Moving Forward In Reverse
Reverse Transfer Policies Show Promising Results
To some in the ranks of academe, the growing reverse transfer trend is little more than a numbers game, a gimmick, an effort to boost graduation rates through statistical manipulation.
Supporters, on the other hand, say that the nation’s education goals cannot be reached without innovative ways of increasing degree completion and that reverse transfer is a prime example of that innovation.
But what can’t be denied is that states and higher education systems are rushing to develop and implement reverse transfer policies as they scramble to meet their workforce needs. Research by an initiative called Credit When It’s Due (CWID) has produced evidence of reverse transfer policies in all 50 states. Early data shows that the reverse transfer movement is helping states confer more associate degrees.
It used to be that reverse transfer referred to the process of a student physically transferring from a four-year college to a two-year institution hoping to earn a credential. Now it is something different. The Education Commission of the States (ECS) defines reverse transfer as the “process of retroactively granting associate degrees to students who have not completed the requirements of an associate degree before they transferred from a two- to a four-year institution.”
Millions of students fall into that category. According to an analysis by the National Student Clearinghouse, 78 percent of students who transfer from a community college to a four-year university do so without an associate degree. That amounts to some 2 million students. The Clearinghouse also found that in the past 20 years, more than 31 million students have left higher education with some credits but no degree or certificate.
The lack of an associate degree or other credential has potentially serious consequences. It undermines lifelong earning potential. States, philanthropies and the business and labor communities all agree that higher educational attainment rates are needed to meet the country’s workforce demands in the 21st Century.
The associate degree is also a pathway to a bachelor’s degree and further educational attainment. Clearinghouse research shows that 72 percent of community college transfer students who earned an associate degree prior to transferring completed a bachelor’s degree compared to 56 percent of those without an associate degree.
“Reverse transfer boosts college completions rates,” said David Pelham, vice president, higher education development and client relations at the Clearinghouse. “Our research shows that those transferring to a four-year institution, after having received an associate degree, are more likely to complete.”
Last year the clearinghouse was awarded a Lumina Foundation for Education grant to work on a project to develop a national automated solution for exchanging reverse transfer student data. The Clearinghouse is creating a standardized process to assist four- and two-year institutions in transferring student credits more efficiently.
“We’re pleased to support this effort to help increase associate degree completion through reverse transfer,” said Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of Lumina Foundation. “Institutions will now have better data to conduct degree audits on students’ accumulated records and students will have recognition for achieving their associate degrees.”
Lumina is also supporting the CWID initiative, along with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Helios Education Foundation, the Kresge Foundation and USA Funds.
Launched in 2012, CWID is a research initiative aimed at understanding how higher education systems enable reverse transfers. It is examining reverse transfer policies in 15 states, and last month released a brief that showed the first results. The initiative is designed to encourage partnerships between community colleges and universities to expand programs that award associate degrees to transfer students when students complete the requirements for the associate degree while pursuing a bachelor’s degree.
“What we are doing is trying to sustain the momentum for this movement,” said Jason L. Taylor, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Utah and head of the CWID study. “This movement is not going away. There is so much interest around the country. The question is how reverse transfer can be integrated into existing pathways. How can it be intentionally designed into pathways?” The CWID brief found that the first 12 states involved in the initiative awarded 7,352 degrees through reverse transfer during academic years 2013-14 and 2014- 15. The majority of associate degrees conferred were concentrated in Hawaii, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Ohio. Collectively, these six states conferred approximately 85 percent of the reverse transfer degrees.
The approaches to reverse transfer policies vary widely. Some states embed reverse transfer policies in legislation. Other states have reverse transfer polices set in board policy or through agreements between institutions.
The largest increase by far was experienced in Hawaii, which boosted the number of associate degrees awarded through reverse transfer by 18 percent. Hawaii had several advantages in designing and promoting a reverse transfer system, Taylor said.
“Their higher education system is integrated,” he said. “The two- and four-year systems are part of the same system. That facilitates the work. The other advantage is their technical infrastructure. They have been able to automate a lot of things so they can identify who might be eligible for reverse transfer.”
The CWID brief says that Hawaii is an important benchmark for the reverse transfer movement.
“Reverse transfer policies have potential to increase state associate’s degree attainment up to at least 18 percent within only a couple of years, as evidenced by Hawaii,” the brief says. “Although many states have not implemented reverse transfer at scale, nor have they fully developed or refined reverse transfer policies, it is important to understand the potential contribution of CWID to state college completion efforts and to monitor results to understand what is possible at scale.”
Still, there are obstacles, according to the ECS. A “one-sizefits-all” approach does not exist, though states can learn from one another. Federal privacy laws make sharing academic transcripts exceedingly difficult. Funding for technology and staffing to process the transfers can be hard to find. Issues like transcript exchange, degree audits, course equivalency systems and how to handle nearcompleters can create serious bureaucratic hurdles.
Taylor urges policy makers, as they devise reverse transfers policies, to focus on the potential benefits to students.
“I know critics say it’s a numbers game, that it’s just a way to increase completion rates,” Taylor said. “That’s part of the motivation. But the main beneficiaries are students. Reverse transfer can keep students on track. Many students want this degree. They’ve earned it, and they want it. ”