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The Growing Transfer-Credit Muddle

Written by

Stephen Handel, College Board; NISTS Advisory Board Member

Eileen Strempel, University of California, Los Angeles; NISTS Advisory Board Member

What does continued student demand for flexible, online learning mean for the future of higher education, especially for transfer students? Will more online programs democratize higher education as some leaders claim, or might the increased options exacerbate disparities that existed before the pandemic? In part four of their NISTS blog series Transfer Advocacy in a Post-Pandemic Higher Education Biosphere, the authors explore five concerns and highlight the important role articulation officers play in ensuring equitable transfer success.

blog cover photo featuring female talking on the phone and pointing to a computer screen

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us a lot about economic and academic disparities. Students who were already on the margins are facing greater difficulties in the new higher education environment that has evolved during the pandemic. For them, the chance of advancing significantly toward a degree is now less certain than ever. The recent huge drop in post-secondary enrollment indicates that even the predictable obstacles have grown almost insurmountable. These enrollment declines have disproportionately impacted our nation’s most vulnerable students.

Navigating COVID brought additional insights regarding education. The benefits of online learning came into sharper focus. From anywhere, students could link their devices to thousands of colleges and universities that quickly transformed classroom-based curriculum into a virtual presence. The old joke about going to college in your pajamas became a national phenomenon, even though online learning was brought on by a sudden and unexpected medical crisis none of us saw coming. After spending an entire school year tethered to their computers rather than sitting in brick-and-mortar classrooms, students continue to voice a desire for the flexibility offered by having at least some of their classes online.

What does this mean for the future of higher education, especially for transfer students? Clearly, the world of online higher education will become more pervasive. Online providers existed in substantial numbers before all of us donned face masks as a daily ritual. Entrepreneurs who previously viewed online college as a sound investment are surely encouraged by what they witnessed following the national stay-at-home order. And traditional colleges and universities, eager to sustain enrollment, will remain in the online market and continue to invest in their online presence. Online college education has gained a measure of credibility it desperately sought all along.

College leaders who offer robust online programs tout this technology as a new democratization of higher education. The advantages are readily apparent. As we describe in our book, Beyond Free College: Making Higher Education Work for 21st Century Students, for men and women who live in education deserts—far away from higher education facilities—remote learning is an educational access miracle. Similarly, for homebound students—those who take care of children or other family members—the opportunity to access higher education on their computers offers an essential pathway to academic credentials.

Why, then, do we worry that this technological democratization may exacerbate disparities already well-documented in our pre-pandemic universe? Our hand-wringing has a purpose. Identifying these issues now will help transfer advocates work productively with senior leaders on campus, with policy makers at our state houses and in DC, and, most centrally, with our students.

  • Concern 1: Additional online options will generate more unassigned credit. We never solved the problem prior to COVID. Now, students have even more opportunities to earn college credits . On the one hand, bringing more postsecondary opportunities to our students can be enriching. One the other hand, unstructured credit consumption alone does not bring curricula coherence or workforce expertise. The nation does not need more students with college credit, no degree, and greater debt.

  • Concern 2: Online postsecondary opportunities appear to be largely unregulated. We are especially concerned about for-profit institutions. These institutions’ low completion rates are concerning enough, and they have also been linked to very high student loan debt.

  • Concern 3: Online course-taking alone isn’t the most effective pedagogical strategy for our most vulnerable students. Research indicates that online platforms work best for students who are well-prepared academically. Students who are under-prepared, however, struggle to maintain effective time management and the self-regulation required to complete courses and degrees. Some models work better than others for these students. We must develop research that identifies the most effective online learning options for them.

  • Concern 4: Effective online providers must offer academic scaffolding to their students, but few do so in a comprehensive manner. Though the online world offers greater convenience, this frequently translates into a rather stagnant educational experience due to the lack of connection to academic and career advisors, libraries, and other traditional campus-based resources.

  • Concern 5: The lack of equitable broadband access across the United States continues to highlight the racial inequities of our society. For example, according to a recent report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 18 percent of all Americans lack access to the internet from their homes, but the percentage of African Americans in the rural South who lack access is more than double that, at 38 percent.

We do not propose easy solutions for these concerns. Honestly, we don’t even have complex solutions that are entirely satisfactory. The problem of credit acceptance across colleges and universities is an inherent component of the transfer process. In fact, it defines us as transfer advocates. It’s why we do what we do. The complexity of helping students cross the transfer chasm binds us to the necessity of our efforts, especially when it comes to advising them about the transferability of courses and programs. Without legislative and structural solutions to this issue, students must rely on translators like us who speak the language of transfer.

Student-by-student intervention is difficult because there aren’t enough of us to counsel all the transfer students who need our help. We need to keep thinking about systemic ways to make credit transfer easier for our students to negotiate. In the meantime, you can begin addressing the above concerns by working to understand your local higher education ecosystem. That means you have to move beyond the borders of your institution. For example, if you work at a community college and focus on vertical transfer, which staff members at the local four-year institutions will appreciate and support the transfer process? Do they work in admissions, the office of the registrar, or as faculty leaders interested in diversifying their campuses?

We can suggest another resource: the institutional articulation officer. This is a difficult and unheralded role. Sometimes under-classified professionally, these individuals are responsible for an immense workload. They are charged with assessing the transferability of hundreds, maybe thousands of courses from disciplines across campus. These gatekeepers control a great deal of what gains transfer credit at a four-year institution. While they work under the guidance of academic policies, they often have deep institutional knowledge about the kinds of courses their faculty will accept for credit. You may disagree with the policies in place—and may work to change them in time—but you cannot advocate well for your students unless you know what the policies are and how they affect the transferability of courses.

Those of you who work as articulation officers at two- or four-year institutions are key advocates for transfer students, and yet your efforts are often misunderstood and rarely rewarded publicly. If we are going to solve the credit-transfer muddle that has beset transfer students for decades, we need your counsel and advocacy. Collectively, as transfer champions, we must remain vigilant during this time of dynamic change in higher education. As our nation continues to navigate the pandemic, we must assure that any shifts in strategy are intentionally crafted in a manner that fosters equitable transfer student success.


After serving as the chief admissions officer for the University of California System, Stephen J. Handel returned to the College Board as a senior strategist in higher education. As UC’s first director of transfer enrollment planning and architect of the College Board’s National Office of Community College Initiatives, Dr. Handel has devoted his career to the advancement of community colleges, the transfer process, and higher education access and equity. He can be reached at

Dr. Eileen Strempel currently serves as the Inaugural Dean of UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. Strempel is a nationally recognized champion for transfer students and views superb public education as one of the principal social justice issues of our time. Previously, Strempel was the Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs at the University of Cincinnati, served in a variety of roles at Syracuse University over a seventeen-year span, where she was awarded a Kauffman Foundation eProfessorship and an ACE Fellowship, which she served at Colgate University. Please reach Dr. Strempel at with any questions.


The views and opinions expressed on the NISTS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of NISTS. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything.


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