Fixing Transfer: Federal, State and Institutional Policy Solutions

Share This Post

By: John Mullane, President, College Transfer Solutions

Student transfer is a national problem. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 38 percent of all college students will transfer at least once before completing a bachelor’s degree. However, transferring continues to be a costly, inefficient, and wasteful process. Because over 80% of students starting at a two-year school transfer within their own state, the primary responsibility for resolving this matter rests with the states. Nevertheless, the federal government also plays a crucial role in compelling states to take action.

An Often Overlooked Problem

The vast majority of transfer students are transferring into or out of a community college, with many choosing to pursue an education at a four-year institution. Of this group, around 80% of students will actually exit the community college before earning an associate’s degree, leaving them without any college credentials. Furthermore, my previous research, as well as data from the National Center for Education Statistics and the Government Accountability Office would suggest that the average community college student who successfully transfers to a public four-year institution loses an average of 20% of their credits. This loss of credits would be equivalent to almost an entire semester of credits, slowing the time to graduation, and further delaying the student’s path to a college credential. If you factor in the higher tuition costs at a four-year institution, it is no surprise that only 14% of all students who start at a community college transfer and complete a bachelor’s degree within six years, according to the American Talent Initiative.

With the costs of higher education soaring and states facing huge budget deficits, community colleges are the last affordable route to a bachelor’s degree for many students, including those typically marginalized by our current education system, such as low-income, first-generation, and students of color. However, the national discourse about college access, affordability, graduation rates, and the $1.7 trillion in student loan debt often overlooks the transfer credit issue. Fixing the broken transfer credit system is imperative to helping students graduate on time with less debt, ultimately saving billions of dollars for students, states, and the federal government.

Solutions to Transfer

The solution lies in federal and state legislation mandating statewide transfer pathways between the community college system and all public four-year institutions within each state. While many states have laws that govern transfer credits, few effectively enforce those laws to ensure students can apply their earned college-level credits toward their bachelor’s degree. Additionally, investments in technology to provide detailed transfer credit evaluations are essential. Many colleges and universities are using outdated, manual processes to evaluate previously earned credits leading to inconsistencies and inequities for students. Furthermore, several institutions have policies enacting a ‘pay to play’ system where students are forced to spend money on applications and transcript orders before a faculty or staff member will even look at their previously earned credits. Rather, prospective students should get transparency in the acceptance and applicability of their courses and credits to ensure they can select their best path toward degree attainment.


David Cook, CEO of DegreeSight, recognizes the importance of the institutional role in this problem, as well. “Institutions must be able to track how many credits they are accepting and rejecting from applicants, but very few institutions have a way to track this, which hurts the student. Without transparency, students are forced to make uninformed decisions, which leads to added debt and longer paths to graduation.” Cook’s company offers the products and technologies that empower colleges to provide swift and accurate transcript evaluations, giving prospective transfer students crucial information that can affect their educational and financial future.

Policies that Make a Difference

Outlined below are six bipartisan, cost-neutral, and readily implementable solutions:

  1. Enhanced Disclosure: Mandate greater disclosure and transparency around the graduation rates of transfer students, particularly community college transfer students at 4-year institutions. The current federal graduation rate only covers first-time, full-time students who graduate from the same institution within three years at a community college and six years at a four-year institution.

  2. Credit Acceptance and Rejection Reporting: Require schools to disclose the percentage of transfer credits accepted and rejected by students transferring from community colleges.

  3. Statewide Transfer Pathways: Enact legislation mandating statewide transfer and articulation agreements between community college systems and all public four-year institutions in each state.

  4. Enforcement of Existing Laws: Ensure rigorous enforcement of existing state laws governing transfer credits. While many states have laws that govern transfer credits, very few states actually fully enforce those laws.

  5. Eliminate Developmental Education: All students must be enrolled in college-level courses. Students testing below college level will have embedded support through a corequisite model, eliminating costs for students who pay college tuition rates for non-college courses.

  6. Increased Admission of Community College Transfer Students: Encourage private colleges to enroll more community college transfer students with junior standing.

How States can Help

A study from the Community College Research Center evaluated state and institutional effectiveness for transfer students. Some states, like Florida and Washington, have implemented relatively successful transfer credit systems that provide a clear pathway to degree-seeking students with junior standing and have eliminated unnecessary credit loss. These states serve as an example of what can be done with effective legislation and policy enforcement. Some key highlights include:

  • Block transfers of general education core courses when a student fulfills all lower division requirements.

  • Guaranteed 2+2 transfer programs for students who have completed associate degrees, ensuring junior standing and no more than 60 unfulfilled credits remaining in the major

  • Incentives to encourage degree completion, and use of course by course articulation if student transfers without a completed Associates degree

  • Mandatory reporting and oversight by committees to ensure improvement and outcome achievement

The conversations taking place in Washington and state capitals surrounding education often neglect the glaring reality of the transfer problem and how current practices and policies obstruct transfer student success. Education leaders and policymakers need to create statewide systems that guarantee the transferability of community college credits and enforce those systems with annual reporting for consistent feedback to ensure the right outcomes are being achieved. Simply put, students should not lose credits when transferring within their own state’s public higher education system. This is a bipartisan issue, and legislative involvement is the only way to achieve systemic reform to create more affordable and accessible pathways for millions of students struggling to achieve their dream of a college degree.

John Mullane is president and founder of College Transfer Solutions, LLC.  College Transfer Solutions provides research, policy advocacy, and consulting to help colleges and universities better serve transfer students.

DegreeSight is a company that helps universities attract, engage, and support their prospective students with a personalized prior credit review, thereby helping students save thousands and graduate on time.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Get updates and learn from the best

More To Explore


Our Success Specialists will have you up and running
so fast it’ll make your head spin!

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.