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Unified Transfer Systems: A Path Forward

by Emily Decatur - February 14, 2022

At this pivotal moment, higher education practitioners must examine the gap between intent to transfer and successful transfer to a four-year institution. Through the development of unified state-wide transfer systems a path forward is possible, one which mitigates cumbersome policy roadblocks, increases transparency, fully supports students, and offers affordable options.

The frustrations that community college students experience when transferring credits is a plague thats existed throughout the history of these sub-baccalaureate institutions.  Often referred to as junior colleges, a unfortunate condescending assessment of their value, students viscerally experience the disconnect between higher education sectors when a receiving institution requires a student to re-take an equivalent class completed as part of their associates degree.  This has ramifications, especially students who rely on federal and state financial aid, not to mention prolonging the time until degree attainment.  One way of easing transferability while solving the remediation conundrum as discussed in last weeks commentaries is to enable students to get a jump start on their college careers by concurrently earning a secondary and post-secondary degree, along with a seamless pathway created with baccalaureate institutions.  The Pathways to Technology (P-Tech) high school that was established in Brooklyn, NY and just celebrated its 10th anniversary is a shining example of this approach.  Another way of addressing this problem is by articulating community college degrees with private institutions, an endeavor thats been championed by the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) through a grant from the Teagle Foundation.  The two examples highlighted in this weeks commentaries demonstrate some of the inner workings necessary to engage in creative approaches to prioritizing equity.

- Robin G. Isserles and David Levinson

Higher education institutions have long been upheld as beacons of access and opportunity, promising economic and social mobility through degree attainment and a pathway to the American dream. Due in part to the high cost of college, the common starting place for students is community college, with nearly half of the undergraduate population in the United States enrolled at a public two-year institution. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, more than 80% of community college students aspire to earn a bachelors degree, yet only 14% complete one within six years. For lower income students, the attainment rate drops to about 10%. To improve transfer, state higher education systems and practitioners must examine this gap between intent to transfer and successful transfer to a four-year institution, and uncover the barriers that students face while on their path to completing a bachelors degree. One solution to the transfer puzzle is the development of statewide transfer systems, which help to mitigate and even eliminate cumbersome policy roadblocks and credit loss through increased transparency, student support, and affordability.

In New Englanda region in the midst of demographic headwinds, declining birth rates, and shrinking cohorts of high school graduatesstudent transfer has become a critical component to institutional sustainability, as well as a compelling strategy for increasing diversity and equity within higher education. Yet the transfer landscape is inherently complex, a tangled web with little standardization across the public and independent institutional sectors.

While the New England states provide varying options for seamless transfer, independent institutions operate outside the public system and therefore still heavily rely on articulation agreements. According to 2020 IPEDS reporting, independent colleges and universities account for approximately 75% of the four-year institutions in the region. In New England, collaboration between independent and public four-year institutions is critical because it provides greater opportunity and access to community college students who aim to transfer and complete a bachelors degree.

To unify state transfer and move beyond one-to-one agreements, the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) has partnered with community colleges, state public higher education systems, and independent institutions to establish an admission transfer guarantee, known as the New England College Transfer Guarantee (the Guarantee) in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. The Guarantee is currently funded by the Teagle Foundation and Davis Educational Foundations. The initiative is modeled on state transfer policy and offers associates degree holders who have met the GPA eligibility criteria guaranteed admission into participating four-year independent institutions, with a focus on the liberal arts. Additional features of the Guarantee include an application fee waiver, financial aid and scholarship incentives, and full transfer of associates degree credits. The Guarantee is now fully implemented in the three states.  

In July 2021, NEBHE was awarded an eight-month planning grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations and the Teagle Foundation, to begin scaling the Guarantee to Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. NEBHE is collaborating with state partners to explore the feasibility of expansion and develop a plan to streamline transfer for both in-state public and independent colleges and universities.

The Guarantee methodology is grounded in unification and standardization of state-specific transfer. To lessen the complexity of the transfer process, the initiative aligns independent institutions' transfer policy with guaranteed associates degree transfer policy in each state. Additionally, participating institutions have committed to accepting all general education requirements as a block.

The Guarantee also integrates pathway mapping to ensure credit transfer. In Connecticut, CT Guarantee Transfer Ticket pathways have been developed, in partnership with the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, for participating institutions. These standard pathways ensure transfer credit applicability and 60 credits remaining to complete a bachelors degree. While master agreements like the Guarantee establish clear, easily understood criteria for transfer into a four-year institution, advisors continue to serve as the critical navigation bridge for students, along with state and institutional transfer sites.

Through the implementation of the Guarantee, best practices and policies have emerged to guide the way forward. Following are recommendations for developing, improving, and streamlining the transfer systematically:

Institutional transfer transparency


Institutions should provide students with total transfer transparency through clearly defined processes, policies, and practices that are easy to access and understand.


Institutions should have a dedicated transfer web page that includes all necessary transfer information, such as contact information for transfer advisors and/or transfer admissions counselors; degree maps and/or pathways; access to transfer credit evaluation system that identifies course equivalencies; listing of all applicable inter-institutional transfer agreements; and clear financial aid, scholarship, and tuition opportunities available to transfer students.  

Practices that mitigate credit loss and increase student success


Credit loss hinders student success, unfairly disadvantaging transfer students by impacting time to degree and increasing costs of completion. It is critical that transfer students have a clear understanding of how many credits will transfer into the receiving institution within the students chosen major, as well as how many credits and courses remain to degree completion. Ideally, this should occur before students are accepted.


Transfer policies to consider in order to mitigate credit loss include the following.


Acceptance of credit from other institutions and/or other forms of credit, including CLEP, AP, IB, dual and concurrent enrollment, and credit for prior learning and online coursework. While all relevant documentation in the form of scores reports and transcripts should be forwarded to the receiving institution, the receiving institution should consider honoring the sending institutions audit for credit issued.


Acceptance of a completed general core education from the sending institution. The receiving institution should consider accepting the core as a block to support on time completion.


Receiving institutions should consider applying a greater flexibility when auditing transcripts with courses completed in the spring of 2020 (and potentially beyond), for example, reviewing current pass/fail and minimum course GPA for transfer policies.

Inter-institutional partnerships, transfer pathways, and/or admissions guarantees


Inter-institutional partnerships, which outline clear transfer pathways and agreements, benefit all transfer students. These partnerships provide certainty for students during an uncertain time by ensuring that comprehensive, detailed, and up-to-date transfer information is available.


Transfer pathways and agreements, especially those with admissions guarantees, further serve students by providing clarity and accurate roadmaps. Key beneficial features of these agreements include program-to-program pathway maps, clear criteria for guaranteed admission (in most cases, a minimum GPA), transparency for additional admission requirements for specific programs, as well as information regarding total cost to complete the degree.



The rising cost of higher education in the New England region has long been a barrier for traditional and nontraditional students alike. Transfer can provide students an opportunity to complete a baccalaureate degree at a lower cost by starting their studies at a community college. Institutions should consider supporting transfer students by:


Providing transparency on the total cost to complete a degree


Waiving application fees


Providing the same level of financial aid, including merit awards, to transfer students that is extended to first-year students


Clearly delineating incentives for transfer students with clear qualifying criteria (e.g., minimum GPA)

Wraparound Supports and Advising


Transfer students are far more likely to be successful if they receive support in the form of intensive advising that includes academic guidance and counseling, academic support, peer advising, personal guidance and counseling, career services, and supplemental services. Both preapplication and postacceptance support services are critical to the successful transition of transfer students.


Sending institutions should provide students with transfer counseling as early as possible, assisting students with selecting transfer pathways and/or courses that will set them on a path to achieve their educational and career goals. Providing students with all transfer options, both public and private, especially those with agreements, is critical.


Receiving institutions should focus on mitigating the transfer shock that students may experience by providing orientations and peer-to-peer advising, and actively welcoming students into the campus community.

It is critical to examine who our nations institutions are built to serve and whether their policies and foundational structures have evolved to accommodate the shifting demographics and diversity of the modern-day student body. Student transfer has increasingly become an economic and social justice issue, given that it is intended to provide students of all backgrounds with increased opportunity to achieve their educational and professional goals. Fully unified transfer systems offer the opportunity to reimagine the student transfer process, remove antiquated policy barriers, and develop a transfer-receptive culture that will benefit all students and accelerate their journey to degree attainment.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 14, 2022
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23984, Date Accessed: 2/15/2022 10:40:14 AM

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About the Author
  • Emily Decatur
    New England Board of Higher Education
    E-mail Author
    EMILY DECATUR currently serves as the Senior Program Manager of Transfer Initiatives at the New England Board of Higher Education. Emily is responsible for the development and implementation of transfer programs, activities, and research and evaluation reports. Her current work includes overseeing the New England College Transfer Guarantee, an initiative that has established systematic transfer pathways from community colleges to independent institutions in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, and is currently scaling to Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Emilyís transfer leadership work is guided by an unwavering commitment to equity, access, and opportunity for all students. Emily holds a bachelorís degree from Dickinson College and is currently pursuing an Ed.M at Harvard Graduate School of Education in Education Leadership, Organizations, and Entrepreneurship.
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