The American Council on Education, along with more than two dozen college leaders, are calling on institutions to improve their credit transfer policies so students receive recognition for their prior learning and don't lose progress toward a credential.
Although it's unknown how much credit is lost due to poor transfer policies, "credit loss is occurring to a much larger extent than it should," they argue in a new report.
The pandemic disrupted enrollment patterns in higher education, which could lead to more students transferring between institutions or exiting the workforce to go to college.
Transfer is widespread, but the process can prolong the length and cost of a student's education if the receiving institution doesn't accept all of their credits. Therefore, improving degree completion rates partly depends on policies that ease credit transfer, the report argues.
Fewer than a third of students who start at community colleges transfer to a four-year institution, according to the most recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Of those, only about half earn a bachelor's degree within six years of starting college.
The number of students transferring from community colleges to four-year colleges rose 2.6% year over year this fall, though other types of transfer fell, according to a separate report from the Clearinghouse.
Improving credit transfer policies will be essential to curtail disruptions caused by the pandemic, the report states. It lays out several recommendations for doing so, including:
Prioritize awarding transfer credit and credit for prior learning.
Remove barriers that block students from accessing their transcripts and continuing their education at another college.
Use technology to be more consistent and efficient when awarding credit.
Be clear about which credits will transfer and count toward a specific degree pathway.
Craft articulation agreements and structured transfer pathways with other institutions.
Prior learning assessments are also important. Nontraditional college students, usually considered those age 25 or older, who earned credit through PLAs were more likely to complete a credential than those who did not, according to a report last year from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.
The ACE report calls out several colleges that are taking steps to improve transfer. California Lutheran University, for instance, introduced orientation specifically for transfer students in 2019 and began constructing a transfer center, which houses services for those learners, in 2020.
Western Michigan University likewise created orientation for transfer students. It also formed a faculty committee to research and recommend best practices for evaluating and accepting transfer credit.