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In a previous article, I predicted the fall 2021–23 enrollments of transfer students from community colleges (CCs) and from other four-year institutions. In that article I also noted that four-year institutions were being criticized from several quarters for the time taken to evaluate transcripts and for the low level of coursework that was accepted toward the student’s degree. I stated in the article that I would provide a perspective from the point of view of someone who had done this work for many years. So, here it is!

The process of transcript evaluation can be time-consuming. Once the admissions office receives the transcript, admissions staff review the courses on it and list, on a new transcript, equivalents they know at the time. They also mark some courses as not acceptable for transfer (e.g., those with grades below grades below C or C-, those from nonaccredited and some online institutions, and those below college level). Admissions then sends the new transcript to the school of the student’s major, where staff distribute the general education courses, electives, and courses for other school requirements. The transcript then goes to the department level, where someone like me takes over.

I will now turn to two real examples of why transferred science coursework, which appears on the student’s record with acceptable grades, is lost. There are others, including lab courses without the accompanying lecture (or for which the lecture has an unacceptable grade) and courses for nonmajors that have the same titles as those for majors. I recall spending a good deal of time researching (prerequisites, content, intended audience, textbook, and instructor credentials, when available) the courses for the biology major and professional courses being submitted for transfer when I did the transfer credits (for 30-plus years but not since 2010) for my department (biology).

The job of transcript evaluation in biology is more challenging than in chemistry or physics. The latter two have curricula that are largely the same everywhere, with one being firmly set by a national organization, the American Chemical Society (ACS). Biology has many different societies and no single curriculum. Biology can vary in focus from descriptive (macro, whole organism—based on types of plants and animals) to cellular and  molecular (micro, component-based mechanisms at the subcellular structural, and molecular levels) and everything in between. Thus, the individual in charge of this function may have to consult with individual faculty. The curricula in biology are commonly initiated by a two-semester survey of the subject, Bio 1 and 2 (or a similar title). A problem arises when a student enters with only the first semester of two-semester survey. There is likely to be an imperfect content match between the two surveys, which means that Bio 2 could be up to half new material and half old material and that up to half of what Bio 1 covers could be missing. We grant credit when the transfer courses are 70 percent overlapping with ours and make up the deficits by directing students to specific electives. If a 70 percent similarity is not attained, the student must take the full course sequence and will lose the credits (overlap) for the transferred course.

A second example from biology is Human Anatomy and Human Physiology. These two, 4–5-credit lecture-lab courses are foundational for nursing students and used as general or free electives for biology majors who have a career interest in health sciences. Other institutions teach this material in a combined format as A&P1 and A&P2. A student with the first course in either sequence has a problem if the transfer institution has the other sequence. We cannot afford to ignore (accreditation) 7.5 weeks of missing anatomy or physiology in the case of a nurse. Thus, we have students take Anatomy and Physiology here, and they lose the AP1 credit on overlap.

Transferring is not good for students; they will almost always lose something in the process. A general rule of thumb is that the more coursework they have (and the more institutions they have attended prior to the final transfer), the more credits they risk losing. One reason for this is that our institutions try to distinguish themselves from the competition to attract students. For example, unusual sequences of material presentation, innovative curricular themes, and unique course titles may make them stand out but can also make it difficult for the receiving institution to place the courses within their curricula. These innovations, despite being wonderful experiences for in-house students, do not always favor the awarding of transfer credit. Another reason for courses not transferring, even in general education, is the special “flavor” an institution gives them—for example, when “world cultures” or “sustainability” may be a theme of the general education core. The expectation is that all graduates will leave with this experience; it becomes the institution’s academic brand. In cases like this, transfers who have completed their general education courses elsewhere may have to take additional classes at the new institution. If they have fulfilled their free electives or if they are in a degree program that has no elective hours (e.g., engineering, double majors) they will lose the displaced, and now excess, credits.

In many states, articulation agreements dictate the transfer of course credits from the local CC. A problem here is that transfers can arrive with CC credits from out-of-state CCs. In some states, every new degree request must be accompanied by an articulation agreement with the CC that specifies 60 hours of coursework that will transfer. In many cases, free electives (occasionally in excess) must be used to accomplish this as few to none of the courses in the new major may be available at the outset at the CC. This can leave students with an excess of unusable (not used to fulfill any four-year degree requirements) coursework that is transferred and with more than two challenging years of advanced science coursework ahead.

Other factors that figure into intercampus transfers are residency requirements at several levels. Institutions may have requirements that define the maximum number of transfer credits that can count toward a degree or specify a minimum number of upper-level courses or credits hours that students must complete in-house. Schools can also have residency requirements, as can departments and degree programs. These requirements were instituted with faculty approval, and they will be challenging to change by external mandate as the curriculum traditionally belongs to the faculty and may be one of a few areas over which they still exert a level of control.

Recommendations for institutions (I), schools (S), departments (D), and all three (C) for improving credit transfer

  1. To insure consistency in decisions, place a faculty or staff member who is attentive and knowledgeable in charge of credit transfer. (S, D)
  2. List your criteria for successful transfer (grades, course similarity level, course age, partial courses, and sequences). Decide how big of a content gap to allow. (C)
  3. Provide a timetable for the review process:
    1. Admissions receipt/uploading/translation of transcript(s)
    2. School requirements determination 
    3. Department placement for individual courses (majors)
      Choose a timeframe in collaboration with admissions, school staff, and department personnel. Give a time range (e.g., three to six weeks), with the longest being the busiest for transfers or times of the year when the individual staff who make these decisions have other pressing duties. (C)
  4. Set early deadlines (spring, summer, fall) for receiving transfer requests. Encourage early contact with your institution as a semester ahead can avoid lost credits due to nonmatching sequences. (I)
  5. Be prepared to advise students before they transfer. Contact them periodically to let them know you are still interested in them. A work-study student can do this. (D)
  6. Consult the CollegeSource website, where you can get course catalogues and other information relative to course transfer from many institutions. (I)
  7. Keep a record of all the transfers you have done in case you get other requests from the same schools or in case you have personnel changes among those who evaluate external course work. (S, D)

There are also issues with the students’ former institutions. Some students often take the “same” (different title and institution but same material and level) course two or three times. In biology, we see this most frequently in courses (e.g., microbiology, physiology) for pre–health science students who wish to change their major to biology. So now you have two (or three!) overlapping courses for nonmajors, neither (or none) of which is suitable for majors. One has to wonder how and why this is allowed. The final thing I will say here is that there are faculty members in our four-year institutions who feel that the bar for grades is lower at the CC and question the credentials of CC instructors, who are often adjuncts without terminal degrees. After many years of working with the CC, I hope that this type of mistrust is now behind us but must caution chairs to carefully vet the decisions some faculty members make.

Recommendations for students (through advisors) for better transfer outcomes

  1. Transfer only for sound reasons (e.g., present school is too expensive or does not have a degree program in student’s area of interest).
  2. Transfer by the end of year one if possible; do not transfer after two years (>60 credits).
  3. Decide where you will move and contact an advisor there right away. Do what they say. Document all correspondence and conversations.
  4. Submit your transcripts early. Know where you stand before cutting ties.
  5. Gather and bring the following to your first advisor meeting: course catalogues and materials (descriptions, syllabi, and so forth, unless the person you are seeing says they have what they need) from your past academic history.
  6. Complete all two-semester course sequences before transferring or delay them until after transferring to avoid the nonalignment of content problem described earlier.

N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is professor and chair emeritus of the Department of Biology and former associate dean for planning and finance in the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.