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Report: Federal Policies That Could Help Transfer

A new memo from center-left Washington, D.C., think tank Third Way identifies transfer myths and what policy makers can do to solve the problems these myths create.

Transfer has become an even hotter topic thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. As students’ plans are upended, it’s possible they will need to transfer to other institutions, or they will choose to start at a cheaper community college and transfer later.

It’s yet to be seen whether this will happen, but either way, many in higher education say transfer policies need to change. A national poll from Third Way and New America found that 10 percent of students surveyed planned to transfer in the upcoming academic year.

These students were also optimistic about the ease of transfer, but research has shown that students often lose course credits, and thus money, in the process. The application process itself can also be a barrier, both logistically and financially.

The first myth identified in the memo is that of transferring credits. Community college students lose 40 percent of their credits upon transferring, on average, according to the memo. To solve this problem, policy makers can use the accreditation process to change how college credits are counted in transfer by requiring that all colleges under the same accreditor accept at least general education credits from other member institutions. Policy makers can also incentivize statewide articulation agreements by tying federal funding to mandates to develop such agreements.

The second myth is that, if a student decides to first attend a community college before transferring, they will easily be able to do so. However, less than a third of community college students who want to pursue a four-year degree actually transfer, and only about 13 percent of those students earn a bachelor’s degree in six years. Policy makers should require colleges receiving Title IV aid to publicly disclose their credit policies, including existing articulation agreements, credit evaluation processes and any specific courses that are preapproved for full transfer credit, the memo argues.

Lastly, students who stopped out of a community college and re-enroll in a different institution, especially a four-year college, assume they can easily navigate that process. But many students run into barriers, like transcript withholding, which requires students to pay overdue balances to obtain their official transcripts. For students who are returning to college after losing a job, this request could be impossible to fulfill. Policy makers should reconsider past federal support of this practice, the memo states. They could instead let colleges use emergency funds to pay off balances or let unpaid debts be converted into income-driven repayment plans. Legislation for an exemption in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act that would allow the disclosure of student credit information for the purposes of issuing associate degrees could also make it easier for students to pursue reverse transfer, which would give degrees to those who transferred to a four-year college before completing their two-year degrees.

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