Transfer Credits: Supporting Student Mobility in Higher Education

Students on average lose 43% of their credits upon transferring from one institution to another. Learn how higher education leaders can make the credit process more transparent, efficient, and clear so students can more easily complete their degrees.

Students sitting at desks in a classroom setting

The population of students transferring to higher education institutions increased 5.3% in 2023. But that doesn’t mean it’s become easier to transfer colleges. Standing in students’ way are manual (and often bureaucratic) institutional processes, complex admissions requirements, and the challenge of balancing a new academic environment with both family and financial needs.

But the biggest and most frustrating challenge of all might be the transferring of credits. As institutions see an ever increasing number of transfer students—1.2 million last year—how do they work to remove barriers and facilitate success for this population?

Students lose approximately 43% of their credits upon transferring from one institution to another. That represents a significant loss of time and money, particularly for underrepresented students from community colleges who aspire to get a bachelor’s degree.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, “Baccalaureate degree programs appear increasingly out of reach for community college students, particularly those enrolled in urban and suburban community colleges, and in transfer-focused community colleges.”

Higher education degrees have long been understood as an engine for economic and social mobility, but how to unlock that achievement when so many obstacles hinder learners from transferring and completing a college degree? For higher education administrators, the transfer credit process can be time-consuming and tedious.

“We have a continuously growing transfer student population, and it’s been a challenge for us to maneuver the multiple tasks between the student profile and the transfer credit rule and just toggling back and forth and trying to get things executed in a timely manner,” said Roz McFarlane McCalla, director of enrollment systems at Palm Beach State College at Workday Rising.

Supporting Nontraditional College Paths

Colleges and universities have struggled to find the best ways to transfer credits across institutions, and count education received outside of traditional institutions of higher learning.

The fact is, for many students, their college path is not so traditional anymore. Not all students are pursuing college straight out of high school but are instead taking a more winding path. And along the way, they could have gained all sorts of credits, such as CLEP exams, military credit, certifications, and additional real-world learning opportunities.

It’s not always clear to transfer students when and how their credits will be accepted by institutions despite the hard work and real education that went into them. The complex matrix of institutional policies regarding transfer and credit for prior learning (CPL) create a systemic barrier for lower-income students.

Although undergraduate enrollment grew over 1% in the fall of 2023—the first increase since the pandemic—higher education enrollment has been on the decline for a decade and is predicted to decline further. With fewer traditional on-campus students enrolling out of high school, colleges are going to have to find, understand, and serve new and different types of students to address these enrollment gaps.

“There’s an enrollment decline,” said Joellen Shendy, product strategy director, Workday Student. “And 40 million adults have some college, no degree. And many of them will need to upskill, reskill, or obtain a college credential to secure better employment outcomes. There is an opportunity to bring more of these students into colleges and universities by maximizing their transfer credit.”

For students, the cost and speed of degree completion are the most important factors when considering a program. When asked which factors would be important when making a decision about a potential degree completion program, over two-thirds (68%) said the tuition or cost of the degree, while 56% said the speed at which they can complete their degree.

Learners desire additional layers of value, such as prior learning assessment (PLA), microcredentials, and stackability within degree completion programs. Over three-quarters of survey respondents (78%) said credit for prior learning would greatly increase (36%) or increase (42%) their interest in pursuing an undergraduate degree.

It’s not always clear to transfer students when and how their credits will be accepted by institutions despite the hard work and real education that went into them.

Build a New Administrator Experience

While transferring credits can be confusing and frustrating, there are opportunities to improve it.

Transfer credit transformation starts with getting the right data into the hands of the right people so they can make the right decisions at the right time.

“As an administrator I was drowning in data, but thirsting for outcomes,” said Michelle Clifton, senior product marketing manager at Workday. “While universities possess a wealth of data resources, you often come up short on actionable insights.”

When registrars and enrollment officers are equipped with a vast array of data and truly have a finger on the pulse of transfer enrollment, they can be more responsive, transparent, and efficient.

In the fall of 2024, the University of Arkansas System will roll out a comprehensive index of subject codes and course numbers for all system schools. Using Workday Student, this change will support Arkansas students in transfer, remove barriers to higher education, and ease the administrative overhead of determining course equivalency in the processing of transcripts.

“Aligning the UA System institutions under a common course numbering schema supports transfer students by making equivalent courses at each school easier to identify,” said Dave Dawson, senior associate vice provost for enrollment services and director of Workday Student at University of Arkansas.

But more than two-thirds of higher education leaders say their organization’s data is somewhat or completely siloed. For higher ed institutions to sustain their mission, they need to transform their operations and processes, but are often saddled with 20-year-old legacy systems that can be older than the students they serve.

This outdated tech and lack of data can make the administrator’s job that much harder as they work behind the scenes to provide a good experience to transfer students.

“It’s all about your administrator’s capability to, as seamlessly as possible, administer transfer credit because those are students who you’d like in your institution,” said Shendy. “It’s the data and insights, but it’s also how fast can I take action on something or get something done in the system so that I can enhance my transfer credit rules for the betterment of all.”

Take preliminary transfer credit, for example. Administrators could craft the transfer credit rules and provide transparency about the acceptance or rejection of credit. With those articulation rules in the system, they could allow for the differences in departments or academic levels. And Workday provides web services and APIs so institutions can set up and integrate external sites to show their transfer credit rules (for example, course equivalencies) and results of the preliminary transfer credit evaluation.

“Preliminary transfer credits are a critical part of choosing where you’re going to attend college,” said Shendy. “There’s the amount of transfer credit you could get, and then there’s what you’re actually going to get when you enroll at the institution. So when you talk about preliminary transfer credit in the admission decision, the primary consideration is, how are my credits going to support my degree pathway?”

A future use case of AI and machine learning (ML) at Workday will try to find credentials the students have not declared but for which they may be eligible, providing the full transparency and information students crave. They’ll receive all the credentials they have completed the requirements for—and then turn those credentials into opportunities for mobility and career pathways.

There are capabilities that can help higher education now. Workday enables institutions to set up transfer credit rules with conditions, such as allowing the transfer of external courses with a minimum GPA.

More than two-thirds of higher education leaders say their organization’s data is somewhat or completely siloed.

Transfer Credit Reporting Tools

Reporting on transfer credit is critical for administrators. Workday is built with strong reporting capabilities, which can surface key details and trends such as how many students transferred to the institution and how long it took for a student to graduate. Advisors and school administrators can use Workday Prism Analytics and reporting tools to assist students in choosing external courses, reducing the cost of attendance and accelerating graduation timelines.

Iowa State University, for example, is required by the state to share how much transfer credit a student would receive before they apply. Texas also requires its colleges and universities to provide why certain credits did not transfer. 

“Workday is able to provide real-time information of what exactly transfers or doesn’t transfer,” said Siva Surapaneni, senior product manager at Workday. For an administrator, “It’s one-click access to make a change quickly or create a rule. There are different layers of configuration available, so it works for many different populations.”

Institutions can align departments on a transfer credit course or indicate clearly how they’re different. They can discover patterns they’re seeing for the students and this data, in turn, can impact the course demand planning efforts of various offices on campus. It helps students get to that pathway much faster, making it easier to jump into courses without worrying about duplication. And students will understand how their past credit is applied to their chosen degree program.

“We’re going to be able to streamline the process much better and see everything about it on the student’s profile,” said McFarlane McCalla. “One fingertip away. We can quickly update the student’s record if we need to, quickly add something to the transfer credit rule. And it’s just going to be a smooth process moving forward.”

“It’s all about your administrator’s capability to, as seamlessly as possible, administer transfer credit because those are students who you’d like in your institution.”

Joellen Shendy Product Strategy Director, Workday Student Workday

Measuring Student Outcomes

Choosing the right solution to help with the transfer credit process will help institutions deliver key outcomes for students, regulators, administrators, and other stakeholders.

“The first outcome for an institution is to get that student to the point of actually pulling the trigger and enrolling,” said Shendy. “And then once they are in, helping students get the answer to ‘What’s my shortest pathway to a degree?’ which, for transfer students, is often the most common question.”

Many states are using performance-based funding models for their two- and four-year colleges and universities. That means they get funded based on how many credentials they award.

“Such funding models incentivize getting students to completion,” said Shendy. “For performance-based funding, you want students to enroll, be retained, and complete, which requires helping them choose the right pathway. Those are the outcomes for the institution. This is not an exercise of maximizing transfer credit as just an activity itself. There’s an endgame here.”

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