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Three Ways States Can Help Community College Transfer Students Complete Their Bachelor’s Degrees

Transfer credits often determine whether a student will complete a college degree, with many receiving little to none. But experts are starting to find that implementing statewide postsecondary education articulation policies can increase completion rates. 

In response to COVID-19 and the economic recession in the U.S., an increased number of students are expected to transfer colleges. Some students may not feel comfortable completing their education where they started, while job loss may prompt others to seek out more education. This situation has drawn attention to policies governing how much credit students can transfer from one college to another.

More than half of students who start at a community college and then transfer to a four-year institution do not complete a bachelor’s degree within six years. Transfer students’ ability to earn a bachelor’s degree depends, in part, on whether they can  transfer community college credits to an institution granting bachelor’s degrees. While some colleges have begun to implement  more flexible articulation policies because of COVID-19, generally, many four-year colleges have refused to grant transfer credit for community college coursework. Typically, about  15% of transfer students receive almost no credit. 

Implementing strong, statewide articulation policies that govern how credits transfer, is a critical lever in the quest to help transfer students earn bachelor’s degrees. Not only can articulation policies reduce credit loss, but they may also decrease the time and cost involved in completing a degree.  

AIR, along with fellow member organizations in the Scaling Partners Network, is calling for policymakers and higher education leaders to take a closer look at their articulation policies in light of the pandemic and recent calls for racial justice. Learn more here.

To learn more about articulation policies and their effective implementation, AIR conducted over 100 interviews and focus groups with state postsecondary education administrators, faculty, staff, and students at 20 different two- and four-year colleges in six states (California, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania). While our particular study focused on how articulation policies can support college students pursuing early childhood education degrees, what we learned can help students pursuing a range of careers. 

Here, we provide three key takeaways for policymakers who want to implement effective articulation policies.

1. Prioritize statewide policies over local policies

Statewide articulation policies are more comprehensive and binding than local or regional articulation agreements, which have been negotiated between colleges. Statewide policies enable students to transfer credits to more public institutions than local and regional agreements, providing students with more transfer pathways. 

Statewide articulation policies that allow for block transfer are particularly promising. Block transfer allows students to receive full transfer credit for the lower division course sequence they have completed. Such policies reduce credit loss and may make the credit transfer process more efficient by reducing the need for a transcript review, in which college faculty or staff determine on a course-by-course basis which credits will transfer. 

Two state actions facilitate block transfer: establishing common general education requirements and offering transfer associate degrees. Common general education requirements enable students to transfer a block of 30-35 general education credits, and transfer associate degrees similarly ensure that the credits students earn in community college will transfer as a block. Some states’ transfer associate degrees provide the additional incentive of guaranteed or priority admission at a public four-year institution within the state.

2. Make articulation policies clear and easily accessible

Once articulation policies are in place, states need to ensure that students—and the faculty and staff advising them—understand them. Several states we studied had developed public-facing websites with information about articulation and transfer. Such websites help college faculty and staff provide students with accurate information about credit transfer and help them learn independently how to make efficient progress toward earning their degree.

For example, Massachusetts funded the development of the MassTransfer website. State officials worked with faculty and other transfer specialists to identify courses that were commonly transferred and then designated which ones qualified for inclusion in the common general education requirements. These courses are cataloged in MassTransfer’s searchable Gen Ed Foundation Courses database. The website also includes degree planning maps for associate to bachelor’s degree (A2B) pathways based on the state’s transfer associate degrees.

3. Ensure transfer policies are consistently implemented

Our interviews showed that colleges have substantial latitude in implementing articulation and transfer policies, which affects how effective they are. For instance, four-year faculty and staff told us that their colleges often accepted credits from transfer associate degrees to fulfill general education requirements and electives, not to fulfill major requirements. Another four-year faculty member told us that her department attempted to increase the minimum GPA requirement for transfer admission, which would have essentially barred some community college students from entry. The university provost ultimately overruled the policy, saying it undermined the spirit of the statewide articulation policy. 

To encourage colleges to adopt articulation agreements, states can use performance-based funding that is tied to graduation rates. Under performance-based funding systems, colleges receive “credit” when students complete a degree. This motivates colleges to implement articulation policies that help students transfer credits and complete their degrees more quickly and efficiently. Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, and New Mexico have used this tool.

Oversight committees and postsecondary education agencies also play an important role in articulation accountability. They monitor whether colleges implement policies as intended and determine the need for additional implementation supports. For example, California, Florida, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania have mandated an appeals process for students who lose credits during the transfer process; if students are unable to resolve the issue with their college, the process may take place at the state level. 

Done right, statewide postsecondary education articulation policies have the potential to increase bachelor’s degree completion rates among transfer students, especially when they are clear, accessible and implemented consistently. States publicizing such policies and providing degree planning tools can further support students who want to transfer. By working together to address articulation, state postsecondary education administrators, policymakers, and colleges can increase the efficiency of state postsecondary education systems and help students earn the credentials they need. 

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