Improving Credit Transfer in Texas Colleges and Universities

Texas colleges and universities are offering more pathways to degrees and credentials than ever before. From high schoolers enrolled in dual credit to adult learners working towards industry certifications, hundreds of thousands of Texas students now earn course credits from more than one institution. But despite growing numbers of students who have attended multiple colleges and universities, transferring credits from one program to another still can be an extremely difficult, confusing, and complicated process. Every year, thousands of Texas students are denied credit for courses that they have already taken when they transfer institutions, costing them valuable time and money and hurting their chances of ultimately earning their degree or credential.

Why Is Credit Transfer Such a Problem?

Credit transfer among institutions is complicated by a number of factors. First, degree programs at different institutions can be poorly aligned to each other; for example, the courses required of biology majors at a local community college might be different than those required of biology majors at a university down the road. Thus, when community college students transfer to the university, they bring with them biology coursework that is not relevant to the university’s biology curriculum.

Second, some institutions—especially universities—question the rigor of coursework offered from other programs. In some cases, transfer students are only allowed to apply their credits toward elective requirements and not major requirements. This means that thousands of transfer students are required to retake courses that they have already earned credit for in order to complete their degree programs. Other reasons for credit transfer difficulties include differing minimum grade requirements across institutions and limits on the number of credits a student can transfer across institutions, among others.

Credit Transfer Is an Efficiency Issue

Every year, Texas students and taxpayers spend millions of dollars towards courses that are not required for degrees and credentials. Here’s some back-of-the-envelope math: 195,200 students graduate from Texas community colleges each year with an average of 22 excess semester credit hours. That amounts to 4.3 million hours, or 71,600 associate degrees’ worth of excess credit each year. At public universities, students graduate each year with excess courses adding up to 13,900 bachelor’s degrees (10 excess credit hours per student, 166,500 graduates). That’s a whole lot of resources that could be spent toward better purposes, such as increasing access to financial aid and student supports.

Credit transfer challenges are an important reason why so many Texas students pile up excess credit. In the fall of 2020, roughly 17,000 students failed to transfer a combined 70,000 courses to Texas public universities. Of those students, 5,500 failed to transfer 5 or more courses – or a full semester’s worth of coursework. This represents an unnecessary and sometimes devastating cost that has implications for both students and taxpayers.

Credit Transfer Is an Equity Issue

Credit transfer challenges affect a wide range of Texas students every year. 70% of Texas students who earn a bachelor’s degree have taken at least one course from a two-year college. Growth in dual credit is a major reason why: from 1999 to 2019, dual credit enrollment in Texas exploded by more than 1,500%. Hundreds of thousands of high school students graduate each year hoping to transfer dual credit coursework to their college or university of choice.

But while a majority of Texas college students deal with credit transfer issues in some form, this challenge is often most cumbersome for low-income, minority, and first-generation students. These students are more likely to begin their college journeys at community colleges and, for those looking to earn a bachelor’s degree, often need to transfer significant amounts of course credit. At the same time, these students are frequently most affected by unexpected expenses or delays in program completion.

Building on Recent Progress

In 2019, the Texas Legislature made important progress in addressing challenges related to credit transfer. By requiring that colleges and universities develop recommended course sequences for degrees and credentials and that students submit degree plans by their 30th credit hour. These measures will ensure that institutions accept more transfer credits than before as well as encourage students to take courses that are aligned with their degree plans.

But more needs to be done. At Texas 2036, we have put forward a number of proposals aimed improving the credit transfer process for students and institutions, especially around student advising, data collection, and program accountability and transparency:

  • Degree Maps: Require 4-year universities to publish degree maps (also called course transfer crosswalks) for nearby community colleges explaining which courses transfer to the most popular degree programs and which do not.
  • Advising for Dual Credit Students: Require that high schools and colleges offer advising for every dual credit student on the benefits, requirements, and pitfalls of dual credit courses
  • Nontransferable Credit Reporting: Require that the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board publicly report data on instances of credit non-transfer by institution, program, and course so that decision-makers can design stronger course sequences and pathways, and so that advisors and students have better information in selecting courses
  • Dual Credit Cost Reporting: Require school districts and colleges that offer dual credit to report the average costs of courses to students and families, so that decision-makers can better understand equity challenges related to dual credit access
  • Prior Learning Assessment Task Force: Prior learning assessments (PLAs) give students the opportunity to earn credit for past learning. A statewide task force can put forward guidance and best practices so more colleges and universities adopt PLAs

Completing a college degree or credential has become more important than ever to getting a decent job. But currently, too many barriers stand between Texas students and degrees and credentials. By further strengthening credit transfer, we can save students time and money as well as ensure that more go on to finish college and get decent jobs and careers. These targeted, bipartisan solutions are a good place to start.