Reverse Transfer / Reverse Transfer Associate Degrees

Overview

There are numerous definitions for reverse transfer, such as:

  • The process by which a student is awarded an associate degree after transferring and completing degree requirements at a four-year institution. 
  • The process of retroactively granting associate degrees to students who have not completed the requirements of an associate degree before they transferred from a two- to a four-year institution.
  • A process for awarding an associate of arts degree to students who transfer from a two-year to a four-year institution prior to completing the AA degree requirements at the two-year institution. Through reverse transfer, students can combine the credits they earn at their four-year school with those they had previously earned at community college and retroactively be awarded an associate degree. 
  • Programs that award associate degrees to transfer students when the student completes the requirements for the associate degree while pursuing a bachelor’s degree.
  • The transfer of credits from a four-year institution to any two-year institution from which a student transferred. It doesn’t matter if the student transferred to another associate degree-granting or bachelor’s-level institution first, attended public or private institutions, or transferred across state lines. If eligible, the student is awarded an associate degree.

These definitions focus on reverse transfer as a community college student transfer issue. None of the definitions defines the situation of students who begin their education at a four-year institution and then leave that institution after competing more than two years of college, often acquiring learning equivalent to an associate degree. For students who begin at a university, little to date has been done to recognize their incremental learning. This is a growing issue of contention in the learn-and-work ecosystem, whether university students should be recognized for learning at the associate-degree level, as community college transfer students to universities increasingly are. Many advocate that all students deserve college credit for significant learning—whether they begin at a community college or a four-year institution. They advocate too that these decisions not be linked to their college zip code, since reverse transfer is not available in all the states. 

In 2012, five foundations launched Credit When It's Due (CWID), an initiative to encourage partnerships of community colleges and universities to significantly expand programs that award associate degrees to transfer students when the student completes the requirements for the associate degree while pursuing a bachelor’s degree (i.e., reverse transfer associate degrees). Initially, 12 states received grants to develop and implement these reverse transfer programs and policies, and the Office of Community College Research and Leadership (OCCRL) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign served as the research partner. In late 2013, three states were added to bring the total to 15.

A related effort, Project Win-Win, identified students who were close to meeting degree requirements as “near-completers,” a term that is also useful in the reverse transfer context. Engaging near-completers is a helpful strategy to maximize the number of potential reverse transfer students who may be within a few credits or courses of qualifying for an associate degree.

Project Win-Win evolved into Degrees When Due (DWD), which helps participating institutions improve their student completion rates by sharing data-driven strategies such as degree auditing, adult re-engagement, and reverse transfer. Through DWD, institutions work to ensure that students of color, low-income students, working students, student parents, and many others are re-engaged to cross the finish line. DWD helps institutions navigate the technical work of data mining and degree auditing as they rethink their campus culture, close equity gaps, and change policies to address barriers that cause adult learners to drop out. Launched in 2018, the initiative has grown to include 23 states and nearly 200 institutes of higher education. Four foundations funded DWD:  Lumina, Kresge, ECMC, and Ascendium.

Policy at several levels drives reverse transfer practices:

  • State policy—25 states have reverse transfer policies set in legislation, board policy or memoranda of agreement. An additional 18 states provide reverse transfer opportunities through institutional agreements and systemwide programs. 
  • Accreditation policy—Residency criteria (requirements regarding for the period of time students must domicile in the state immediately prior to registering for courses in the semester/term for which the student seeks in-state tuition status) are established through a combination of institutional accreditor specifications and institutional policy, and these criteria can change over time. For example, some states lowered their residency requirement (for degree completion) from 30 to 15 credits after the institutional accreditation agency modified its policy on residency, citing reverse transfer as the impetus for the change.
  • Federal policy: The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) law is a primary impetus for the consent process which is required for reverse transfer. A key issue with FERPA and reverse transfer is that many universities lack the authority to send student transcripts to community colleges for the purpose of reverse transfer without student consent. The U.S. Department of Education (USDE) provides FERPA guidelines to clarify student consent pertaining to reverse transfer, and states also seek assistance from the USDE’s Privacy Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) to address reverse transfer in their particular state and system contexts. These policies influence a state’s student consent policies.

Relation to Ecosystem

There is broad consensus among states, philanthropic interests, and the business and labor communities that college attainment rates must increase to meet future workforce demands. This goal cannot be reached without innovative ways of increasing credential completion. One such innovation is the expansion of reverse transfer policy and practices.

Examples

National Student Clearinghouse. Through Reverse Transfer (the first national automated platform for exchanging reverse transfer student data operated by the NSC), four- or two-year institutions can securely send course and grade information to any two-year institution from which a student has transferred. If eligible, the student is then awarded an associate degree.

Hawaii’s experience

Tennessee’s experience 

Colorado:  The Colorado Re-Engaged (CORE) Initiative enables the state’s four-year institutions to award an associate degree to eligible students who have stopped out from a baccalaureate program after earning at least 70 credit hours. In enacting the supporting legislation, the Colorado Legislature recognized that the COVID-19 pandemic forced many students, particularly those from low-income communities, to stop attending the state’s colleges and universities before obtaining a bachelor’s degree. These stop-out students have invested a significant amount of time and money to advance their knowledge and skills through higher education but lack an academic credential to reflect this investment.

Data the Colorado Department of Higher Education gathered show that over 25,000 Coloradans may be eligible for an associate degree under CORE. By offering qualifying stop-out students (students who stopped out up to 10 years before the current semester) an earned associate degree for credits they already completed, institutions participating in CORE can:

  • Help degree recipients obtain higher-paying jobs and more secure employment, which will improve economic prospects for these former students and their communities.
  • Increase the number of Coloradans with academic credentials and degrees, which will strengthen the state’s workforce and support its economic recovery.
  • Better position degree recipients to return to higher education to complete a bachelor’s degree or higher.

References

Adelman, C. (2013). Searching for our lost associate’s degrees: Project Win-Win at the finish line. Washington, DC: Institute for Higher Education Policy. 

Hannenmann, L. and Hazenbush, M.  (2014).  On the Move: Supporting Student Transfer (Boston, MA: New England Board of Higher Education.

https://occrlarchive.web.illinois.edu/cwid.html

https://www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/01/18/77/11877.pdf

https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaeltnietzel/2019/02/19/reverse-transfer-a-second-chance-at-a-first-degree/?sh=2b60abe57bea

Institute For Higher Education Policy. (2022, May). Lighting the Path to Remove Systemic Barriers in Higher Education and Award Earned Postsecondary Credentials through IHEP’s Degrees When Due Initiative. https://www.ihep.org/publication/lighting-the-path-degrees-when-due/

Taylor, J. L., & Bragg, D. D. (2015, January). Optimizing reverse transfer policies and processes: Lessons from twelve CWID states. Champaign, IL: Office of Community College Research and Leadership, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Whinnery, E. and Peisach, L. (2022, July 28).  50-State Comparison: Transfer and Articulation Policies. Education Commission for the States.

Zanville, H. (Mar 11, 2024).  The Colorado Re-Engaged Initiative: Recognizing Learning for Non-Credential Students. The EvoLLLution.

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