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Volume 1, Number 4, November 4, 2005
 
Transfer of Credit: Taking a Fresh Look or Continuing the Controversy?

The transfer of credit issue is being played out in the federal arena, caught up in the current reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Each of the reauthorization bills under consideration in the House and Senate takes steps to assert a greater federal interest in successful transfer – an unusual if not unprecedented move in the history of this legislation. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just released a report (http://www.gao.gov/htext/d0622.html) that captures this issue, particularly as it relates to the role of accreditation in encouraging or inhibiting successful transfer.

Transfer has been an integral and useful part of the higher education landscape for many years. It is not unusual for students to move from one college or university to another in the course of pursuing an academic program. When this happens, students seek to have the academic credits they have earned at one institution accepted by their new college or university. Receiving institutions evaluate the courses or programs completed by these students and make judgments about how many credits to accept.

Although transfer is not unusual, it is, at present, a controversial and highly charged issue, at least in Washington DC. There is conflict between those who view transfer as effective and those who believe that we have a major problem with transfer. There is conflict between those who view transfer as an instance of academic decision making and those who view transfer as a tool to enhance access and equity for students. The transfer controversy also has something of an unfortunate have/have-not element to it. The “haves” are usually portrayed as four-year institutions that are regionally accredited; “have-nots” are usually portrayed as either two-year regionally accredited institutions or two- and four-year nationally accredited institutions that have students seeking to enter the four-year institutions.

Effective or Ineffective?
Those who see transfer as effective point out that transfer of credit has been a notable enabler of student mobility. Estimates vary, but between 40 percent and 65 percent of students who are obtaining the baccalaureate are attending at least two higher education institutions. This extensive student mobility is clear evidence that transfer of credit has been “working” for some time.

Those who believe that there is a transfer problem point to instances where student mobility is constricted – credits do not transfer. They question whether the refusal to accept credit is based on legitimate considerations. And they query whether there is an element of unfairness for some students seeking to move from one institution to another and failing to receive credit for prior work.

An Academic or Access Issue?
Those who view transfer primarily as an academic issue have confidence in the current practice where faculty in receiving institutions review the curricula and standards of courses or programs intended for transfer and indicate to students whether these offerings are acceptable. Faculty transfer decisions are judgments about the quality and content of an academic experience in sending institutions. When an institution accepts transfer credits, it is making a statement that it will stand behind the quality of the offerings of another institution.

In this academic context, accreditation is viewed as assisting transfer when it signals to a receiving institution that a sending institution has met at least threshold standards of quality. Indeed, historically, easing transfer has often been viewed as a major justification for maintaining a robust accreditation system.

Those who view transfer as primarily an access and equity issue point out that we live in a highly competitive society where higher education is more and more of a vital asset. There is enormous pressure on students to enter higher education, earn a credential and continue their education as a means of advancing their careers. At the same time that the need for higher education continues to intensify, the price of higher education continues to rise. Transfer has emerged as an essential tool for student mobility in this high-demand/high-price environment. Success with regard to transfer means additional educational opportunities, options and flexibility for students.

In an access and equity context, accreditation tends to be viewed less as making transfer work and more as a challenge and potentially a barrier to transfer. This is the case especially when the type of accreditation (e.g., national or regional) held by an institution can result in the denial even to consider transfer requests.

Is Anybody “Right”? What to Do About Transfer
Everybody is right about transfer. Transfer is effective – witness the extent of student mobility. There are transfer problems – witness that some students are unable to move from two-year to four-year institutions or from nationally accredited to regionally accredited institutions, experiencing outright denial of consideration of transfer requests or loss of credits. Yes, transfer is an academic issue involving decisions about curriculum and standards, but, yes, transfer is also an access and equity issue and an increasingly important tool to students to successfully navigate the current higher education environment.

We need to do more than be right. It is not enough to say that transfer is an academic issue and ignore access and equity concerns. It is not enough to focus only on the access and equity issues and ignore academic concerns. It is irresponsible to say that transfer is effective and ignore pockets of transfer ineffectiveness. It is unreasonable to focus only on the problem areas of transfer and deny its effectiveness. It is time we put an end to the unfortunate have/have-not element in our midst. As with so many things, we know what is needed to make transfer work – we just need to do it.

Presidents, provosts, deans and admissions officers at receiving institutions can take a fresh look at institutional transfer policy and practice. Yes, these are academic decisions, but has the transfer population increased or diversified over the years? If you are in a nonprofit, site-based institution, are you receiving more and more transfer requests from, e.g., students in for-profit schools or in distance learning schools? Is your transfer policy adequate to address the stop-in/stop-out student? When was the last time that your institution’s catalog was reviewed, and what does it say about transfer? Given the continuing diversification and complexity of higher education, is it time for a transfer policy overhaul?

Similarly, are officials at sending institutions taking a fresh look at their transfer practices? Have curricula been reviewed to minimize the likelihood that transfer requests will be refused by a receiving institution? Do you have a small group of primary receiving institutions with which you are in regular contact? Do students receive adequate assistance when making transfer decisions, such as information about transfer options and designing a program to minimize if not eliminate any loss of transfer credits?

Accreditors can take a fresh look at their policies and standards as they relate to transfer. Are these appropriate for the current diverse and complex higher education environment? The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) has long held a position that accredited status should not be the sole reason for refusal at least to consider transfer requests. A number of institutional accreditors and higher education associations have endorsed this position. Are institutions responsive to accreditors’ expectations of transfer practice consistent with this policy? What more can accreditors do to aid student transfer?

Most of all, we need to address the have/have-not mentality, going beyond notions such as “all nonprofit higher education is good” and “all for-profit higher education is suspect.” Or the notion that two-year education is consistently inferior to four-year education. Or the idea that distance learning invariably has less academic value than site-based learning. All of these notions require re-examination.

Transfer is valuable, perhaps essential, to higher education. We can get more from taking a fresh look at transfer than from continuing the current controversy.


Inside Accreditation is a publication intended to keep presidents of CHEA member institutions informed about developments in external quality review of higher education. Please direct any inquiries or comments to chea@chea.org or to (202) 955-6126.


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