Students Need More Information to Help Reduce Challenges in Transferring College Credits
GAO-17-574: Published: Aug 14, 2017. Publicly Released: Sep 13, 2017.
What GAO Found
Based on GAO's analysis of the Department of Education's (Education) most recently available data, an estimated 35 percent of college students transferred to a new school at least once from 2004 to 2009, and GAO found that students may face challenges getting information or advice about transferring course credits. An estimated 62 percent of these transfers were between public schools. According to stakeholders GAO spoke with, students can face challenges transferring credits between schools that do not have statewide polices or articulation agreements, which are transfer agreements or partnerships between schools designating how credits earned at one school will transfer to another. Stakeholders also said that advising and information may not be adequate to help students navigate the transfer process.
The possible financial implications of transferring depend in part on the extent of credits lost in the transfer. Using Education's transfer data, GAO estimated that students who transferred from 2004 to 2009 lost, on average, an estimated 43 percent of their credits, and credit loss varied depending on the transfer path. For example, students who transferred between public schools—the majority of transfer students—lost an estimated 37 percent of their credits. In comparison, students who took some of the less frequent transfer paths lost a relatively higher percentage of their credits. For example, students who transferred from private for-profit schools to public schools accounted for 4 percent of all transfer students but lost an estimated 94 percent of their credits. Transferring can have different effects on college affordability. Students seeking to obtain a bachelor's degree at a more expensive school may save on tuition costs by transferring from a less expensive school. On the other hand, transfer students may incur additional costs to repeat credits that do not transfer or count toward their degree. Transfer students can receive federal financial aid. GAO's analysis showed that almost half of the students who transferred from 2004 to 2009 received Pell Grants and close to two-thirds received Federal Direct Loans. Students who lose credits may use more financial aid to pay for repeated courses at additional cost to the federal government, or they may exhaust their financial aid eligibility, which can result in additional out-of-pocket costs.
While GAO estimated that the websites for almost all schools nationwide provided credit transfer policies, as required by Education, about 29 percent did not include a list of other schools with which the school had articulation agreements. Among those schools, GAO found that some did not have any articulation agreements, while others did but did not list partner schools on their websites. Schools must provide such listings, but they are not required to do so specifically on their website. As a result, students may not have ready access to this information to fully understand their transfer options. Moreover, Education provides limited transfer information to students and their families, contrary to federal internal control standards that call for agencies to provide adequate information to external parties. General information on key transfer considerations that are applicable across schools and more complete information on schools' articulation agreements can help students avoid making uninformed transfer decisions that could add to the time and expense of earning a degree.
Why GAO Did This Study
College students sometimes opt to transfer schools in response to changing interests or for financial reasons. The extent to which students can transfer previously earned course credits can affect the time and cost for completing a degree. Given the federal government's sizeable investment in student aid—$125 billion in fiscal year 2016—and potential difficulties students may face in transferring credits, GAO was asked to examine the college transfer process.
GAO examined (1) transfer rates and challenges students face in transferring credits, (2) the possible financial implications of transfer, and (3) the extent to which students are provided with transfer information to help them plan their college path. GAO analyzed Education's data, including its most recent available transfer data from the 2004-2009 student cohort, interviewed a non-generalizable sample of stakeholders from 25 schools and higher education organizations, and reviewed a nationally-representative sample of 214 school websites.
What GAO Recommends
GAO recommends that Education (1) require schools to disclose on their websites (a) the list of other schools with which they have articulation agreements and (b) when no such agreements are in place; and (2) provide general transfer information to students and families. Education disagreed with the first and agreed with the second recommendation. GAO maintains that students can more easily understand transfer options if information is accessible on a school's website, as discussed in the report.
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Recommendations for Executive Action
Comments: Education disagreed with this recommendation, noting that it already requires schools to disclose a list of other schools with which they have established articulation agreements. Given that the purpose of required consumer disclosures on articulation agreements is to inform students, we believe that posting this information online would make it more accessible to prospective students compared to publications located physically on a school's campus. The increased accessibility would be especially beneficial for prospective students who live far away from the school. Education also noted that students should contact specific schools to obtain accurate and updated information. While it is important for students to contact schools, we found that not all schools listed transfer-specific contacts on their websites. Thus, it is particularly important that the required consumer information on articulation agreements be easily accessible to students. Moreover, according to Education, online disclosure is already required with respect to a school's credit transfer policies if the school has a website, and schools are increasingly using their websites to provide other consumer information to students. In addition, Education cautioned that placing special emphasis on articulation agreements could mislead students because the agreements - or lack thereof - do not fully reflect the transferability of credits: if the few schools with articulation agreements are listed on the school's website or if a school notes that it has no articulation agreements, students may erroneously believe that their credits will transfer only to those few schools or that none of their credits will transfer. However, regardless of the number of articulation agreements a school may have, schools are already legally required to disclose the list of partner schools and we found that a majority of schools already disclose a list of partner schools on their websites. It is unclear why posting this required information online would be more confusing than disclosing this information through publications or other means. Further, according to Education, schools are also legally required to disclose their credit transfer policies online, in effect, outlining the circumstances under which students can generally transfer credits. Hence, using a school's website to disclose the list of other schools with which there are articulation agreements, or the fact that there are no agreements, would enhance students' understanding of their transfer options and help reduce confusion rather than mislead students.
Recommendation: To help improve students' access to information so that they can make well-informed transfer decisions, the Secretary of Education should require schools to (1) disclose the list of schools with which they have articulation agreements online if the school has a website, and (2) clearly inform students, on the school's website if it has one, when no articulation agreements on credit transfer are in place. If the department determines that it does not have the authority to require this, it should nonetheless encourage schools to take these actions (through guidance or other means).
Agency Affected: Department of Education
Comments: Education agreed with this recommendation and said that it plans to include this information on its studentaid.gov website. We will monitor the progress of this and other efforts.
Recommendation: To help improve students' access to information so that they can make well-informed transfer decisions, the Secretary of Education should provide students and their families with general transfer information, for example by developing a consumer guide and posting it on Education's website or augmenting transfer information already provided on the website, to help increase awareness of key considerations when transferring schools.
Agency Affected: Department of Education