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Reverse Transfer Initiatives Gain Ground

ACCN Blog Historically, "reverse transfer" referred to when a student transferred from a four-year postsecondary institution to a two-year college. In recent years, however, this term has taken on new meaning. Today, “reverse transfer” more commonly means transferring credit from a four-year to a two-year institution, with the goal of awarding associate degrees to students who have completed the necessary requirements while pursuing a bachelor’s degree. Over the past few years, initiatives built around this newer definition have been gaining steam. Reverse transfer initiatives typically target students, often adults, who earned the credits needed for an associate degree after transferring from a community college to a four-year institution – but ultimately did not end up completing a bachelor’s. Advocates argue that the reverse transfer process provides these students with a meaningful credential for their work and can also provide institutions with more accurate completion data.

While the idea might seem like a simple win-win scenario at face value, things become more complex upon closer examination. Implementation requires a significant investment from participating institutions and systems. Initiative leaders – whether states, systems, or institutions – must work to identify candidates, confirm eligibility, obtain candidate consent, and confer the degree itself. To be effective, these steps require extensive data mining, inter-institutional collaboration, and thoughtful outreach strategies – all of which require time and money to execute.

Moreover, data has not yet emerged on the impact of reverse transfer degrees on recipients’ outcomes. Recent research suggests that certain types of associate degrees—for example the widely popular Associate of Arts in Liberal Arts—generate little labor market value on their own, and benefit students primarily through their transfer value towards baccalaureate degrees. Understanding whether, or which types, of reverse transfer degrees produce positive returns for students should be an important component of project evaluations moving forward. With this data in hand, initiatives can demonstrate that they add value to students, as well as to institutional completion statistics.

Despite the challenges inherent in implementation and uncertainty around the long-term benefits across degree types, reverse transfer initiatives are emerging across the country. In 2012, five foundations launched the collaborative “Credit When It’s Due” effort to catalyze reverse transfer work, awarding grants to large-scale efforts in 12 states and to an additional three states in 2013. In January 2015 the Office of Community College Research and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the project’s research partner, released a paper detailing initial lessons learned in optimizing reverse transfer policies and processes. Key findings included the value of investing in technology to automate degree audit systems and transcript transfer, the importance of comprehensive and up to date course equivalency information, and the use of strategic communications to engage potential candidates.

Most recently, Arizona’s Maricopa Community College District received a $500,000 grant from the Helios Education Foundation to implement a reverse transfer program. The system—one of the country’s largest higher education providers—will work to identify students who earned 45 or more credits at Maricopa, and have since completed 30 or more credits at a state university. Eligible students will then receive an associate degree.

Meanwhile, in the fall of 2014, the Lumina Foundation awarded the National Student Clearinghouse a grant to launch a national reverse transfer project . The Clearinghouse Reverse Transfer initiative aims to create a nationwide data exchange to facilitate the credit transfer process. As planned, the project will collaborate with institutions to receive academic data on students—who have consented to participate—when they accumulate the credits necessary for an associate degree. The Clearinghouse would then make this information available to the student’s two-year institution for consideration of a reverse transfer degree.

While local- and state-level initiatives are generally limited to students attending public institutions within their project’s geographic area, the Clearinghouse effort would dramatically expand the scope of reverse transfer efforts. The national project can capture students who transfer across state lines or to private institutions. Ultimately, the project estimates that it could reach approximately 2 million students, whom they term “potential completers.” The majority of this group, as identified by National Student Clearinghouse data, is aged 24-29 and has been out of the postsecondary education system for two to six years. Therefore if current projects demonstrate encouraging results, reverse transfer has the potential to benefit a significant number of adult learners over time.

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