Tag Team: Supporting reverse transfer through federal and state policy

Postsecondary & Workforce

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Reverse transfer policies — once the “new shiny object” in higher education — are beginning to see somewhat of a resurgence this year, thanks to new federal legislation that aims to break down a major barrier many states encounter when trying to award students an associate degree through reverse transfer.

Currently, state policies require four-year institutions to get student consent before transferring credits back to two-year institutions for an audit that determines eligibility for an associate degree. Consent is required because of FERPA regulations, but often students may not respond to outreach or find the process cumbersome and don’t participate.

The Reverse Transfer Efficiency Act of 2017, introduced by Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., would eliminate the need for initial student consent for credits to transfer from four- to two-year institutions. If a student is deemed eligible for an associate degree, the two-year institution would then obtain the student’s consent to award the degree. While the legislation would help the current process in states with reverse transfer legislation or board policy, it does not solve the problem plaguing these policies: They still exclude the important near-completer population — those who have earned some college credit, but not a credential, and they are no longer enrolled. As I’ve said before (here and here), they could greatly benefit from these policies. Why not work to overhaul these policies at the state level to leverage their full potential?

Nineteen states currently have a policy, legislative or regulatory, requiring reverse transfer between two- and four-year public institutions. These policies benefit currently enrolled students by providing a stepping stone toward a bachelor’s degree and possibly advancement in their current workplace. However, unclear messaging about the opportunity for reverse transfer continues to plague state progress in degree production.

The new federal bill provides new energy to the reverse transfer movement and could launch a more public campaign for students to learn about participation. Regardless of the success of this legislation, states need to review current credit transfer policies to ensure they work and that public institutions adhere to them. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, students transferring between public institutions lose, on average, 37 percent of their earned credits. This is a staggering statistic in the context of unnecessary student debt in higher education.

As students continue to be mobile, transfer and reverse transfer policies need to provide clear pathways toward degree completion. Marrying federal and state policies can provide greater supports and pathways for degree completion, as we highlighted in this federalism paper series. In the meantime, states can improve reverse transfer policies by utilizing current data systems, creating marketing campaigns and updating statewide policies to allow near-completers to be eligible for a reverse transfer degree. 

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Assistant Director at Education Commission of the States | landerson@ecs.org

In her role, Lexi oversees project management for Education Commission of the States' policy work. Lexi has more than 10 years of experience working as a higher education administrator and policy analyst, with the past five years focused on postsecondary transition policies. When Lexi is not immersed in the education policy world, she can be found running, skiing or exploring with her toddler in the mountains.

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