They're Transfer Students, Not Cash Cows

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

March 18, 2013

Students are transferring from community colleges to four-year colleges in larger numbers than ever before. One of their chief concerns is finding out how many credits from their current institutions will carry over to their new ones and how those credits will count toward the degrees they seek. This is understandable: They need to know as early as possible how much more time and money they will have to spend to complete their undergraduate degrees.

But it's not always easy.

That's because many colleges require a transfer student to make a commitment to attend—in the form of a nonrefundable deposit—before they will give out information about transfer credits. In short, they are saying, "Buy now! We'll tell you later what it will actually cost you."

We recently conducted a study of six private colleges in New York State—three that told students how many credits would transfer and how they would apply to the degree before the students made a financial deposit, and three that required nonrefundable deposits of up to $250 as a commitment to attend before they would provide that information.

What we found is that there are numerous reasons that all colleges should tell students early and at no charge whether their credits will transfer.

For one, colleges, as businesses, have a responsibility to be forthcoming on costs to their students as consumers. While many people in academe resist the notion of treating students as consumers, ever-­escalating tuitions and associated loan burdens make it increasingly impossible to deny the importance, from the student's perspective, of the overall cost of the college experience. A college is selling a product, and, as with any product, a consumer has a right to know how much it's going to cost before committing to purchase it.

The characterization of student-as-consumer has even permeated the language of the transfer professionals in the study, as several of them referred to prospective transfer students as "shoppers," looking for the best deal not only in tuition discounts but also transfer-credit costs. This transfer credit represents both time and money already spent as well as the amount of time and money that will be needed to finish the degree.

With transfer-credit information in hand before paying a deposit, students can make a well-informed comparison of institutions. Having that knowledge can even make a student's transition to a new institution easier. Research has shown that transferring from one college to another is challenging for students because they need to make social and academic adjustments. Transfer-credit issues can exacerbate those difficulties.

Specifically, learning about a loss of transfer credit and the associated loss of time and money can be discouraging and upsetting to students, particularly if they are notified only after having paid a non­refundable deposit and perhaps having started classes. They may even discover that they do not have enough money to complete the degree.

This has implications beyond the individual student. Improving graduation rates is of such importance to President Obama that he has made it the cornerstone of his higher-education policies, with the goal of having the world's highest proportion of college-credential holders by 2020.

To reach that goal, the White House plans to rely heavily on community colleges and transfer students, and making the transfer system work smoothly is essential to this strategy. The administration recognizes that the system has a long way to go, noting in its recently published "College Completion Toolkit" that "the lack of a coherent, navigable, and transparent transfer process both increases the cost and time needed to earn a degree and diminishes the likelihood of completion."

That ineffective process, unfortunately, most hurts students who are already least likely to finish a bachelor's degree. We know that transfer students are more likely to be poorer, from minority backgrounds, and first-generation college attendees than are their peers who begin as first-year students at four-year colleges. Withholding transfer-credit information until after a financial deposit, therefore, can undermine the social mobility necessary for a competitive work force.

Our research shows that even the professionals who work at colleges that require a financial deposit before disseminating transfer-credit information criticize those policies.

An associate director of transfer admission told us, "Some institutions have a catch-and-release policy: We got them, we got their deposit, and we got them to pay their first semester of tuition." Then, once they find out how few transfer credits they are getting, they can leave.

Transfer students deserve better than a catch-and-release policy. They have a need­—and, we would argue, a right—to know how many credits they will receive before they must financially commit to the institution. After all, it's their time and their money.

Alexander P. Ott is associate dean for academic support and enrollment services at New York Institute of Technology. Bruce S. Cooper is a professor of educational leadership in the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University.