Episode 140: The Scandal of Transferring College Credits

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In our last episode, we talked about narrowing down your teenager’s long list of college options (or LLCO, as we call it in our new book How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students), and we discussed several questions to ask yourselves about those colleges as you narrowed down the list. We recommended ending up with perhaps 15 colleges (give or take 5) on your teenager’s “short list.”

One thing we did not talk about was whether you should put a public two-year community college on the list. We have talked about community colleges–the good and the bad about them–back in Episode 113 and more recently in Episode 135. Although we remain concerned about the seriously low graduation rate and the seriously low transfer rate at most community colleges, it is still possible that a community college is your teenager’s best or only choice or best safety school choice.

If you can be sure that your teenager will be admitted to a public four-year college in your state or in another state, personally I would go with that option instead of a public two-year community college option. However, if you cannot be sure that your teenager will be admitted to a public four-year college or if your family circumstances would be too strained (either financially or otherwise) by sending your teenager to a public four-year college, then put the local community college on the short list. If you are fortunate enough to live in an area that has more than one conveniently located community college option, then choosing among those options can be as important as choosing among four-year college options. All community colleges are not created equal–anymore than all four-year public or private colleges are. So do your homework or give us a call.

But today, we want to talk about another topic that relates to community colleges, but not only to community colleges. It is a very important topic if you believe that it might be a good idea to save some money on the first two years of college by sending your teenager to a community college or to a public four-year college before allowing him or her to transfer to a more prestigious or more academically selective public or private college. We have heard this sentiment from parents many times: “Let Susie start out at the local community college and save our money for a big finish at the great private university she always wanted to go to.”

Well, there is a new study out that might make you think twice about that strategy.

1. Losing Credits When Transferring

The study was brought to our attention by reporter Danielle Douglas-Gabriel in a wide-ranging article in The Washington Post in mid-September. Ms. Douglas-Gabriel referenced a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (the GAO), entitled Students Need More Information to Help Reduce Challenges in Transferring College Credits. Here is the opening of the highlights from that government report:

Based on GAO’s analysis of the Department of Education’s (Education) most recently available data, an estimated 35 percent of college students transferred to a new school at least once from 2004 to 2009, and GAO found that students may face challenges getting information or advice about transferring course credits. An estimated 62 percent of these transfers were between public schools. According to stakeholders GAO spoke with, students can face challenges transferring credits between schools that do not have statewide polices or articulation agreements, which are transfer agreements or partnerships between schools designating how credits earned at one school will transfer to another. Stakeholders also said that advising and information may not be adequate to help students navigate the transfer process. (quoted from the report)

Let’s start there. First of all, about one-third of college students transfer (personally, I think that is a lot and I am a bit surprised the number is that high), and over half of those are between public colleges. I am going to guess that a significant number of those are from two-year public community colleges to four-year public universities. The report then decries the lack of clear articulation agreements–that is, spelled-out plans between pairs of colleges that show how the credits a student earns at one college will be counted or will be deemed acceptable by the other college. Never having studied the subject, I am guessing that articulation agreements are probably most plentiful between community colleges and four-year public or private colleges relatively nearby or between various colleges within a citywide or statewide public system of colleges.

So, a little background: Articulation agreements protect students. Obviously, students do not want to lose credits they have earned at a college when they transfer to a new college. This is especially true of students who start out at a community college to save money and then transfer to a four-year college to get a bachelor’s degree. If credits are lost in that transfer and have to be made up at the new college, the whole idea of having started at the cheaper community college just goes out the window!

On the other hand, articulation agreements can also be good for colleges. This is especially true when four-year colleges can market themselves easily and cheaply to graduates from a particular community college as the next step in their college careers. Imagine how cost-effective it is for a four-year college to advertise and recruit students who are sitting in classes on one community college campus. Of course, community colleges also benefit because they can advertise a clear path for their graduates right into a four-year college; that fact might indeed help recruit students to the community college in the first place.

So, here’s the problem, according to the GAO report:

The possible financial implications of transferring depend in part on the extent of credits lost in the transfer. Using [the Department of] Education’s transfer data, GAO estimated that students who transferred from 2004 to 2009 lost, on average, an estimated 43 percent of their credits, and credit loss varied depending on the transfer path. For example, students who transferred between public schools–the majority of transfer students–lost an estimated 37 percent of their credits. . . . Transferring can have different effects on college affordability. Students seeking to obtain a bachelor’s degree at a more expensive school may save on tuition costs by transferring from a less expensive school. On the other hand, transfer students may incur additional costs to repeat credits that do not transfer or count toward their degree. Transfer students can receive federal financial aid. GAO’s analysis showed that almost half of the students who transferred from 2004 to 2009 received Pell Grants and close to two-thirds received Federal Direct Loans. Students who lose credits may use more financial aid to pay for repeated courses at additional cost to the federal government, or they may exhaust their financial aid eligibility, which can result in additional out-of-pocket costs. (quoted from the report)

Well, losing perhaps one-third of the credits you earned when you try to transfer them is frightening. Having to pay again to take courses for credits you thought you already earned or having your financial aid run out before you can retake those credits (either because you have been enrolled for too many years or too many semesters) is equally frightening. All this should make you, parents, want some kind of ironclad agreement signed in blood before your teenager starts down the transfer route. But, alas, I believe you aren’t going to get one.

2. The GAO on Information Availability

Here is what the GAO report said about getting a hold of important information:

While GAO estimated that the websites for almost all schools nationwide provided credit transfer policies, as required by [the Department of] Education, about 29 percent did not include a list of other schools with which the school had articulation agreements. Among those schools, GAO found that some did not have any articulation agreements, while others did but did not list partner schools on their websites. Schools must provide such listings, but they are not required to do so specifically on their website. As a result, students may not have ready access to this information to fully understand their transfer options. (quoted from the report)

Interestingly, the GAO report recommended that the Department of Education require that colleges provide information about specific articulation agreements with other colleges on their websites. The Department of Education did not agree with that and agreed only that general transfer information should be provided to students (well, obviously). What all that means is that you as parents and your teenagers as prospective freshmen and as enrolled students must do your homework relentlessly to figure out exactly what will happen in a transfer scenario. And, we have to caution, don’t expect that homework to be easy!

3. Bright Spots

Ms. Douglas-Gabriel did point to a few bright spots in her article:

Several state higher education systems, including those in Tennessee, North Carolina and Texas, are using innovative strategies to streamline the transfer process. The University of California system, for instance, has “guided pathways” that chart the sequence of courses needed to transfer. Some schools, such as George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College, offer dual enrollment for some majors. (quoted from the article)

And, of course, these are not the only collaborative arrangements out there. So, if your teenager is moving toward a community college with the idea of transferring to a four-year college later or if your teenager is moving toward a public four-year university with the idea of transferring to a different four-year university later, then hope for one of these streamlined processes. Better yet, look for one of these streamlined processes–because some careful planning now can save a lot of heartbreak later.

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