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Navigating the Curriculum – Course and Credit Transfer

December 01, 2017

There once was a day when a high school senior would apply to and be accepted by a college or university, enroll for four years, and complete a baccalaureate degree.  In the current day, that enrollment pattern is becoming the exception, not the rule.  The new normal is represented by the student’s enrollment at multiple schools.

Enrollment patterns have become increasingly complicated for a variety of reasons including: student choice, cost, life style, workforce changes, consumer attitude, and online learning.  The resulting challenge for both the student and their degree granting schools is the pragmatic issue of mapping completed courses and degree requirements from one school to the next.  Or simply said, the transfer of courses that will “count” towards degree completion.

What are the reasons?

Course transfer is a broad term that is represented by an array of underlying practices and situations.

  • High school advance placement (AP) - Advanced Placement is a program created by the College Board which offers college-level curriculum and examinations to high school students. Based on the examination score, colleges and universities may grant placement and course credit to the student.
  • Community College - Some students begin their collegiate experience at a community college.  The costs of enrolling are typically less expensive than a four-year school, and costs can be further reduced by living at home.
  • Summer enrollment - Students enrolled at a four-year school often return home for the summer and take courses at a school close to home.
  • Transfer - Choosing a school is a difficult choice.  Close to home or away from home?  Large campus or small campus?  Alma mater of the student’s parents or not?  Public or private?  Despite best efforts, students often begin at one school and transfer to another.
  • Online learning - With the explosion of online courses and programs, students have the advantage of enrolling at a residential school while concurrently enrolling at another online school.
  • Dual enrollments - In many locations, and especially in urban settings, a student may find it beneficial to concurrently enroll at multiple schools during the same semester.

What is transferred?

Degree requirements are defined within the school’s Course Catalog, a document that essentially represents a contract between the student and the school. If the student fulfills the requirements stated in the Catalog, the school will award the degree.  Content and structure of Catalogs vary, but all have in common the specificity of requirements needed to complete the degree program.  In broad terms, these requirements are: successful completion of core-curriculum courses (i.e. general education); specified courses for the major; required number of credits completed at the school; and grades or grade point average(s).

The practical issue is, “What is transferred to satisfy the school’s degree requirements?”  There are several possibilities.

  • Course Equivalency - This represents a direct correlation between two courses at two different schools.  For example, History 20 at School A is accepted as History 101 by School B.  This represents the best outcome for the student since the transferred course fulfills a degree requirement.  These course equivalencies are determined by curricular review committees or state mandates, recorded in course articulation tables, and implemented by degree audit systems.
  • Electives - Depending on the student’s major, the accepting school may require enrollment in specific courses at the school, thus effectively not accepting otherwise equivalent courses from the transfer school.  However, the transferred course may be accepted as fulfilling a general elective requirement.
  • Credits - The accepting school may not accept the transfer course as fulfilling any course requirement, but may count the transfer credits. This practice may benefit the student if there is a total-credits-earned degree requirement.  Another potential benefit is many schools use the number of completed credits to determine student class (freshmen, sophomore, junior, senior).
  • Grades - The accepting school will typically require a grade of C or better for acceptance of the transfer course to even be considered.  Transfer course grades are generally not recorded on the accepting school’s transcript and therefore have no impact on the student’s grade point average.
  • Other Factors - The accepting school may consider other factors before accepting transfer credit, such as the year the course was taken, the student’s major, and other courses completed.   The harsh reality is that successfully completed courses may have no transfer value at the next school.

The Process

Course transfer involves both policy and practice.  Policy reflects the accepting school’s perspective on the adoption of courses and credits completed elsewhere.  Traditionally, this perspective is largely determined by the faculty in their academic governance role.  However, there is an increasingly growing mandate driven by state educational agencies, where the perspective is maximizing state funding of higher education.  Sometimes the faculty perspective and the state mandate are at odds with each other.  More on that in a later article.

The Practice

Implementation of a course transfer practice consists of multiple operational aspects.

  • Course Evaluation - At the heart of the matter is an objective comparison of the external course to the accepting school’s course catalog to determine the level of equivalency.  This can easily become a manually intensive process involving faculty and staff from both the admission office and the academic departments.  Some evaluation reviews may be triggered by catalog changes from either school or may be triggered by a student requesting a course transfer.
  • Course Articulation - Following the evaluation, the results are recorded and become available for future use.  The database is often referred to as the course articulation table.  This data can be used within the accepting school’s degree audit system and can also be used to assist transfer students evaluate the acceptance of their completed courses at the accepting school.
  • Degree Audit - A degree audit system provides an analysis of the student’s enrollment history against the school’s degree requirements, providing a roadmap of enrollment requirements needed to complete the degree program.  The degree audit system needs to account for transfer courses when conducting this analysis.
  • Transcript Exchange - The exchange of transcripts between schools is the trigger that starts the course transfer process.  Transcripts that are exchanged as documents (paper or PDF) will require manual intervention to receive and record the data from the received transcript into the accepting school’s student information system.  Transcripts that are exchanged as data (EDI or XML) open the possibility of automated recording into the student information system.

Course transfer practices are not new, however as students continue to engage in higher mobility between schools, the importance of implementing student focused course transfer practices has never been more important.  The next two articles will discuss additional relevant issues.

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