When Students Transfer, Credits May Not Follow

August 20, 2014

About a third of first-time, first-year undergraduates will enroll in at least one other college over the next six years, and nearly four out of 10 will do so without transferring any credits if trends seen in a new study by the National Center for Education Statistics hold true.

According to a report being released today, "Transferability of Postsecondary Credit Following Student Transfer or Coenrollment," the study found that well over half of student transfers start out in public, two-year colleges, and that students who transfer from those colleges to four-year public institutions bring the most credits with them.

The study followed a nationally representative sample of about 17,000 students who started college for the first time in the 2003-04 academic year for a period of six years. During that time, they attended more than 3,000 colleges.

The study also found that about one in 10 of the students who were tracked attended more than two colleges, and that students with higher grade-point averages have better success transferring credits.

Of the students who transferred or "co-enrolled" in another college, about 39 percent transferred no credits, 28 percent transferred some, and 32 percent transferred all previously earned credits. On average, students lost about 13 credits when transferring from their first college, the study found.

The report’s lead author cautions, however, that the responsibility for lost credits sometimes falls on students.

"Some students never tell the institution that they’ve had previous postsecondary experience," Sean Simone, a statistician with the National Center for Education Statistics, said in an interview on Tuesday. So in many cases, "it could be that the institution never knew."

Because fewer students transfer from four-year to two-year colleges, there is less likely to be a streamlined process in place for doing so, Mr. Simone said. In addition, the community college on the receiving end might not offer some of the courses being transferred.

The findings on grade-point averages suggest that if two students took the same course in a community college and one barely squeaked by and the other aced it, the higher-achieving student might get credit for the transfer while the other did not. That finding surprised Janet L. Marling, executive director of the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students at the University of North Georgia. She said she wasn’t aware that colleges handling vast numbers of transfer requests paid attention to the grades students received in those courses.

Ms. Marling, one of several experts the author allowed The Chronicle to share the study with before publication, said the findings support the critical role that community colleges have played in helping students transfer credits. "Perhaps the reason that the two-year to four-year pathway is most seamless is because that’s where the articulation agreements and conversations are taking place," she said.

The next step, said Ms. Marling, is finding out how many of those transferred credits apply toward a student’s major "so those credits don’t sit in a pocket and count as electives rather than helping a student progress in his major."

Crafting Better Policies

The findings should help state and federal policy makers, as well as colleges, craft more effective transfer policies, said Mr. Simone. More than half of state legislatures have enacted rules intended to ensure students transfer smoothly, but so far, policy makers have had limited data to work with.

"Previously," said Mr. Simone, "they were flying blind."

They did know that the pipeline between colleges is full of leaks. A report released in March found that about 14 percent of the students in the study essentially had to start over because their new institutions accepted less than 10 percent of their community-college credits.

The percentage of students transferring without credits is "shockingly high," and presents a major public-policy problem since those who transfer with credit are far more likely to graduate, said David S. Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges.

Clifford Adelman, a senior associate with the Institute for Higher Education Policy, pointed out that the students the study tracked included both 18-year-old high-school graduates and people who had been out of school for decades, and that the transfer patterns, by age, would vary considerably.

"For obvious reasons, younger students are more mobile," he said. "They don’t come with two kids, two jobs, and/or a subprime mortgage, and they didn’t spend three years in Afghanistan."