Improving Credit Mobility for Community College Transfer Students


June 2016


Cover of Improving Credit Mobility for Community College Transfer Students.

Findings and recommendations from a 10-state study

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. Nearly half of community college students are the first in their families to go to college, and while many aspire to earn a bachelor’s degree, few will realize their educational hopes and dreams. Less than a quarter of community college students transfer to a four-year institution and only about 10 percent complete a bachelor’s degree (Horn & Skomsvold, 2011).

There are many reasons why some community college students fail to transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree. This study focuses on problems with credit mobility, or the transfer of credits from a sending to a receiving institution. State and institutional policies can support the transfer of credits across public institutions, making a focus on credit mobility a key lever for higher education policymakers and leaders who seek to improve the bachelor’s degree completion of community college transfer students and ensure more equitable postsecondary outcomes for historically disadvantaged college students.

Transfer students can face problems with credit mobility when a receiving institution does not accept their course credits. They can also encounter degree program credit loss when a receiving institution accepts courses as elective credits that do not apply to a student’s degree program. Unlike the outright loss of credits, degree program credit loss leads to excess elective credits. The long-term consequences of both types of credit loss, however, are the same: They extend students’ time-to-degree, increase their expenses, lead to more debt if students are funding their college education with loans, and lower the likelihood of bachelor’s degree attainment.

This study investigates the issue of credit mobility in 10 states: California, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington. It provides a unique opportunity to understand multiple policy approaches to credit mobility and how these policies play out and, potentially, break down at the campus level. The study utilizes 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 Texas, Washington, and Tennessee.