Colleges Split on Credit-Transfer Rules

 

Traditional, nonprofit universities are at odds with smaller, for-profit career colleges over a proposal before Congress that would make it easier for students to transfer between institutions of higher learning. At stake is millions of dollars worth of course work that transfer students either get credit for, or are forced to re-take by their new college.

Hardest-hit by the proposed rules would be large state university systems, such as Penn State and Indiana University, which are trying to block legislation that would force them to ease restrictions on credit-transfers from for-profit institutions.

The traditional colleges say they need autonomy and flexibility in determining the quality of a transfer-student's course work. For-profit colleges say their students routinely face difficulties in transferring to traditional colleges. Each side is represented in Washington, D.C., by dozens of education associations that actively lobby Congress.

Only a handful of states have statewide policies intended to ease the credit-transfer process. The state university system in Ohio, for example, has established ties, or articulation agreements, with most for-profit and two-year colleges in the state, which dictate what courses are transferable.

"Ohio's model for transfer and articulation might serve as a useful resource to other states challenged by similar issues," Nancy Zimpher, president of the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, told lawmakers during a congressional hearing this month on the credit transfer provisions.

The majority of college degrees in the United States are granted by state two- and four-year universities. But in the past 15 years, the number of students who switch colleges has swelled to more than half of all graduates, with an increasing number of nontraditional students starting out in career colleges before transferring to traditional schools.

Republican lawmakers have included a provision in a bill to renew the Higher Education Act -- which governs $70 billion in subsidies to America's postsecondary schools -- that would require all colleges receiving federal aid to overhaul their university transfer policies. The bill is currently pending in the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Under the measure, colleges would have to publicly disclose their transfer policies, restrict their use of outside accrediting agencies to determine whether to award credits and require colleges to report to the federal government how many credits they award.

The measure's chief sponsor, Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon, a California Republican, said the provision on transferring credits would remove arbitrary standards from the process and would improve access to higher education for nontraditional and economically disadvantaged students, who can save money by completing coursework at cheaper for-profit colleges before transferring to traditional schools.

"Artificial barriers to college credit mobility inhibit student completion rates and help drive up the cost of postsecondary education," McKeon said during a congressional hearing this month on the higher education reauthorization bill, the College Access and Opportunity Act of 2005.

Traditional, nonprofit colleges do not oppose making their credit-transfer process more transparent and less onerous for students, but they should be allowed to do so voluntarily, said Christopher A.M. Simmons of the American Council on Education (ACE), which represents nearly 1,600 colleges and 200 higher education groups.

Simmons said the requirement that colleges report to the federal government how many credits they transfer "crosses over the line of appropriate federal involvement" and would require a national database that would cost millions of dollars to implement.

"This is an extremely important and central academic decision that should be left up to academic institutions to decide," he said. "The federal government shouldn't interfere."

Most students and parents are unaware of the pitfalls they may encounter if they switch from a career college to a traditional four-year institution, said Nancy Broff, general counsel for the Career College Association (CCA), which represents for-profit schools. Students often don't know if their credits will transfer until after switching schools.

"This (transfer-credit) legislation does not intrude on academic freedom at all," Broff said. "If you are an institution that receives taxpayer dollars, you have to have a transparent and fair policy for awarding transfer credits."

A national policy is needed, said Broff, to stop traditional schools from arbitrarily rejecting credits based solely on the type of accrediting agency that a college uses to evaluate the quality of its course work.

Nearly all state universities use and recognize regional accrediting agencies, while for-profit colleges use national accrediting agencies. The federal government screens all accrediting agencies and treats regional and national institutions equally.

A study conducted by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, and funded by CCA and other career college associations, found that transfer credits from regionally accredited nonprofit colleges are accepted more than 95 percent of the time. In contrast, credits from nationally accredited for-profit colleges are accepted at rates as low as 8 percent in Western states to 42 percent in New England.

"Our bill ensures credits are not unfairly and arbitrarily denied based solely on the agency that accredits an institution, so long as they are recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education," McKeon said during the hearing.

 
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