Ease the Transfer Process among Public Institutions

There are many unnecessary roadblocks that litter the pathway for students to transfer between schools, even among public institutions within the same state. Some of the obstacles students encounter during the transfer process include varying degree requirements for similar programs at different schools, repetition of completed courses (particularly true when different schools use different course numbering systems or course names), and limitations on the transferable number of credits schools allow. Such obstacles (and others not listed here) can cost students more not only in terms of tuition bills but also in the extra time needed to fulfill the requirements for their degrees. While these hurdles increase the cost of higher education for students, their families, and the public at large, they add little to the actual educational product. Eliminating or greatly reducing these barriers ought to be a major focus of higher education public policy, especially in the case of public schools within the same state.

Some states have, in fact, made important strides in this area. Florida, for instance, has a common course numbering system and several other states have adopted statewide standardized core course sequences that help ease transferring difficulties.511 Other states have adopted a statewide standardized core course sequence. The different approaches which have been taken will be discussed in more detail shortly.

Complicating the picture for reforms in transfer policy is the fact that different students transfer schools for completely different reasons. While some students transfer for purely financial reasons, others’ motivations are more complex. An additional complicating factor for statewide transfer policies for public schools is the fact that a significant portion (one estimate is 40%) of all college transfers occur across state lines.

Historically, transferring from community college to a four year college has received considerably more attention in both the academic world and among policymakers, causing several researchers to conclude that “facilitating transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions has become a critical issue in higher education.” Other authors express agreement with this sentiment. It is important, however, to note that transfers from two-year colleges to four-year schools account for only a bare majority of all college transfers; nearly half of all transfers are either between two two-year schools or between two four-year schools, or are reverse transfers from four to two-year schools.  In this section, the initial focus will be on improving the transfer process for students transitioning from two-year community colleges to four-year schools and will shift later to discussion of possible reforms in the transfer process between four-year schools as well.

The 2-to-4 Transfer Option

Transfer policies for community college students have been the subject of research for the past 30 years. Whether the transfer policies are a matter of state law or only the product of interinstitutional agreements, these policies are ostensibly designed to enable students to transfer more easily between schools. Community college transfers draw particular attention because, as will be noted later in this section, a considerable portion of community college students explicitly enter a two-year school with a desire to transfer at a later date to a four-year school.

Perhaps the strongest rationale behind community college transfers is the significant savings associated with students who choose this path to a bachelor’s degree over exclusively attending a four-year school. After all, tuition at a community college is significantly less than tuition at a four-year college. During the 2007-08 academic year, the national average published tuition (and required fees) for in-state students at public four-year schools was $5,950 versus $2,063 at two-year schools. When grant aid and tax benefits are considered, the cost at two-year schools is even lower relative to four-year schools.

Encouraging more students to receive credits at a community college prior to enrolling in a four-year college not only generates savings for the individual student, but can also be an important avenue for decreasing the burden on taxpayers who subsidize public colleges. This is particularly true for general education courses because community colleges can offer these courses at a sharply lower cost compared to four-year schools. According to the latest data available from the U.S. Department of Education, for the 2005-06 academic year, the national average state subsidy per student was $3,678 at public two-year schools, but was 122 percent higher ($8,165) at public four-year schools.518 Increasing the number of students who take general education courses at community colleges means that fewer resources need to be devoted to these courses at the more expensive four-year schools. Decreasing the cost of general education courses should increase the resources available at four-year schools that can be allocated to more discipline-specific courses that are the specialty of four-year colleges and universities.

It is possible that a major reason for the relatively low cost of community colleges is that the quality of education at these schools is substantially inferior to that available at four-year universities. Research has shown that students who transfer from two-year colleges to fouryear schools have considerably lower graduation rates than those students who only attend four-year institutions, and one cause of this could be too little rigor in the curriculum at two year colleges. However, four-year institutions making this argument should actually demonstrate the higher rigor of their own courses, rather than merely asserting it. One of the most popular of these transfer programs is DirectConnect in Florida. Any student who graduates from four nearby community colleges is guaranteed admission to the University of Central Florida. There are currently more than 35,000 students in the pipeline.

National Trends in Student Transfers from Two to Four-year Schools

Traditionally, community colleges have focused primarily on educating adults, many of whom are seeking specific vocational training to enter or advance in a particular career field, rather than the younger students who typically attend four-year schools. However, as overall enrollment at community colleges has grown—it increased 741 percent between 1963 and 2006—so has the proportion of traditional college-aged students attending these two-year schools. Many students view community college as a stepping stone to future receipt of a four-year degree and enroll in pre-transfer tracks. For example, a 2008 study by the U.S. Department of Education found that 37 percent of high school seniors planned to earn a bachelor’s degree and 35 percent declared that they wanted to earn a graduate degree. 22 percent who wanted a bachelor’s degree enrolled in community colleges immediately after high school, while of those who declared a graduate degree to be their educational goal, 14 percent enrolled in community colleges. Regardless of the chief cause of these enrollment trends (whether financial, academic or other), it is certain that a significant body of students view studying at a community college as a means to fulfill the requirements of a bachelor’s degree, or, in some cases, even of master’s or doctoral degrees. Nevertheless, it is true that only a fraction of those students expressing intent to transfer actually achieved the goal of earning their intended degrees.

Reforms for the 4-to-4 Transfer Option

Although the 2-to-4 transfer option may generate more attention, the 4-to-4 transfer option should not be ignored; after all, 30% of all students who transfer do so between four-year schools. Unlike the 2-to-4 transfer scenario, the evidence shows that students who take the 4- to-4 transfer option have essentially the same graduation rates as those who never transfer. For this reason, 4-to-4 transfer reform should be focused on stream-lining credit transfer.

State-Level Transfer Policy Reform

To improve the process for students transferring between public institutions (including from two to four-year schools), several states have instituted state-wide articulation policies, an approach which was very popular several decades ago. Florida, in 1971, was the first state which legislatively mandated a statewide articulation plan, and many states have since followed suit. According to a 2005 report by the U.S. Department of Education, 30 states have enacted transfer legislation, while 23 states have a common course core and 40 have state-wide cooperative agreements (these states are listed in Table 21.1). Since the publication of this 2005 report, the Education Commission of the States notes that several state legislatures have passed laws respecting the statewide articulation policies, including Maine which, in May 2009, established a pilot program for transfers from the seven-year-old Maine Community College System to the University of Maine System.

Table 21.1: States with State-Wide Transfer and Articulation Policies
Table 21.1: States with State-Wide Transfer and Articulation Policies


Case Study 21.1: North Carolina Comprehensive Articulation Agreement

In 1995 the North Carolina legislature passed an act mandating the creation of a plan to enable an ease of transfer for students from the institutions of the North Carolina Community College System (NCCS) to any institution of the University of North Carolina (UNC), a multi-campus university composed of all sixteen public institutions granting undergraduate degrees in the state and the NC School of Science and Mathematics. The legislation included instructions for a common course system for all state community college systems as well as the development of “accurate and accessible academic counseling” for students seeking to transfer from the state’s community colleges to the University of North Carolina. The faculty and administrators of the NCCS and UNC systems created a “Comprehensive Articulation Agreement” (CAA) in 1996, based upon the proposed plan of the governing boards of the NCCS and UNC approved earlier that year.

Any student at a North Carolina Community College who has either graduated with an Associate Degree or has completed a 44 hour general education core curriculum with a minimum overall GPA of 2.0 (and a grade of at least a “C’ in core courses) is eligible to transfer under the CAA. The general education core curriculum, including requirements in English composition, humanities and the fine arts, social and behavioral sciences, and natural sciences and mathematics, is transferable from any NCCS school to any UNC institution. Even if a student has not completed an associate’s degree at an NCCS school, these core credits can still be transferred to schools in either system.

The CAA does not prohibit individual institutions from forming bilateral articulation agreements (and in fact, many such agreements have been reached by individual NCCS and UNC institutions), but any such agreement may not conflict with the provisions of the statewide CAA. These individual agreements allow UNC institutions the flexibility to accept transfer credits above and beyond the mandated core curriculum. In fact, many of the existing bilateral agreements focus on applied science programs which are generally not designed for transfer; citing the unusual circumstances pertaining to these academic programs, the state has deemed it necessary to allow individual schools to create specific transfer plans which account for the different accreditation criteria, academic requirements, and vocational focus for these programs.

The University of North Carolina has developed a comprehensive database to monitor transfer student performance, including data on students transferring from a community college to a four-year UNC school as well as data on students transferring within the UNC system. In the Fall of 2007, according to these data, 2,077 students transferred from one UNC institution to another, which was less than 1 percent of the total enrollment of all UNC schools that fall. One year following their transfer, 73.2 percent of students were in good academic standing, with an average GPA of 2.81. These numbers are comparable to those in 1996, the last year before the CAA was to take effect, although, as a percentage of UNC total enrollment, more students transferred in 1996 than in 2007. In 1996, 2,000 students transferred between UNC schools (1.3 percent of the total UNC enrollment) and one year after the transfer, 73.8 percent remained in good academic standing.

Table 21.2 summarizes data on the performance of community college transfers to UNC institutions compared to UNC native rising juniors. The table gives the retention rate for transfer students (the percentage of transfers who remain enrolled at UNC institutions one year following transfer), the retention rates of UNC native juniors (the percentage of juniors returning for their senior year), and the four and five-year graduation rate of both types of students (two and three years after transfer for transfer students).

Table 21.2: Retention and Graduation Rates for North Carolina Transfer Students
Table 21.2: Retention and Graduation Rates for North Carolina Transfer Students

These data show that from 2002 to 2008, the retention of community college transfer students has improved while the retention of UNC native juniors remains at the 2002 level. UNC native students significantly outperform transfer students in both four and five-year graduation rates; as of 2008, 57 percent of native UNC juniors graduate after their senior year but only 32 percent of community college transfers do so. However, the gap in four-year rates between transfer and native students has narrowed since 2002. It is interesting to note that while the graduation rates of transfer students has increased slightly over this time period, the graduation rates of native students has actually decreased, albeit by only a small margin.

One possible explanation for the increase in the transfer graduation rate is that the implementation of the CAA is allowing for more seamless transfer than before; another is that some students who are qualified to attend a UNC institution coming out of high school actually initially enroll at NCCS schools to save on tuition before they transfer to a public four-year school.

In reality, it could be a combination of these two (or other) explanations, though the latter could also explain the slight decrease in the performance of native UNC students. The fact that the retention rates for transfer students rose by four percentage points over six years is possibly evidence which indicates that the creation of a core curriculum with fully transferable credits is an effective way to encourage transfer and ease the difficulties students encounter during the process. A core curriculum better enables students to understand what requirements they must meet in order to receive transfer credit and sets a standard by which the schools must abide as they deal with transfer students.

Not only does the North Carolina CAA potentially save individual students thousands in tuition dollars, but it also cuts costs for the taxpayers who subsidize the education made available at the state’s public institutions of higher education. Tuition at North Carolina public four-year schools was more than 3 times greater than the tuition at two-year schools in 2007-08. The average published tuition and fees (weighted by enrollment) at North Carolina community colleges that year was $1,377, while the published tuition and fees at the state’s four-year schools was, on average, $4,301. For students completing coursework at a community college prior to transferring to a four-year school that year, the savings in tuition amounted to nearly $3,000 per student.

Similarly, the cost to taxpayers was almost twice per student at four-year schools as compared to the state’s community colleges in 2007-08. State appropriations per full time equivalent student amounted to $9,300 at UNC institutions, but only $4,800 at community colleges. Students who completed two years worth of courses at community colleges before transferring saved state taxpayers around $9,000 apiece.  In the first decade of the CAA, the retention rate for community college transfers did rise but not significantly. What is perhaps more important, though, is that in terms of both retention and graduation rates, transfer students academic success improved relative to native UNC students. So while the evidence does not provide an absolutely clear-cut case for the success of the North Carolina agreement, we can cautiously state that there is support for the view that the CAA is successful at facilitating community college transfers to four-year universities.


Institutional Cooperative Agreements

While a number of states have instituted statewide articulation policies binding to most, if not all, of the four-year public colleges and universities, not all states have done so. In some of the states in the latter category, there are cases of individual public institutions reaching agreements with some of the state’s community colleges. How extensive these institutional cooperative agreements actually are varies considerably, as some include only a very few community colleges and others apply to a large number of two-year schools within close geographic proximity or even to the entire state. According to a 2005 U.S. Department of Education report, 40 states “have established statewide cooperative agreements among institutions or departments.” However, not all cooperative agreements are mandated by state policy but rather are institutional initiatives. In fact, several private colleges and universities (such as Dickinson College in Pennsylvania) have reached agreements with neighboring community colleges to encourage students to transfer.

Case Study 21.2: University of Iowa “2 Plus 2” Program

In November 2006, the University of Iowa (UI) announced the initiation of a “2 Plus 2 Guaranteed Graduation Plan.”  The agreement, originally between only UI and three Iowa community college districts, guaranteed that students who attend a community college for two years and received an associate’s degree would be able to transfer to and receive a bachelor’s degree from UI two years later. However, this program extended only to students at participating institutions and was limited to selected major programs of study. As an incentive for students to participate in this program, UI announced that, beginning in 2008, it would offer as many as twenty-five $1,000 scholarships (renewable for one year) to “2 plus 2” students with the highest cumulative transfer grade point average. Later, the program was expanded to include additional Iowa community colleges. Currently, every community college in the state participates with UI, with 20 major programs of study available for “2 plus 2” students.

Although relatively new, the program is at least somewhat effective. “2 plus 2” appears to provide Iowa students with a way to lower their educational costs, as they can make use of the lower tuition rates at Iowa community colleges before transferring to the UI. For instance, for the 2008-09 academic year, the average full-time tuition at Iowa public community colleges was $3,390, while tuition at the University of Iowa was $5,548.540 Average savings for the student attending a community college before transferring to the IU amounted to approximately$2,000. As John Hendrickson concluded in a study on the “2 Plus 2” program, the plan “is cost effective and it places students on a track to graduate in four years, instead of the increasing number of fifth or sixth year college seniors.” However, Hendrickson cautioned that although student costs may be reduced by this program, it may not actually reduce costs to the taxpayers who fund the public community colleges in Iowa, due to the high level of per capita state and local expenditures on higher education in that state.


Controlling student costs during the transfer process ought to be a focus of any transfer or articulation policy. Rather than causing students (or taxpayers) to incur more costs by retaking courses in which they have already shown competence or by taking additional courses unnecessarily, transfer policy should enable students to transfer relatively seamlessly from one public institution to another within the same state. While statewide articulation policies (whether promulgated by legislatures or state education authorities) have been a popular option for attaining this goal, by themselves these policies may not actually be as effective as they need to be. Additional actions, such as faculty advising, student transfer handbooks, and course equivalency systems are essential to constructing a viable transfer process for students. Establishing core curricula which are fully transferable between public colleges can benefit not only those students who transfer to four-year schools from community colleges, but also students going from one four-year school to another.

However, statewide policies should not preclude individual institutional agreements which can be more focused on particular situations at the schools entering these specific agreements. Such agreements may actually be more beneficial for students, especially community college students, because institutional plans can be more applicable to special circumstances surrounding transfers between particular schools and can avoid the excesses of statewide policies suffering from “relatively complicated articulation systems with rules that are difficult to decipher.”

Regardless of which method is used to improve the transfer process, the focus needs to be on decreasing costs for students. As was shown in the case studies earlier in this section, students use the transfer process to cut costs (particularly by obtaining credits at low-cost community colleges); therefore, transfers between schools should be encouraged for those students choosing that route and those students should not be penalized by retaking courses they have already mastered or by unexpectedly requiring them to take additional courses. Because community colleges can offer courses at lower costs for both students and taxpayers, 2-to-4 transfers are a definite possibility for curbing the rising costs of higher education.