Opinion

Underserved and overburdened, transfer students face an uphill battle to earn their degrees

Alicea Thomas works at a Starbucks and dreams of a career in talk radio or public relations. At age 23, she wants to get a bachelor’s degree at Arizona State University, having previously attended a California public university and a community college. But for Thomas and her ASU adviser, obtaining transcripts has been a long process involving repeated requests, lost paperwork, and long drives.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of students like Alicea Thomas seek to transfer from one college to another. The National Student Clearinghouse recently reported that 37 percent of all students who began college in 2008 have transferred institutions at some point. Nearly half of transfer students transfer more than once.

The report should be a wake-up call for Capitol Hill and the White House as policymakers work to reauthorize the Higher Education Act.

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The shift in what constitutes a college student today provides President Obama, a transfer student himself, a unique opportunity to ensure millions of potential college graduates don’t get lost in — and penalized by — an antiquated system.

At ASU, our university, nearly 13,500 transfer students enrolled in fall 2014 and spring 2015 semesters, outnumbering first-time freshmen by more than 2,000. These transfer numbers are likely to explode in coming years, with profound consequences for students and universities alike.

This rise of the transfer student parallels a change in the types of individuals attending college. The typical college student is no longer 18 years old and fresh from high school graduation. Today, more than one-third of college students are 25 or older. Only 14 percent of college students are residential students, and 46 percent are part-time college students.

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At many colleges, transfer admission, enrollment and credit evaluation still work the way it did a half-century ago, when college students were fairly homogeneous and rarely moved between institutions.

Most schools don’t collaborate to facilitate transfers. Some public state university systems – such as in Ohio and Maryland – have done an admirable job mapping course equivalencies across campuses and requiring reciprocity, but too many colleges have not, and statewide articulation agreements alone do not move the needle on transfer rates. And while most transfers are local, nearly a quarter cross state lines.

Among community college students in particular, roughly eight of 10 enroll with the intent to earn a bachelor’s degree, yet only 17 percent eventually do.

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The frustration students like Alicea Thomas experience simply moving student records to transfer credits clearly hinders completion.

Almost half of community college transfer students are unable to bring all their credits with them. Even when transfer credits are accepted, only a fraction are applied to a degree program at the new school.

Colleges and universities legitimately seek to maintain the integrity of their degree programs, in part by ensuring that some threshold of coursework was completed at that institution, in a certain sequence and with certain content. Almost every school accepts some amount of credit, however – and the current system for doing so fails a large segment of our college student population.

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Case in point, students transferring to public institutions benefit from the highest rate of credit acceptance: 20 percent more than students transferring to private non-profit colleges and 52 percent more than students transferring to private for-profit colleges. It’s not clear what academic interests explain this disparity, especially among top public and private colleges.

A bill of rights for transfer students?

For the thousands of students like Alicea Thomas, we need a Transfer Student’s Bill of Rights that guarantees access to degree programs, sequences, and prerequisites guiding higher education to do a much better job in serving the nation’s transfer students.

That means ensuring all students understand what prior courses will transfer to their new institutions before choosing their next university. It means having access to data from all colleges and universities about their track record accepting credit and the fine print.

It means colleges working with each other on behalf of students to clear, not add roadblocks, the transfer process. It means communicating after the transfer to track and notify students if they meet degree requirements at a prior institution. And it means a consumer marketplace of admissions tools and services that recognize transfer students’ unique needs.

Central to transfer students’ rights is an imperative that every higher education institution adopt an infrastructure for electronic student records exchange, so that credits can be discovered and processed in an efficient, effective and timely manner.

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Few realize that in higher education today, we have the equivalent of thousands of local railroads, each with its own gauge track. Our independent, decentralized system of higher education has many strengths, but if we are to lead the world in degree attainment our colleges and universities must be equipped with the same institution-to-institution record exchange capabilities that sectors such as finance put in place years ago.

Serving transfer students better is one of the few ways to make a significant, positive impact on the cost of college and degree completion, without the need for new regulations. Every transfer student who has earned postsecondary credits must have a basic set of rights associated with turning those credits into a degree and that degree into opportunity. A bill of rights will help do just that.

The time has come for Washington, states, accrediting agencies and institutions to join together to make such a bill of rights a reality. We must fully recognize the important role transfer students play in the future of higher education, the economy, and our nation as a whole.

Matthew Pittinsky is assistant research professor at Arizona State University and CEO of Parchment Inc.

Kent Hopkins is vice president of enrollment management and services at Arizona State University.

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Kent Hopkins

Kent Hopkins is vice president of enrollment management and services at Arizona State University. See Archive

Matthew Pittinsky

Matthew Pittinsky is assistant research professor at Arizona State University and CEO of Parchment Inc. See Archive