10-State Study Finds Current Policies Not Addressing Common Reasons Community College Transfer Students Lose Credit


June 8, 2016


Photo of a college student at graduation.

A new study by Education Northwest examines the complexities community college students face when they transfer to four-year institutions. The 10-state study offers a new framework for understanding the multiple policy approaches that address how credits transfer, how they are applied to a major or degree program, highlights the common reasons students are still losing credit despite policy efforts to improve transferability, and offers recommendations to reduce credit loss.

”Looking closely at what is happening with transfer students across the country, we found a clear disconnect between the growing number of comprehensive transfer policies and persistent problems with credit loss, even under the most comprehensive policies,” said Michelle Hodara, lead author of the study.

The study explores the problem of students receiving elective credit instead of academic program credit for their community college courses because the transfer credits do not apply to a major or degree program. This “degree program credit loss” results in excess elective credits and the accumulation of more credits than are required to graduate.

A primary reason for degree credit loss identified by college staff and students was student uncertainty about their majors and destination institutions. The second major reason cited for degree program credit loss was a lack of early, personalized, and knowledgeable advising for students interested in transfer. Study authors suggest that students need to develop “transfer college knowledge” early in their academic careers.

“It’s critical that adults continue to engage in frank conversations with high school students about the advantages of selecting a major and destination institution early, as well as the consequences of delaying those decisions,” said Hodara.

Community colleges are the first point of access to higher education for millions of students looking for an affordable path to a bachelor’s degree. Despite the desire of the majority community college students to earn a bachelor’s degree, less than a quarter of students transfer to a four-year institution and only about 10 percent complete a bachelor’s degree. The study’s authors provide three recommendations for reducing degree program credit loss of transfer students:

  • Refine policies to better meet the needs of undecided students
  • Develop “transfer college knowledge” early and at key milestones in students’ academic careers
  • Improve data systems and conduct research on credit mobility to determine policy effectiveness

The 10 states included in the study include: California, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington. The study includes qualitative data from policy documents and legislative statutes, phone interviews across the 10 states, and interview data collected during site visits to two- and four-year colleges in Tennessee, Texas, and Washington.

Download Improving Credit Mobility for Community College Transfer Students: Findings and Recommendations from a 10-State Study.