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Navigating the Curriculum – Reverse Transfer

October 23, 2017

Reverse transfers are promoting the exchange of transcripts from 4-year schools to 2-year schools to enable student completion of associate degree programs.   Over the past several years, hundreds of colleges and dozens of states have implemented this student focused service aimed at the awarding of completed associate degree programs. 

What is Reverse Transfer?

Not all students enroll as a freshman and later graduate from the same school.  It is common for students to first enroll at an associate degree college, complete their associate degree, and then transfer to a baccalaureate degree college or university.  However, there is a growing tendency to transfer before completion of the associate degree.  Reverse transfer initiatives are focused on this latter group of students.

Reverse transfer programs enable the student to transfer credits earned at the baccalaureate degree school back to the associate degree school.  The associate degree school then evaluates the transferred credits against the student’s previous associate degree program.  If the transferred credits fulfill degree requirements, and other requirements established by the associate degree school are satisfied, the associate degree is awarded.  This movement of credits is somewhat of a reversal of the traditional college credit transfer process, thus the title of “reverse transfer”.

Benefits to the Student

The completion of any degree, associate or baccalaureate, are significant academic achievements.  Employers view the associate degree as evidence of the student’s commitment to the educational process and recognize its value when recruiting and hiring.  Associate degrees can open job opportunities, sometimes while the student is still enrolled in the baccalaureate-degree program.  In some cases, the student may broaden their academic portfolio by completing their associate degree in a different field of study from their baccalaureate degree.

Perhaps the most significant benefit of reverse transfer programs pertains to those students that find it necessary to interrupt their baccalaureate-degree program.  Having the associate degree in hand provides demonstration of degree completion and encourages the student to resume the baccalaureate degree program later.  

Dilemma for the Schools

Associate degree students that transfer to a baccalaureate degree school before completing the associate degree create a dilemma for their associate degree school administrators.  The National Center for Education Statistics/Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (NCES/IPEDS) defines graduation as first-time students who finish a degree (within 150% of the normal time) at the institution where they began.  Students enrolled in associate degree programs that transfer to another school before associate degree completion are counted as “non-graduates” at their starting school.  While adjustments will be needed to the NCES/IPEDS reporting criteria, reverse transfer programs more appropriately measure the student’s success in associate degree completion.

What is Involved?

Through both voluntary institutional cooperation and legislative mandates, several very different models have emerged to establish and implement reverse transfer programs.

  • Perhaps the most straightforward approach is an agreement between a community college with one or more four-year schools.This model establishes specific course transfer details between the schools and can be the easiest model to inform students.
  • Numerous state-wide models have been legislated by the state education department or state education governing body.For example, Pennsylvania recently implemented an agreement between the PA Commission for Community Colleges (14 community colleges) and the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (14 baccalaureate granting universities).As stated by the state system chancellor, “The State System universities and the community colleges are natural partners.This agreement is another example of how we can work together on behalf of students across the Commonwealth. It’s a win-win for everyone.”
  • Crossing state lines, organizations such as the Lumina Foundation and Complete College America have provided funding for reverse transfer programs on a larger scale involving both public and private schools.

In all cases, the reverse transfer agreement requires the definition of, and adherence to, specific requirements.  Reverse transfer best-practice requirements have not emerged, although such practices are likely in the future as reverse transfer programs continue to evolve.  Some of the more common practices are:

  • The student must have completed 45 credits at the community college before transfer.This is intended to provide the majority of earned credits within the community college program.
  • Specific course articulation requirements are defined.This enables the student at the four-year school to select courses that will advance their baccalaureate degree and reverse transfer for associate degree completion.
  • Course categories are defined where the category includes a block of courses.This broader transfer eliminates specific course-by-course equivalency and supports broader transfer authority.

Successful reverse transfer programs require student notification.  A passive approach is for both schools to publish information on their respective web pages that provide instructions to students interested in pursuing the completion of their associate degree.  An active approach is to monitor the student’s progress towards degree and individually notify the student when they are candidates for associate degree completion.

And finally, the involved schools need to establish infrastructure to evaluate credits and to effectuate the reverse transfer process.  I’ll address those issues in the next post.

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