Congress Wants to Address Transfer of Credit

Publication Number 6 January 23, 2004

Since the early discussions of reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), Congress has insisted that it would make legislative changes regarding transfer of credit. Many members and staff have advised us that they were interested in addressing the issue because of complaints from individual constituents as well as advocacy from for-profit schools long concerned with credit transfer.

As adult learners, distance education and attendance at multiple institutions become more commonplace, issues of credit transfer policies and practices of institutions can and should be re-examined. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) believes that barriers to transfers may be eased, so long as the institutions maintain unfettered rights to determine which credits offered for transfer do or do not meet their academic standards. Our strong preference is for institutional actions, not a federal mandate.

CHEA Action

For several years, CHEA has been active on the transfer of credit issue, but not necessarily embracing a federal solution. In November 2000, CHEA issued a statement “Transfer and the Public Interest” to the national higher education community to energize the ongoing national conversation about transfer decision making. CHEA also issued a “Framework for Meeting Transfer of Credit Responsibilities” (May 2002) addressed to institutions, students and accreditation organizations. The core of the CHEA principle on transfer is that a receiving institution should not deny transfer of credit solely because of the accrediting organization of the sending institution. Further, institutions must maintain their autonomy over academic standards.

Cognizant of the Congressional interest, CHEA consulted on this subject in 2003 with accreditors, other associations, experts, institutions and its Board and advisory committees. On this basis, one of the six CHEA goals in our Agenda for HEA Reauthorization addresses this subject. Our Goal 4 reads: “Take additional steps to strengthen transfer of credit to meet student access and mobility needs in those instances in which accredited status may be problematic as transfer decisions are made by institutions and programs.” The CHEA Agenda was completed in May 2003 and disseminated widely to the Congress, as well as our members and other colleagues. It is the basis of our legislative advocacy on HEA issues. In September 2003, CHEA and other associations informally provided concrete legislative language – based on the CHEA principles – to the House staff members working on HEA to address Congressional concerns on this issue.

McKeon Proposals

On October 16, 2003, House Subcommittee Chair Buck McKeon (R-CA) introduced HR 3311, his “Affordability in Higher Education Act.” While the bill is centered on his tuition cost controls, it also proposes new federal controls on transfer of credit, which are summarized below. According to Mr. McKeon, barriers to easy transfer of credit among institutions are also an important federal issue of college affordability. As some key Congress members and the higher education community had been sparring for over a year on college costs, a controversial proposal on cost was no surprise. But in the same bill, new and onerous controls on institutional decisions on credit transfer were proposed. CHEA believes that this issue is as important as any in the HEA Reauthorization.

After a review of the statutory proposals of HR 3311 and their implications, CHEA concluded that the McKeon proposals on credit transfer embody a sound principle, but go further to a radical intrusion into the academic decisions of institutions and the proper work of accreditors. CHEA and most other higher education organizations and institutions consider some of these provisions intrusive and harmful to accreditation and to institutional autonomy. Most important, they are not productively contributing to improvements in the complex issues of transfer of credit. Opposition by accreditors is not universal, however. On November 26, 2003, the Council of Recognized National Accrediting Agencies (CRNAA) wrote Chair McKeon endorsing his proposal. CRNAA is a group of seven agencies that accredit mostly for profit educational and training institutions, which number 3,100 nationally and serve four million students.

The Specifics

Mr. McKeon has proposed five provisions on credit transfers in his bill. HR 3311:

  • Directs institutional policies on credit transfer, with loss of student aid eligibility for institutions that do not comply;
  • Defines the basis on which institutions must make transfer decisions;
  • Makes accreditors a second enforcement mechanism, by adding a new credit transfer provision to the list of standards accreditors must use in their examination of institutions (accreditors must comply with these standards in order to be recognized by the Secretary of Education);
  • Prohibits accreditors from certain policies restricting transfer of credit by their member institutions; and
  • Adds a new and complicated institutional reporting requirement on all institutional decisions on requested credit transfers.

Legislative Outlook

Some movement toward a new federal provision on credit transfers is expected before the HEA work is completed. But the Congressional proposals have been seen by most higher education institutions and associations as so extreme as to chill the dialogue, at least for the last three months. Because the transfer of credit approach in HR 3311 is based on the CHEA principle, our opposition need NOT seek a complete change of direction. Our legislative goal is to keep the basic CHEA position, and to delete those extra provisions that are so problematic.