Clearing the Credit-Transfer Path

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran articles last year exploring nationwide issues relating to college credits, including problems faced by transfer students when they attempt to transfer from one college to another. The chart above illustrates how one sample CUNY community college’s math course credits were valued by 11 four-year colleges within the University. Only two granted the full four credits; one allowed three credits; three schools treated the course as an elective; and five gave either no credit or the possibility of elective credit if the student had completed an associate degree.

The ability of qualified community college students to transfer easily to the senior colleges is at the core of the integrated university and the state law that created the modern university system within the City of New York nearly 50 years ago.
“It is imperative,” declared a 1960 report detailing the structure of the new system, that the community colleges “maintain high standards and that transfer students move with ease from the two-year programs to the senior colleges.”

Sample CUNY Community College Course

Sample CUNY Community College Course

A half-century later, the promise of seamless transfer of credits among CUNY colleges remains elusive and frustrating for many students. According to the report of a working group convened by Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost Lexa Logue, too many students find their college credits rejected by their receiving colleges, each of which has discretion to shape its own general education courses and credit requirements.

Transfer students “confront a variety of uncertainties and risks, including the risk of having some credits rejected, which can slow their progress toward their degrees and increase their costs,” according to the October 2010 report of the CUNY Working Group on Transfer and Articulation. It was written by Associate University Provost Julia Wrigley, who also chaired the panel.

Programs at “sending and receiving colleges are too often not properly aligned, which can force [students] to take additional courses to meet requirements,” the report said. This may delay graduation, disrupt education or impose a financial burden, because credits exceeding the typically required 120 may not be covered by financial aid.

“We are deeply concerned by the challenges that are faced when students transfer to a CUNY campus, and we are determined to find ways to surmount those challenges,” said Logue, who is leading efforts — at Chancellor Matthew Goldstein’s request — to improve the transfer process and to better align general education across the University.
“We want to make sure students are not penalized when they move from one campus to another, that they can move freely,” Logue said. “At the same time, we want to make sure each campus has the ability to develop in its own way, specialize in its own way, and we want to make sure faculty have control over the curriculum.”

Goldstein told the Board of Trustees that he had asked Logue “to lead probably one of the most important actions … to really get our arms around general education” and to find solutions to the credit-transfer conundrum, a process that involves consultation with faculty and staff.
“We will get this job done, but it’s going to take time,” the chancellor told the trustees. “It’s probably the most ambitious academic enterprise that we have … tried to accomplish.

“There are barriers for our students to make the kinds of leaps they have to make, especially as they transfer from one institution to another,” he said. “I am not happy with our retention rates, I am not happy with our transfer rates and articulation. When I look at the data and see how many credits the average student takes to graduate, I am saddened by the number being as large as it is. It is taking too long to graduate and we are forcing our students to accumulate too many credits.”

The working group’s report noted that transfer is now a major pathway to a baccalaureate degree and that CUNY “transfer students move from community colleges to baccalaureate colleges in large numbers.” In fall 2009, nearly 73 percent of the 6,403 students who transferred from associate to baccalaureate programs at CUNY came from the University’s two-year colleges and some 27 percent came from community colleges outside CUNY. The report focused mostly on community college to senior college transfers, although it noted, for example, that community colleges, too, may reject credits earned at other colleges.

In 2008-09, CUNY’s 17,634 baccalaureate graduates averaged 130 credits — significantly higher than the required 120 — upon earning their degrees, the report said. The excess credits cost students and the state $72.5 million, according to data compiled by the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment.

CUNY’s credit-transfer woes were cited last year in a Chronicle of Higher Education series. The Chronicle noted, for example, that a student who passed Technical Mathematics I at Bronx Community College would receive from zero to four credits for the course from the 11 senior colleges, and some of those colleges would consider it an elective.

Problems with articulation also are on state education authorities’ radar. The working group’s report noted that the 2007 Report of the New York State Commission on Higher Education “called for full system-wide articulation of comparable courses and seamless transfer among institutions. New York State Education Law specifies that this is a basic responsibility of CUNY, stating that ‘the University must remain responsive to the needs of its urban setting and maintain its close articulation between senior and community college units,’ with the University operating as an integrated system and facilitating transfer between units.”

Citing CUNY data and information from faculty, staff and students, the working group’s report identified “a number of problems with CUNY’s transfer system” and made recommendations.

A central issue is that CUNY operates on a “course matching” system and too often it is unclear to students which of their courses will “match” courses and give them credit at their receiving colleges. The colleges, which historically have had the autonomy to create their own courses and requirements, are inconsistent, administrators acknowledge, as to how they evaluate other colleges’ courses for credit.

“You get credit if a course you’re bringing in matches a course in your new institution. There’s no definition of what is a match,” said Logue. The aim is to have “one clearly explainable general education framework for the University” so students and others know what the general education requirements are, and understand what courses they can take — and be credited for — for specific academic pathways at all the colleges.

For the report, focus groups were conducted with students who had acquired more than 120 credits but had not yet graduated. Although myriad factors were cited for why they had excess credits, transfer students were particularly likely to express confusion and frustration, reporting unclear requirements for their academic pathways, course-matching issues and college particularity about which colleges’ courses/credits were to be “trusted,” among other problems.

“Excess credits impose a large burden on students with limited resources,” the report said. “Students with large numbers of excess credits will almost certainly have used up their financial aid eligibility before they finish, requiring them to fund college costs themselves. In extending their stay, they also run an increased risk of dropping out …. The costs for CUNY are great, too, with students taking up seats that could go to others …

“CUNY could make its transfer system more effective and student-friendly if it created a system-wide transfer process with clear pathways for students. Many universities have adopted such systems, including the University System of Georgia and SUNY,” the report asserted.

“These universities have swept away transfer arrangements that depended on bilateral agreements between colleges and instead have created system-wide transfer plans that have greatly simplified the transfer process for students.”

Aside from improving CUNY’s TIPPS online information system on course equivalencies and articulation agreements, the report made several recommendations, including:

• Standardize general education requirements in terms of the number of credits and division into broad curricular areas. The number of general education requirements vary at CUNY’s senior and comprehensive colleges from 36 to 38 to more than 50, the report noted.

• Establish disciplinary groups that identify the five most common courses taken as pathways into the major and ensure that full credit is received for them as entry-level major courses or as prerequisites.

• Create mechanisms for accepting legitimate courses for credit even when a receiving college does not have a match for the course.

These three recommendations were criticized by Baruch finance professor Terrence Martell, vice chair of the University Faculty Senate, as unsupported by data in the report. “These are curriculum issues best left to the faculty to decide. There is nothing in this report that would warrant challenging that longstanding faculty prerogative,” said Martell, who is Saxe distinguished professor of finance at Baruch and director of the Weissman Center for International Business. He also described as “greatly overstated” the $72.5 million figure cited as the cost of excess credits, saying “$4.1 million is closer to the actual cost, if we limit ourselves to the impact of CUNY students transferring within CUNY, which is the focus of this report.”

Logue said, however, that the cost of excess credits accumulated by 2008-09 graduates was accurately stated as being $72 million and that the University should be concerned about all categories of students who accumulated these credits. Within-CUNY transfer students accumulated $28 million of these credits, with the figure rising to $50 million when all transfers from within and outside CUNY are considered.

Logue points out that these are all CUNY students. Even CUNY graduates who started and finished at the same senior college accumulated a total of $16 million in excess credits. This suggests, Logue said, that the system is hard for all students to navigate efficiently.

Logue said consulting with faculty groups was part of the process of improving the system. “We’re talking about one integrated university, and in that integrated university, each unit has its own particular niche … that’s a good thing, but at the same time, if a student moves from one campus to another, we don’t want the student to have to start all over again.”