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The significant proportion of students who transfer from one college or university to another lose an average of 13 credits when they do, and nearly 40 percent get no credit for the work they have already completed, according to a new federal study.

The study, by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, found that 35 percent of a sample of more than 18,000 students who began in the 2003-2004 academic year changed schools at least once. And nearly 40 percent got no transfer credit, losing an average of 27 credits apiece, or almost a full year of college.

Lost credits aggravate the already slow progress of students toward degrees. Only 4 percent of community college students complete an associate’s degree within two years, and 36 percent of students at public universities earn a bachelor’s degree in four, according to the advocacy organization Complete College America. The National Student Clearinghouse reports that 60 percent of community college and more than 40 percent of university students still have not received those credentials after even six years.

Nearly 40 percent of students got no transfer credit, losing an average of 27 credits apiece, or almost a full year of college.

Complete College America estimates that every two courses per degree recipient for which the credits fail to transfer cost families and taxpayers a total of $600 million.

About a third of students did manage to transfer all their credits from one institution to another, the federal study found.

Of those who didn’t, as many as 31 percent didn’t tell the colleges or universities to which they transferred that they already had credits toward a degree, meaning they may have had themselves to blame.

But there were other patterns.

Students with high grade-point averages were more likely to have their credits transferred. Students transferring from four-year universities and colleges to community colleges were less likely to have their credits transfer, as were those transferring between community colleges. And students who moved to private, nonprofit universities and colleges saw fewer credits come with them than those who transferred to public universities.

The federal government now requires institutions to post the criteria they use for determining whether to accept transfer credits, and several states—fed up with the additional cost of students churning through the public higher-education system without getting degrees—have enacted policies to make credit transfer easier, including common course numbering systems and standardized general-education requirements.

“Even with these interventions, when students transfer from one institution to another, credits earned at the first institution may not move with them,” the federal researchers concluded.

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Jon Marcus, higher-education editor, has written about higher education for the Washington Post, USA Today, Time, the Boston Globe, Washington Monthly, is North America higher-education correspondent for...

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  1. The European Credit Transfer System is an interesting approach to this problem, and especially admirable in that, in spite of the greater differences between European national educational systems than between those of different American states, Europe has, in this respect, developed the more closely coordinated, efficient system. Crucial, for example, are agreements like the European Convention on the Equivalence of Diplomas leading to Admission to Universities: while American states similarly accept the high school diplomas issued by other states, the American high school diploma does not automatically qualify its bearers for admission to state universities, a deficiency we are attempting to address at One World Secondary College via our proposal for an American Matura.

  2. We need to ensure that people understand the differences between the accrediting bodies. Anyone can open a school (either brick and mortar or online program) and call it a university. The accreditation is what determines whether the credits will transfer to a real university.

  3. The credit transfer system is a shame and it’s shameful that institutions of higher learning continue to exploit students, in particular community college students, who transfer from their institutions to a four year college or university. The colleges will tell you they take all the transfer credits. The problem is most of those courses don’t count toward graduation requirements. Transfer credits are often relegated to the elective courses, which are limited in most if not all four year institutions. Basic courses like English composition and math taken at a community college are often shifted to the electives pool, because the four-year colleges and universities don’t think those courses are taught at a level commensurate with their standards. As for transferring upper division courses poses its own problems as one must substantiate a very close match between what one took at a community college or at some other institution and courses offered at the school to which the student wants to transfer. So, a student graduates from a community college with sixty credits, and perhaps 12 or 15 of those credits will count as electives; the remaining credits transfer, they just don’t count.

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