But a student transferring from Lincoln Land to UIS would find more bumps in the journey than on that walking path. Some 65 percent of the transfer students at UIS come from Lincoln Land, and the two institutions could be viewed as symbiotic — UIS, after all, started out as an upper-division university, where students would finish out the last two years of their undergraduate degree. Last summer, the leaders of Lincoln Land and UIS signed a transfer agreement that they said would offer “
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But a student transferring from Lincoln Land to UIS would find more bumps in the journey than on that walking path. Some 65 percent of the transfer students at UIS come from Lincoln Land, and the two institutions could be viewed as symbiotic — UIS, after all, started out as an upper-division university, where students would finish out the last two years of their undergraduate degree. Last summer, the leaders of Lincoln Land and UIS signed a transfer agreement that they said would offer “a streamlined path” for students, many of whom are bound to the Springfield area by jobs, finances, or family.
Of the 80 percent who intended to transfer and earn an undergraduate degree, fewer than 20 percent actually do.
The agreement was another in a long line of efforts to fix a stubborn problem that is common nationwide. For decades, higher education has been talking about fixing transfer, and yet students still get tripped up, lose credits, and fall through the cracks, even among colleges that seem like they should be a tight fit. While many people think of public institutions as a kind of interlocking system, transfer students painfully come to learn that American higher education is not really a system at all, but a patchwork of competing entities. The barriers hide in the granularity, where bureaucratic inertia meets institutional self-interest — in the enrollment strategies of the university and its academic departments, in the attitudes of individual faculty members, in the individual interactions between advisers and students, and in the compatibility of something as seemingly inconsequential as course names and numbers.
Paying attention to the granularity is something I’m learning as I write a book about student success with Ned Laff, who spent decades leading academic and advising programs for various institutions. It was Ned who first noticed some of the controversies around transfer in his home state of Illinois, and he sat in on the interviews for this article to help me understand the bureaucratic granularity. Those fine details can go unseen by administrators, faculty members, policymakers, and journalists. Students, especially, don’t notice them until they get caught in the bureaucracy and end up spending more time and money than they had planned. The hurdles often benefit colleges at the expense of students.
The transfer mess is one place where the public loses its faith in higher education. Eighty percent of students enter community college intending to transfer, but only 25 percent ultimately make the leap — most of the time to less-selective public institutions. There, transfer students can feel like second-class citizens on a campus, where they can come to think a college is simply trying to wring more money out of them by making them repeat courses. Of the 80 percent who intended to transfer and earn an undergraduate degree, fewer than 20 percent actually do. It’s a significant chokepoint in the education pipeline and one of the primary reasons 40.4 million Americans are stranded with some college and no degree. To understand why so many students fail to earn a diploma, you need to start by looking at just how difficult it is to transfer credits from one institution to another.
Take Gordon Davis: He was an adult student in the honors program in political science at Lincoln Land but lost his academic status when he transferred, because UIS doesn’t recognize honors students from its main transfer institution. Without honors status, and with no adviser in his program, he lacked the guidance he needed, and he lost the credits for the courses in political philosophy and international relations he took at Lincoln Land. “I had to redo both of those classes,” he says. “They didn’t transfer because UIS doesn’t have that same course-level number.” Davis did poorly the second time around, he says, and ended up dropping out in 2021. Now he runs a tea shop in downtown Springfield. “There wasn’t any kind of retention plan,” he says. “I withdrew, and that was that.”
Nor are they in charge of determining which courses and credits transfer in — much of that infrastructure is set up by the faculty. Faculty members create the courses, identify their learning outcomes, and then determine if they should be offered at the upper or lower division — and what number they should carry.
Course numbering is one of those bureaucratic conventions in higher education that few people notice. But it can play a big part in how students move through the system, and it can be gamed to offer advantages to a college. The specifics vary among institutions, but the numbering system is supposed to be set up logically: Most commonly, 100- and 200-level courses form the “lower division” offerings, composed of introductory courses for freshmen and sophomores, while 300- and 400-level courses are considered more advanced, “upper division” courses for juniors, seniors, and graduate students. (Those numbers could be in the thousands, or follow some other pattern.)
When students get hung up in the transfer maze, it’s often because of course numbers and whether they’re at the upper or lower level. Is one community college’s 200-level “Introduction to World Literature” course the same as another institution’s 300-level “Introduction to World Literature” course if the course syllabi and the learning outcomes are virtually the same? And if so, should a student get credit for it, or will they have to spend money and time to take the course again?
Look all over the colleges of Illinois, and the numbering systems have little consistency. The four-credit course on cost accounting at the College of DuPage is ACCOU 2251, and the course catalog says it covers methods used for decision making, budgeting, performance evaluation, and the design and use of cost-accounting systems. At the University of Illinois at Chicago, the three-credit course on cost accounting is ACTG 326 — at the upper division level — but its course-catalog description sounds largely the same as the lower-level course at the community college in DuPage. At Northeastern Illinois University, it’s called ACTG 301; at Northern Illinois University, it’s ACCY 207; at Southern Illinois at Carbondale, ACCT 331; at Illinois State, ACC 230 — all with comparable course descriptions.
Are these courses truly different, as their different numbers suggest? If an accounting student takes cost accounting at DuPage, should it be an equivalent course at UIC, or at Northeastern or Southern Illinois Universities, if the student transfers there? The course numbers seem to mean little to a student’s goal of becoming a certified public accountant: The Illinois Board of Examiners, which oversees the Uniform CPA Examination in the state, is only concerned with whether courses prepare a student for the exam, not how the courses are numbered.
Course numbering is one of those bureaucratic conventions in higher education that few people notice. But it can play a big part in how students move through the system, and it can be gamed to offer advantages to a college.
But at the University of Illinois at Springfield, the numbering is peculiar. There, most of the courses in the majors are set at the 300 level and above, and the university generally requires students to petition academic departments to get transfer credits. For example, in the political-science program, even introductory courses for public policy, comparative politics, and many other core topics are set at the 300 level, where they would be at the 100 or 200 level at many other colleges. Similarly, in communication, a required core introductory course on organizational communication is COM 302 — and the department does not allow students to transfer in credits to substitute for the course.
Among academic departments at UIS, psychology appears to be one of the most stringent in terms of transfer from community colleges. It will allow those students to transfer credits from 100- and 200-level courses to waive requirements in the major that are designated as 300-level courses, provided they got a B or higher. (Students transferring credits from other upper-division institutions and those from the same college who are looking to continue in the major, however, are only required to earn C’s.) “A waiver based on lower-division coursework does not reduce the total number of credit hours required in the major,” says the course catalog. For example, a 200-level social-psychology course from a community college could satisfy a requirement in UIS’s clinical, developmental, or experimental psychology tracks, but a transferring student would still have to take another 300-level course from the department to graduate.
Practically, this means that many community-college students transferring to UIS would find that courses they believed would count for their major merely transfer in as electives, and they would have to load up on more major courses at the university. In addition to having to pay about $300 per credit hour for courses they’ve already taken, students would have less space in their schedule to add course clusters or minors from other disciplines that would help them build out a marketable, integrated undergraduate experience.
Vickie S. Cook, the vice chancellor for enrollment and retention management, explained that the university’s advisers work with students to petition the departments to accept major credits — that is, if students bother to meet with an adviser or know about the petition process. “Transfer students, especially, tend to think, I have made my way through this far, and I don’t really need you,” Cook said. “They just kind of blow off the adviser, and so that’s one problem.” Cook also said that the university has worked “very closely” with the state’s community colleges, and is continually looking for courses to list with the Illinois Articulation Initiative, a framework established in 1993 and intended to identify equivalent courses across the state.
UIS was once known as Sangamon State University, a two-year upper-division institution where community-college students finished out their undergraduate degrees — which, in part, explains the elevated course numbers, Cook said. The University of Illinois system absorbed Sangamon State in 1995, started admitting freshmen in 2001, and made a full transition to a four-year university in 2005.
Over the years, some programs at UIS — like English, history, and the sciences — have adjusted their courses to resemble a more-traditional sequence, starting with introductory courses at the 100 level, which could allow students to more easily transfer credits into those majors. Those decisions are governed entirely by departmental faculty, and some departments have been more resistant than others. Cook said that the university administration had been in discussion with the psychology department about course levels “for years,” but that the department had concerns about reducing the rigor of courses to match what the community colleges were offering. Cook noted that the psychology program gets twice as many applicants as it can take in every year. “When you have those kinds of wait lists for students,” said Cook, “faculty believe that they have a good, solid program.”
And at the end of the day, she added, “the faculty control the curricula.”
“The analysis was that even if we decided that as a system or a state that we wanted to do a single catalog at some point in the future, we’re going to have to do all that mapping activity anyway,” he says.
Systems like North Carolina drew inspiration from the Illinois Articulation Initiative. But IAI is a voluntary program, and institutions that don’t want to articulate particular courses don’t have to.
The state’s flagship, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, made adjustments to its course-numbering system more than 20 years ago, laying out an even spread of courses at the 100, 200, and 300 levels and above. UIUC made those changes for reasons both collegial and self-serving: Altering the course numbers made student transcripts clearer to employers, and it allowed students to more easily transfer courses taken at community colleges over the summer.
But complications for transferring students remain at many institutions, which has prompted state officials to act. In Illinois, State Sen. Cristina Castro — who sponsored a bill to tighten up transfer — has harbored some bitterness about her own transfer experience, back in 1998. A first-generation Latina student who worked full-time, Castro attended Elgin Community College after high school to help her parents save money; when she transferred to Northern Illinois University, some of her credits didn’t transfer and she had to take similar courses again, adding another year to her undergraduate degree.
“I was like, Are you kidding?” she said, sitting in her Senate office in early May. “It should be a natural transition. If I want to start at a two-year college, I should have a standard and transfer.” Now, the Democrat sees herself as an advocate for community-college students, and tells stories about challenging state university presidents when they subtly suggest a community-college education is inferior.
When Castro first started working in the statehouse as a legislative liaison for Elgin Community College, she could see that transfer and credit articulation was a contentious issue among the state colleges, which she said were focused on “territory and money.” As a state senator, she brought her changes to the transfer rules, which had been proposed by the Illinois Community College Board, to the state’s higher-education board before taking the bill to a vote. “To my surprise, at the time, the universities were not opposed,” she says. When the bill reached the Illinois House of Representatives, universities started pushing back, Castro says, but she refused to change the legislation. The bill passed both houses, and now awaits the governor’s signature.
In trumpeting the bill’s passage, one local news story focused on a UIS student named Tyreese Overton, who explained that he had to “start back at square one” when his community-college credits didn’t transfer into his major there. The story gave the impression that the bill closes the loopholes and smooths the path for transfer students in the state.
But again, the barriers are found in the granular details. The bill’s revisions left in a loophole that would maintain a course-numbering snag for students: “If the receiving institution does not offer the course or does not offer it at the lower-division level, the student shall receive elective lower-division major credit toward the requirements of the major for the course and may be required to take the course at the upper-division level.” In other words, that 100- or 200-level course from a community college could be worth only elective credit if the receiving four-year institution offers the course only at the 300 level or above.
The transfer agreement signed last summer by UIS and Lincoln Land does not bridge that gap, either. It establishes some incentives for the institutions — such as setting up a reverse-transfer mechanism that could raise LLCC’s graduation rates while giving students who stop out a shot at a degree. It creates scholarships for high-performing students who transfer to UIS after 24 credits, but the largest scholarship of $3,000 is still significantly less than the difference in tuition between LLCC and UIS — even scholarship students might save money if they could stay at Lincoln Land and reliably transfer credits into UIS. Most of all, the agreement does not clear up the course-numbering discrepancies or offer students any assurance about how courses would transfer into majors.
John Fink, a researcher at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, studies the barriers that low-income and minority students face. Over the past 10 to 15 years, he says, advocates for transfer students have tried to set up “equivalency tools,” like articulation agreements, or to push state governments to force colleges to accept the courses. “Then what you saw was just a lot of monkey business, for lack of a better term” — with institutions saying they would accept courses, “but we won’t apply it to your major or we’ll count it as a general elective,” Fink says.
The problems are not found among students who need developmental education, as they tend not to make it to the transfer stage. It’s the successful students who get tripped up trying to transfer credits, with “the improper sequencing of 100-, 200-, and 300-level courses” being a primary part of the problem, says Fink.
Given these bureaucratic complexities, students need solid advice in planning and picking courses from general education to transfer successfully. “You have to take the right gen eds if you’re going to get into the major and have your courses apply,” Fink says. “And that’s assuming the best intentions from the four-year perspective.”
And many disincentives — like how colleges and universities get credit for the students they graduate — get in the way of good intentions. The Department of Education mainly tracks graduation rates at individual institutions, and it doesn’t effectively monitor students who transfer. If a student starts at a community college, completes 30 credit hours, then transfers before earning an associate degree, that student would not count as completing a degree through the department’s metrics. Some students should transfer early, either to stay in sequence with the timing of course offerings at the four-year college, or to avoid transferring with major courses that will only count as electives — as in the case of psychology at UIS. But two-year institutions are incentivized to hang on to those students, says Janet L. Marling, executive director of the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students, at the University of North Georgia.
Those metrics, those numbers we throw around about graduation rates, really dampen everybody’s enthusiasm for transfer.
“Then you look at it from the four-year institution perspective, they’re almost benevolently being asked to take these students, because they were never going to get credit for them, either, because they didn’t start with them,” she says. ”Those metrics, those numbers we throw around about graduation rates, really dampen everybody’s enthusiasm for transfer.”
Add to that the upper-division enrollment game. Within four-year institutions, academic departments have an incentive to enroll as many students as possible in their upper-division courses, because the number of students in upper-division courses often determines financial support and faculty lines. Community-college students who can transfer courses to get upper-division credits are not contributing to the metrics for the upper-division courses and therefore do not help a department reach those bottom-line enrollment goals.
So some institutions set up barriers for transfer students seeking upper-division credit. “What you’re seeing is, Let’s make this intro class an upper-division class, and get funding for those types of courses,” says Marling.
In addition, some colleges complicate transfer with arrogance about their own rankings, status, and pedagogy — the notion that a four-year university teaches courses more rigorously or effectively than the community college down the road. In reality, there is often no support for that claim, as four-year institutions typically do not conduct course assessments at community colleges. And who’s to say that a course taught by a full-time professor at a community college is of lower quality compared with a course taught by a graduate assistant or contingent faculty member at a research university?
A number of studies show that students transferring from two-year colleges can do as well or better than “native” students at upper-division institutions — particularly if the receiving institutions work to counter credit loss and the “transfer shock” students feel in getting acclimated to a new environment and new expectations. But, says Marling, transfer students are often hampered by a lack of support systems.
Ideally, advisers at the community-college level would help students identify where they want to be at the end of a four-year program, and then design their undergraduate-degree paths backwards — tracing steps back to the starting point. That would require the advisers (sometimes called “success coaches”) to think beyond the point of transfer, to pay attention to both the contours and requirements of upper-division programs, and to the relationship between college majors and the job market — training that advisers typically do not get.
“The hot thing is to develop these success coaches, but we’re not equipping the success coaches with the right information to have those meaningful conversations with the students,” Marling says. Her research shows that even among higher-performing community colleges, conversations about transfer do not start until the second year. “If they come in intending to transfer, we have to start those conversations immediately.”
Community-college students more often come from low-income, first-generation backgrounds, and meaningful, informative conversations with advisers are critical to their success. But according to the Community College Research Center, only half of transfer students seek advising to ease the transition.
Without clear rules and transfer agreements, many students stumble around on their own to figure it out. Those with social and cultural capital come in with some knowledge about their rights and the rules of the game. “First-generation students, low-income students, students of color — they’re not culturally encouraged to buck any system, especially a system they do not understand,” says Marling. “They’re not going to bring a syllabus to a faculty member to evaluate for articulation.”
They might not even know about the granular details of course numbering or how to maneuver around the barriers. Jilleah Johnson came to the Springfield campus from Howard University, majoring in computer science, and was told by her adviser that UIS wouldn’t recognize some of her courses, not even for elective credit. “I took 36 credits at Howard and only 20 of them transferred,” she says, noting that Howard and UIS focus on different programming languages. She didn’t know that she could petition the department — or even personally appeal to the department chair — to try to get credit for the courses.
She’s planning to resolve her transfer problem by leaving UIS to go to the University of Texas at Austin, where she predicts her credits will transfer.
Among faculty members we could talk to, most didn’t see course numbering as a barrier and trusted that the petitioning process would reliably help students transfer their credits. “If somebody has a 100- or 200-level ‘Intro to Reporting’ class that they’ve taken at another institution,” Ann Strahle, the director of the School of Communication and Media, told us, “we will look and most likely we’ll say yes. I can tell you right now, it would probably count as the 312 Multimedia Reporting class we have.” (That course, however, is not articulated through IAI.) Transfer at UIS was “seamless,” she said, because her department had streamlined the process of approving individual student petitions with the department’s adviser.
Strahle said that the communication school was highly reliant on transfer students, and that UIS and the school had a “phenomenal” relationship with Lincoln Land. However, the school does not list transferable courses in UIS’s latest transfer guide for Lincoln Land, nor is communication listed among the university’s programs that have worked out partnerships with the college.
To some, the entire issue seemed invisible. Magic Wade, chair of the political science department, had also ignored our interview requests, but we ran into her at an off-campus bar one night. She explained that she had been chair for only a few months and that she mostly taught graduate students online. “I don’t teach very many undergrads, so I don’t know their personal strife about transferring,” she said, adding that she doubted transfer was an issue because the department’s petition process, handled through its adviser, seemed smooth. “No one has presented this as a problem to me.”
Ned pointed out that the process set up puzzling redundancies and bureaucratic hassles: A student comes in from Lincoln Land Community College with credits from “Introduction to Political Philosophy,” petitions to get the course credits approved, and the department approves it. And then the next student transferring in with credits from the very same course also has to go through the exact same petition process. Why?
“Yeah, that’s a good question,” Wade replied, while adding that, as a social scientist, she relied on data. She worried that perceptions about UIS’s transfer policy would be shaped by student anecdotes. “I can talk to people and I can get stories, and maybe there’s going to be a one-off person who got really screwed. But look, our students are being very successful.”
The Chronicle submitted an open-records request for the percentage of transfer students filing petitions and the number of petitions filed over recent years. The University of Illinois system said the university had not consistently tracked this data, could not separate the petitions that were filed by community-college students from those who were first-time students, and deemed the request too onerous to fulfill.
“I feel like I am taking the same class again,” she says, but with less depth. “As far as learning about climate change, air pollution, different types of renewable resources, and stuff like that, the previous class at University of Houston covered that and more.”
Some students experienced minor hiccups in transfer — but their stories revealed how they had to advocate for themselves. Cecelia Jiardina, who graduated this year, transferred to UIS, majoring in business and minoring in philosophy, with plans to go into law. When she transferred, she had to point out to an adviser that she had already taken a required ethics course at Lincoln Land and could petition for it.
“I just kind of assumed at the time that they would look at the courses I took and apply them where necessary,” Jiardina says, “but further on in my education at UIS, I kind of realized that they weren’t doing that.”
Ashley Pfaffe, who grew up amid domestic abuse and addiction, found faculty and staff members who supported her emotionally and academically at Lincoln Land. She became an honors student, took an interest in psychology, and enrolled in several standard courses in that discipline.
When she transferred to UIS in 2016, none of those courses — abnormal psychology, adolescent psychology, the biological basis of behavior, child psychology, and personality theory — counted toward her psych major. In fact, she took abnormal psych and personality theory again. Like Davis, the political-science student who now runs the tea shop, she lost her status as an honors student. Both she and her husband, who also majored in psychology at UIS on the GI Bill, struggled to deal with the university’s processes and hoops. “It’s just a pain to get anything done,” she says, describing instances in which she has been sent to multiple administrators or offices to get approval or an answer to a question.
After graduating, she went to work at a bank. She has taken a number of business courses at Lincoln Land, and is once again planning to transfer to UIS for a bachelor’s in business administration, or BBA, while her husband is returning for an education degree. They have encountered the same bureaucratic hassles as before, but she has been persistent. “If I wasn’t on top of it, I think it would be more confusing,” she says.
The students we interviewed generally represent the successful students — or at least the ones still trying to get through. The students who stop out are usually invisible. Pfaffe says one of her friends from Lincoln Land had planned to transfer to UIS to go into social work, but ran aground on the bureaucracy. “She had such a hard time getting a hold of people, she just didn’t even end up doing it,” Pfaffe says. “She ended up becoming a cosmetologist.”
No one told White that math majors can do quite well in finance and banking by matching that major with key business courses (or a finance minor) and banking experience. White could have stayed in his math major, kept his credits, and saved money and time on the path to graduation — could have, that is, if UIS’s math department, which has set all of its required courses at the 300 and 400 level and evaluates transfers on a case-by-case basis through a student petition, would accept his courses.
This gap in advising starts at a lower-division institution. Kylana Moore, a student in Lincoln Land’s communication program who is featured on the department homepage, plans to transfer to UIS in the fall, where she wants to focus on social media and possibly start a podcast about self-care. But no one at Lincoln Land has talked with her about her goals, what she plans to do with a degree in communication, or how she could get work experiences related to her degree — nor have they talked with her about the complexities of transfer at UIS or how she could connect with the communication program at the university.
That story was common among students we encountered that last week of classes at Lincoln Land. Many said that they were navigating college on their own, or that they were turning to family members or friends for advice, and less to the college’s success coaches. Some had several different coaches in their time at Lincoln Land, because turnover in the position is high.
Shanda Byer, Lincoln Land’s interim vice president for student services, oversees the coaching program, which is charged with helping students even after they leave the college. “If they encounter something that doesn’t transfer as it looks like it should, we encourage them to come back to us,” she says. “Our coaches advocate for them and, honestly, it normally works out fine.” However, Byer didn’t know about the disparities in upper- and lower-division course numbering between LLCC and UIS, and wasn’t sure how Lincoln Land’s credits counted toward the university’s majors. “I don’t know that we followed up to say, OK, do you have additional hours that you had to take at 300 level or not?”
Connections among professors are the crucial, ground-level place where institutions can create smoother transfer experiences for students. “For any of this to work, it has to happen at the department level, and it has to happen inter-institutionally,” says Marling, the director of the transfer institute. “It does not have to be a continuous conversation. It just has to be selflessly coming to the table to ensure that really we’re talking about pathways that are smooth.”
The best examples of transfer partnerships, says Fink, the researcher, involve connections between academic departments at two institutions. “They build trust and hammer out the right course sequence — but unfortunately, I don’t feel like that is widespread at all,” he says. Higher education’s demographic crisis and flagging enrollments in humanities disciplines might spur “enlightened self-interest” among faculty members looking to build pipelines into their programs, he says. “That’s your coalition of the willing.”
In many ways, the transfer partnership between Lincoln Land and UIS — two colleges less than a mile apart — is still nascent.
Over the years, Jason Dockter, an English professor and the interim vice president for academic services at Lincoln Land, says he’s had only a “slight” connection to UIS English professors, mainly when he bumped into them at disciplinary conferences. Recently that’s begun to change — though it’s been on the administrative level. “Last fall, we really started to work more closely with the departments than we had in the past,” he says. “I literally took a van full of the deans from here over to UIS to sit down for an afternoon with their counterparts.”
Ned told Dockter that when he set up transfer agreements at various colleges, professors from two departments would get together over sandwiches, pizza, or beer. They spent the first half of the conversation griping about upper administration and then realized that they had more in common than they thought — that, in fact, some of the faculty members at the community college had been trained at the upper-division program. Then they spent the last part of lunch getting down to business, setting up seamless pathways between the departments.
Transfer doesn’t have to be a Gordian knot, and it doesn’t have to be solved by statewide articulation agreements or legislative action. Faculty members, working at the granular level, can eliminate most transfer problems in an afternoon — if they’re motivated.
Lincoln Land wasn’t quite there yet, Dockter acknowledged, but might get started on that approach this fall. “I mean,” he said, “that is absolutely the next step.”