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Executive Summary

Transfer—the process whereby a student transfers earned credit from one higher education institution to another—represents a critical pathway toward associate and baccalaureate degree completion. Due to the increasing mobility and diversity of the student population, student transfer is becoming more common and important across the U.S. Nevertheless, there are a host of obstacles in the transfer process which may actually deter students from pursuing degrees or force them to take additional or comparable courses more than once, thereby extending time to degree completion and increasing costs. Consequently, higher education institutions and state and federal policy makers are proactively researching and adopting new approaches to raise the number of students who transfer successfully and to increase the efficiency with which transfer students complete degrees.

Here in Massachusetts, there is a pressing need for a more educated workforce, in particular college graduates with associate and baccalaureate degrees. Without a smooth and efficient transfer system, however, students will drop out of the educational and workforce pipeline. This is particularly important in the Commonwealth as we face demographic changes that are altering the makeup of our future workforce. Moreover, efficient degree completion will result in students graduating with less debt and entering the workforce sooner, therefore contributing to the economic and social prosperity of their families, their communities, and the Commonwealth.

The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education (BHE) has statutory authority around the development and implementation of programs to facilitate and foster the transfer of students without loss of academic credit from one public institution to another. The BHE and the public higher education system together have a more than 30-year history of developing and implementing statewide and institutional transfer policies and agreements to facilitate student transfer and degree completion.

The current arrangement includes a collection of different transfer programs which meet specific needs but, taken together in today’s increasingly complex environment, contain too many obstacles to ensure smooth transfer. These barriers affect all stakeholders—faculty members, student advisors, higher education administrators, statewide policy makers and, most importantly, students, who are often confronted with confusing or inadequate transfer policies and agreements, vague knowledge on how transfer courses will be accepted and applied to the degree, and inconsistent access to transfer information. For example, some transfer programs guarantee partial or full transfer of credit but not admission, while others guarantee admission but not transfer of credit. Also, all current programs support only community college graduates, despite the fact that a much broader population of students seek to transfer. While increasing numbers of students have taken advantage of these programs, there is a need for a simpler, more transparent system.

As part of its efforts to improve graduation and retention rates in Massachusetts, the BHE found that transfer plays an increasingly large role in student success as measured by degree completion. In April 2007, the BHE created the Commonwealth Transfer Advisory Group (CTAG) to develop a comprehensive understanding of the issues that affect transfer and to make recommendations to the BHE on steps that can be implemented to improve transfer. Specific objectives of the group included evaluating the Commonwealth’s current policies and practices, diagnosing barriers associated with transfer, comparing and assessing policies and practices enacted in other states, recommending policies and practices to remedy transfer barriers, and identifying costs associated with proposed solutions.

The resulting report addresses these objectives and also provides an analysis of current transfer student mobility in Massachusetts, as well as the academic performance of transfer students. There are a number of important trends evident in Massachusetts, some of which underscore the need for a more smooth and efficient student transfer system. No longer limited to simply “vertical” movement from a community college to a state college or to the University of Massachusetts, student transfer today is multidirectional across institutions. In addition, students coming from the community colleges tend to transfer out before earning an associate degree. Also of significance is that transfer students who have demonstrated academic success generally perform as well academically as their non-transfer peers.

The Commonwealth Transfer Advisory Group created the following set of guiding principles to guide and frame the recommendations.

  • The primary goal of removing obstacles to transfer and creating a coherent transfer process is to help students succeed in meeting their educational goals.
  • Transfer is a shared responsibility amongst higher education institution leaders, faculty, and administrators; by state agencies and legislators, and by students.
  • A statewide transfer policy compatible with academic quality and institutional integrity can be instrumental in improving student success.
  • The student learning outcomes associated with the general education programs at the Massachusetts public institutions of higher education as a whole are comparable and are more important than individual courses.
  • Any transfer student within the system of Massachusetts public higher education who earns a degree should be deemed successfuland the respective institutions should be counted as contributors to the student’s educational achievement.
  • The development and assessment of program-to-program and course-to-course transfer across institutions is best accomplished by regular and sustainable faculty collaboration focused on the establishment of common student learning outcomes.

CTAG developed four overarching goals and subsequent recommendations:

Goal 1: Implement the MassTransfer policy effective Academic Year 2009-10.

MassTransfer is a single, streamlined policy to simplify the transfer process clearing the way for greater student access and success. MassTransfer will provide community college graduates who complete designated associate degrees with the benefits of the full transfer and applicability of credit, guaranteed admission, and a tuition discount (with each benefit based on the student’s final grade point average) to linked baccalaureate programs. MassTransfer will also provide any student in the Massachusetts public higher education system the intermediate goal of completing a portable general education transfer block which will satisfy the general education requirements across institutions. CTAG recommends that the Department of Higher Education devote a full-time position to oversee the initiative and that CTAG develop MassTransfer implementation guidelines.

The following graphics represent current transfer policy problems and proposed solutions through the adoption of MassTransfer.

Before Image: Statewide Transfer Policies and Institutional Transfer Agreements. Problem is illustrated by a jumble of puzzle pieces of different colors. Problems: Multiple, inconsistent programs (Some programs only guarantee transfer of partial or all credit; some only guarantee admission); Exclusive (Programs are only for community college graduates).

After Image: MassTransfer. Solution is illustrated by a completed puzzle in one, uniform color. Solutions: Single, streamlined policy (Full transfer and applicability of credit, guaranteed admission, and tuition discount); Inclusive (Portable general education transfer block across public higher education institutions).

Goal 2: Provide easy access to clear, accurate, and cohesive transfer information.

CTAG recommends the creation of a comprehensive centralized transfer website targeted for various audiences which includes a statewide electronic transcript delivery system and an online degree audit system. It is also necessary to carry out an on-going public relations campaign to highlight the state's commitment to higher education access and success through transfer.

Goal 3: Ensure sustained effectiveness and accountability of transfer.

To promote the evaluation of transfer, CTAG supports the community college student success measure which includes transfer currently under development by the Board of Higher Education as well as the development of common statewide definitions of a transfer student, transfer rate, transfer retention rate, and transfer graduation rate. CTAG recommends an annual transfer report be submitted to the Joint Committee on Higher Education.

To ensure ongoing adherence, CTAG recommends that all public higher education institutions review their transfer policies and practices and retract those that impose barriers; establish clear institutional structures which address transfer issues; establish and publish a transfer student appeals process; and designate a transfer ombudsperson who ensures institutional compliance with transfer policies and procedures.

Goal 4: Expand alignment of statewide program-to-program and course-to-course transfer.

To further streamline and simplify transfer processes, CTAG recommends the development of statewide transfer guides by major which guarantee admission and full transfer and applicability of credit to the baccalaureate degree. Statewide transfer guides by major should be developed by faculty based upon comparable course content and common student learning outcomes. A directory of statewide course-to-course equivalencies should be developed similarly through the convening of statewide faculty meetings.

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