June 2, 2021 – Education

Students stuck in place: Chronicle of Higher Education panel discusses how to improve transfer of credit system


The Charles Koch Foundation (CKF) and The Chronicle of Higher Education hosted a discussion on May 17 on “Smoothing the Path for Transfer Students.” As Chronicle reporter Katherine Mangan noted, more than 80 percent of students intend to transfer, but only 20 percent successfully do.

“The current system is too cumbersome, and we support projects that empower students to forge their own paths.” said CKF Executive Director Ryan Stowers about the event. “Reducing unnecessary institutional barriers and creating flexible programs will make it easier for learners to discover, develop, and apply their aptitudes. We’re grateful to The Chronicle for bringing attention to the institutions that are allowing students to shape their own learning outcomes.”

Cheryl Hyman said the number of transfer students left behind represent a “systematic failure of national proportions” that harms Black and brown students the most. Hyman is Arizona State University’s (ASU) Vice Provost of Academic Alliances. She said, “If we don’t look at this [issue] differently, inequities will increase.”

Hyman discussed how, with CKF support, ASU has developed tools to help improve the transfer of credit system. ASU’s offerings include its Transfer of Credit Guide, an interactive platform that allows students who intend to transfer to ASU to create a personalized, course-by-course path within more than 400 majors. The Guide outlines community college class credits that will transfer to a desired major at ASU.

Forty percent of ASU’s students transfer from another institution. “Our systems need to change,” said Hyman. “Not students.”

According to Davis Jenkins, senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center, four-year institutions must make “strategic investments” to improve transfer processes. Two-year schools need to ensure students are taking courses that fit their education goals. Davis noted transfer students typically graduate with 95 credits, significantly more than they need for graduation because they are not getting guidance on the courses that will count toward their chosen field of study.  

Jessica Lopez-Velez, who heads Florida Atlantic University’s (FAU) transfer program, explained that FAU’s Link Program helps students complete an associate’s degree at a partnering state college and then gain admission to FAU to complete a bachelor’s degree. Lopez-Velez said universities also need to help faculty to better understand the transfer student experience.

The Chronicle’s Mangan asked panelists how educators can “normalize” transfer status.

“We need to be more empathetic to these students,” said Janet Marling, executive director for the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students (NISTS). “Mobility is reality.”

Marling suggested parents and guidance counselors start talking to children in middle school about how frequently students move between institutions. She also said students need to talk to one another. Michael Morgan, an Oglethorpe University transfer student and a NISTS National Transfer Student Ambassador, is normalizing transfer status by writing student stories. “The campus becomes smaller as you humanize” each individual student experience, Morgan said.

Another part of the solution is to create an orientation system that is comprehensive and speaks directly to transfer students, panelists agreed.

“There needs to be campus-wide support for students, not just one or two offices,” said Alfred Herrera, assistant vice provost and director of UCLA’s Center for Community College Partnerships (CCCP). Herrera noted UCLA’s chancellor was a transfer student, and that he points this out to students during orientation. Herrera said schools also must answer questions about child care and family housing and outline transfer-specific student aid programs at orientation. The CCCP educates underserved community college students about available transfer pathways. The admission rates for program scholars transferring to UCLA are twice as high as students who don’t participate in the center’s programs.

ASU’s Hyman said normalizing transfer status is necessary because it reflects the changing nature of higher education and its students.

“The idea of a linear program is antiquated,” Hyman said. Institutions that only think chronologically – and do not think of learning as lifelong – “are leaving students behind.”

CKF supports education entrepreneurs who are identifying ways to make it easier for students to engage in lifelong learning that helps unlock their potential.

In addition to ASU, CKF provides grants to organizations like the American Council on Education, which recently released a report outlining six recommendations for higher education leaders to consider to reduce the time and cost associated with transferring. CKF also supports TEL Education, which ensures dual-enrollment credits fully transfer to a range of programs, and Western Governors University, which has been recognized for its work to develop transfer pathways for community-college transfer students.

The Charles Koch Foundation partners with social entrepreneurs to drive societal progress through relevant research and innovative programs that help all learners realize their potential. Read more about the Foundation’s support for education.