Credits that don’t count cost transfer students time, money — and often the opportunity to complete a degree, according to the Hechinger Report.
“One of the most common complaints a legislator gets from a constituent about higher education is, ‘My credits don’t transfer,’” says Davis Jenkins, senior researcher at Teachers College, Columbia University, who has studied the issue.
“This is so common, but it’s heart-rending,” Jenkins says. “And it also pisses me off as a taxpayer.”
A third of students transfer at least once, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center says. Most lose credits along the way. Full-time students average 3.8 years to earn a two-year degree and 4.7 years to get a four-year degree, according to Complete College America. An associate degree requires 60 credits, but the average graduate has earned 80, the advocacy group estimates. Bachelor’s degree graduates average 136.5 credits for a degree that requires 120.
Part of the problem is that public universities are largely funded based on their enrollment, not on whether students actually graduate. So while an institution has a financial incentive to take transfer students to fill seats left vacant when other students drop out, it may not have a financial incentive to help them successfully finish college and move on.
Karen Hernandez started at St. John’s University in New York and transferred after a year and a half to Nassau Community College, with 27 of the 36 credits she’d earned and paid for. After another year and a half, she received an associate’s degree. Then she transferred to Columbia University with 55 of her 63 credits. After three years in college, she faces another three years to complete a bachelor’s degree in art history and human rights. (And, if she graduates, she’ll have a hard time finding a job and paying off her college loans with an art history and human rights degree.)
University faculty often question the quality of courses taught at other institutions.
“Everybody feels that the way they do it is the right way,” says Janet L. Marling, director of the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students at the University of North Georgia. “To admit that somebody else does it equally well can chip away at their foothold.”
Sometimes students are told their credits will transfer, but don’t realize they won’t count toward their major. They end up with too many electives credits that don’t help them complete a degree. Others don’t learn if their credits transfer for a semester or more.
Some states have passed laws to guarantee associate degree graduates can transfer all their credits to a state university. But it’s a slow process.
It took Florida 10 years to bring its universities and colleges into line on transfer credits, for example. An analysis by a technical college in North Carolina found that only one of its English courses was accepted for core credit by all 16 of that state’s public universities. And some legislative efforts to make universities fix the transfer process have slammed up against the culture of competition.
Almost three years after California legislators demanded that anyone who earns an associate’s degrees at a community college be guaranteed transfer into the California State University system, for instance, students in two-thirds of all majors still don’t qualify, college and university officials there concede.
As more students take online courses, getting credits counted will become even more important. I predict that learning assessment will boom in the coming years as universities come under heavy political pressure to raise graduation rates by crediting what students have learned at other institutions, online, on the job, in the military or whatever.