions were in the middle of a long-standing and sometimes bitter dispute about credit transfer. The two-year system wanted its courses to be transferable to the four-year system, but the four-year system was resisting. This is not unusual. In fact, credit transfer is a gigantic problem in American higher education. Nearly half of all undergraduates start at community colleges, and most of them express some desire to earn a four-year degree. While estimates vary, it's likely that at least 25 percent of all students transfer during their undergraduate careers, and the majority earn credits at multiple institutions. But the new college frequently accepts only some of the credits earned at the old college, forcing students to re-take and re-pay for classes they've already passed.

This is partly a structural problem. The United States is an unusually large nation populated by a restless citizenry prone to moving from place to place. Our higher education system is also unusually diverse and decentralized, with thousands of public and private institutions retaining the academic freedom to decide what kind of course credits they'll accept from whom. As a result, the basic logistic challenges of managing student transfer are considerable. It's hard for a given college to evaluate credits from a huge number of courses, departments, and institutions nationwide.

The result -- a chaotic, inefficient transfer "system" that's hardly a system at all -- makes life very difficult for students who attend multiple institutions, as more and more do. What's worse, many students don't find out how many courses will be accepted for credit until after they transfer, so they can't take ease of transfer into account when they decide where to go. A recent report on transfer from the Government Accountability Office noted that "Officials at one institution told us that they provide [a report of accepted transfer credits] within 1 year of the student's matriculation and encourage students to take upper-level general education courses in the interim until the report is received." Sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, meanwhile, has found that students from lower-status socio-economic backgrounds are more likely than their well-off peers to transfer in ways that reduce their odds of earning a degree.

Fortunately, we live in the information age and this kind of problem isn't as hard to solve as it once was. In fact, there's a whole company called AcademyOne, launched in 2006, that stands ready to sell software to colleges or even entire states to ease the process of managing these relationships. It allows students to find out ahead of time what credits will be accepted, and gives institutions tools to evaluate courses at other institutions proactively, instead of waiting until a student with a transcript arrives at their door. Efforts like the Pennsylvania Transfer and Articulation Center are already underway.

But the big barriers to improving transfer don't lie with logistics. At its core, this is an incentive problem. The same institutional diversity and autonomy that gives American higher education strength sometimes put institutional interests at odds with student and public interests. This is just such a case. It's often not in a college's best interests to make it too easy for students to transfer out, since it costs them enrollment and revenue. And once colleges accept transfer students, it's not in their best interests to accept all of the credits, since that reduces the amount of education the students will have to buy. The fact that four-year colleges tend to make money on lower-division courses and lose money on upper-division courses (where class size is typically smaller and instruction is less likely to be provided by junior professors or teaching assistants) also comes into play. In the case of those two institutions across the street from one another, the four-year university was quite aware of the fact that they charged much more per credit hour for the same introductory courses as their neighbor nearby.

In other words, the only parties that are really harmed by the transfer mess are students and taxpayers, a common dynamic when it comes to obvious higher education policy problems that go perpetually unsolved. As a result, for millions of students college can be longer, more expensive, and more difficult than it needs to be.

The key to fixing this is strong public leadership with the students' best interests in mind. When California State University Chancellor Charlie Reed was running the Florida public university system, he helped pushed through reforms that standardized course numbering across the state's two- and four-year university systems, helping ensure that every community college graduate transferring to a four-year university can bring their full 60 credits along with them. Florida students can enter higher education through the two-year system with confidence that transfer issues won't stand in their way, while colleges in both systems spend less time and effort hammering out inter-institutional articulation agreements and evaluating individual transcripts. But even after a decade in California, Reed hasn't been able to enact similar reforms in the Golden State. Work is being done, but it's far from finished. Does anyone believe that Florida students aren't better off -- or California students worse?

The scale and negative impact of the transfer problem will only grow in the future. Students are increasingly mobile and information technology is rapidly expanding the number of potential higher education providers. Movements like the Open Course initiative presage a future where students might assemble degrees from scores of different educators, some of which might not even be "colleges" in the traditional sense of the word.

The flawed U.S. transfer non-system has also persisted because, historically, it was still better than what students experienced elsewhere. But that, too, is changing. As the Institute for Higher Education's Clifford Adelman found in his recent report on the Bologna Process, universities in Europe are poised to leapfrog the United States in ease of transfer, based on a process of deep, concurrent analysis of academic goals, degree qualifications and credit systems that goes far beyond what a harried registrar's office in a U.S. institution could hope to accomplish one transcript at a time.

To its credit, Indiana has done more than most states to tackle this issue, which is particularly important given its recent move to expand the state's two-year system. In the meantime, those two neighbor institutions eventually got their construction money and built the shared building. I'm told it looks very nice. And they've been working over the years to establish transfer agreements in subjects like education and accounting.

But they're still not finished. According to the four-year university's Web site, "a selected number of courses" are transferable from the other taxpayer-financed institution located approximately 100 yards away. When I called the registrar's office to ask about this, I was told that the list of transferable courses on the Web site was out of date. "We accept more," she said, "but we have to evaluate that on a case-by-case basis."


Kevin Carey is research and policy manager at Education Sector. His previous column was a request for universities offering "open" courses online.


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