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U.S. Education Department Official Urges Making Academic Credit Transfer More Efficient

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In order to boost the rate of college degree attainment in the United States, higher education leaders must make it easier for students to transfer credits from one type of institution to another, an Obama administration official said Thursday.       

“Pathways should be transparent, clear and seamless,” Dr. Frank Chong, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Community Colleges at the U.S. Department of Education, said during a forum at the Center for American Progress titled Articulation and Transfer: College Strategies for the Success of 21st Century Students.

But in many cases, said Dr. Chong, a former community college president himself, the process of getting credits from one institution recognized and accepted by another is convolute

“I still cannot comprehend how complicated the transfer process was and is,” Dr. Chong said.

Panelists spent some of the discussion grappling with just what is a “21st century student.” In short, the panelists said, a 21st century student is one who may work full-time, has served in the military, or who has other obligations that prevent him or her from finishing college all at once after high school.

“This is a part of reality when you’re dealing with adult learners,” said panelist Amy Sherman, Associate Vice President for Policy and Strategic Alliances at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

“They’re working full-time jobs, taking care of parents, taking care of kids, have an illness,” Sherman said, noting studies that have shown about three-fourths of all students are in such a situation. “All of these things have created a system where they’re going to be stopping in and out.”

For such students, she said, one of the biggest hazards is “wasted learning,” or a situation where students spend time and money to earn credits that don’t count toward their degree.

A paper released by the Center for American Progress in conjunction with Thursday’s panel discussion notes that the average community college student who transfers to a four-year institution ends up getting 140 credits when only 120 are needed for a baccalaureate degree.

One thing that could ease the burden, the paper states, is to use Prior Learning Assessments, or PLAs, where students can get credit for previous experiences, such as military training.

“It’s part of this broader framework that we’re talking about,” Sherman said. “How do we avoid wasted learning? A big part of it is better articulation and transfer agreements. We need to think of this both at the institutional and the system level.”

It’s not as if such agreements are exactly absent from the higher education landscape.

In reality, all but six states have some sort of transfer policy in place. But the panelists lamented that the policies lack consistency, are often difficult to comprehend and need refinement to meet the ever-changing needs of today’s students.

In order to put effective articulation and transfer agreements into place, they must be faculty-driven and student-focused, said Paula Compton, Associate Vice Chancellor of Articulation and Transfer for the Ohio Board of Regents.

“If articulation and transfers are going to work, it has to be based on trust,” Compton said. “Trust is key, and, if you get people to the table and they understand the overarching goals of what you’re trying to achieve, it’s amazing how people will come to the table because they all believe in providing the best education to students.”

In Ohio, she said, more than 50 faculty panels have written or reviewed articulation and transfer agreements to ensure that a course truly reflects the required learning outcomes of a given institution.

As evidence that the faculty-led panels have teeth, Compton said, many courses are rejected for transfer agreements because faculty determine they don’t meet an institution’s learning outcome requirements.

Dr. Richard M. Rhodes, president of El Paso Community College, or EPCC, spoke of various ways his institution works to ensure a smooth transition from one type of college to another.

For instance, he said, EPCC has an agreement in place with the University of Texas at El Paso, or UTEP, so that, when students apply to either institution, their application gets sent to both. Both institutions also send financial aid teams to area high schools to recruit students.

“Everything we do, we try to do together,” Rhodes said.

The Wolslager Foundation provides scholarships of $6,000 a year for two years to help community college students transferring to UTEP cope with higher tuition.

“When they go from paying for tuition at a community college to paying tuition at a university, there’s quite a sticker shock,” Rhodes said.

He also spoke of an “early college” high school at ECPP, which he likened to “dual credit on steroids” that enables high school students to take college-level courses and earn an associate’s degree from EPCC by the time they finish high school. This positions them better to earn a four-year degree.

Of the first 125 students to participate in the program as high school freshmen in July 2006, he said, all but five had earned associate’s degrees by May 2010. The remaining five finished their degrees the following summer. The early college high school is part of the Lumina Foundation’s Achieving the Dream program.

Rhodes said college leaders should not expect to achieve success overnight.

“It takes time to make things happen,” Rhodes said.

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