Internet Explorer 8 and below do not support some features of this site. Please upgrade your browser.×

Adopt Statewide Policies to Guarantee Transfer

Adopt statewide policies to guarantee transfer between public institutions

Create Smarter

One way states put students and their learning outcomes at the center of their postsecondary systems is to create smooth transfer paths between colleges and universities. Recent studies, including one by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, indicate that about one-third of all students attend multiple institutions on their path to earning a postsecondary credential. The Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) has found that clear guarantees of transfer save students the expense of repeating courses and reduce the time it takes to earn a credential.

According to a study of state policy and community college-baccalaureate transfer by The National Center for Higher Education and Public Policy and the Institute for Higher Education Policy, several demographic and institutional shifts provide an incentive to improve transfer from community college to four-year institutions.  Increasingly, community colleges are the entry point to higher education for 21st century students, particularly those who traditionally have not been well-served by colleges and universities, including low-income, minority, and first-generation college-going students. Effective guarantees of transfer support increased diversity and equity and higher attainment by creating clearer degree pathways for those students. The Southern Regional Education Board examined transfer policies in its member states and found that several have effective policies.

According to SREB, the key elements of a statewide transfer policy include:

  • Statewide transfer: students should be able to transfer credits between any of the state’s public two-year and four-year institutions, including from one two-year institution to another (lateral transfer), from a two-year to a four-year institution, or from a four-year to a two-year institution (reverse transfer);
  • Common, statewide lower-division core curriculum: such a common curriculum should specify the lower-division courses that will be common statewide for each program major and should consist of 60 credit hours;
  • Guaranteed credit transfer: the state should ensure that common core general education courses (optimally the entire lower division 60-credit core, or equivalent) will transfer and that transfer students who have completed the lower-division core and have declared a major will only have to complete the additional number of credit hours needed for degree completion.

SREB suggests a variety of other policy considerations for easing transfer, including developing a common course numbering and/or equivalency system and supporting reverse transfer, which allows credits earned at a four-year institution to count toward an associate degree. For students who transferred from a two-year to a four-year institution before completing an associate degree, reverse transfer provides the opportunity to complete one degree while pursuing another. According to SREB, such comprehensive transfer policies can reduce time to degree and credits to degree and save both students and institutions the cost of excess time and credit accumulation.


Significant numbers of students are transferring between institutions before completion. A study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reveals that about one-third of all students change schools at some time before earning a degree. That number is about the same for part-time and full-time students and for those starting at two-year or four-year, public or private institutions. This number is lower for students starting at for-profit institutions. Most often their destination is a two-year institution. In fact, about half of transfers who start at four-year schools transfer to two-year schools, making reverse transfer policies important for a significant number of students. Another National Student Clearinghouse Research Center study found that students transferring from two-year to four-year institutions were more likely to complete a baccalaureate degree within six years than those who started at a four-year institution, and those who earned a credential before transferring were more likely to complete than those who did not earn a credential before transferring.

According to the study by the National Center for Higher Education and Public Policy and The Institute for Higher Education Policy, there is little consensus about how to measure transfer performance, especially at the state level, and different studies using similar databases have reached different conclusions. The study reviews other research on transfer and completion patterns, which generally show that students at two-year institutions who complete a credential before transferring have a higher rate of baccalaureate attainment than those who don’t. The overall levels of student mobility and transfer indicate that policies at a state and institutional level can make a difference in student completion by easing transfer and removing traditional barriers. An analysis of transfer policy in six states—Arkansas, Florida, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina and Texas—found that of the states taking a statewide approach, using financial aid policy to support transfer, and tracking student transfer data, as well as addressing the academic policies, seem to be supporting transfer students to completion more successfully.

More recently, a 2014 study by the Community College Research Center also looked at the impact of earning an associate degree before transferring to a four-year institution. The study found variations by the type of associate degree earned. Students who earn a “transfer-oriented” associate degree are more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree within four, five and six years, but there was no measurable impact from earning a “workforce-oriented” associate degree designed to ease entry to the workforce.

A 2013 study by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York examined possible reasons why students who begin postsecondary education at two-year institutions are less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree. The researchers found that losing credits in transfer reduces chances of attaining a bachelor’s degree.

State Examples

Each of the following state examples is a policy solution crafted in response to the unique circumstances of the state in which it was formed. As a private foundation, Lumina does not support or oppose any legislation. Lumina provides educational information, nonpartisan research and analysis to advance Goal 2025.

State policies to improve transfer vary. Through the Credit When It’s Due project, a group of five national foundations awarded $6.4 million in grants to projects in 12 states to support efforts to expand reverse transfer programs that allow students to transfer credits earned at a four-year institution “back” to a two-year institution in order to earn an associate degree. The programs can be particularly helpful to adult learners who started but never completed a four-year degree or who may have transferred to a four-year institution before they completed an associate degree. The 12 states where partnerships received grants are Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon. Additional details about efforts in Colorado follow. Credit When It’s Due is just one approach to improving transfer. Additional state examples below highlight other approaches.


In addition to efforts to streamline transfer from two-year to four-year institutions, Colorado is focused on ensuring that transfer students who complete the degree requirements for an associate degree while pursuing a bachelor’s degree program receive appropriate credit. In 2012, Colorado lawmakers enacted SB 45, creating a statewide reverse transfer policy. The legislation requires four-year state institutions to notify two-year state institutions when transfer students accumulate 60 credits. The two-year institution then must conduct a degree audit to determine eligibility for an associate degree, and must provide qualified transfer students with the option to receive the credential. To help implement the state’s reverse transfer policy, the Colorado Department of Education received a competitive two-year grant funded by five national foundations, including Lumina Foundation. The grant supports Colorado’s “Credit When It’s Due: Recognizing the Value of the Quality Associate Degree” initiative, which is designed to encourage cross-institutional partnerships that expand and automate reverse transfer processes. The program relies on and initiates institutional cooperation, engaging community colleges and public universities throughout the state.


In 2012, Florida lawmakers enacted HB 7135 to support efforts to encourage and inform students seeking an associate degree to match their planned curriculum to the prerequisites required by a desired baccalaureate major or degree program. Despite Florida’s earlier adoption of statewide policies to guarantee transfer, such as common course numbering and guaranteed four-year institutional admission for students who first complete an associate degree, many students still struggled to complete gateway courses and to progress toward transfer.

In 2013, state lawmakers enacted SB 1720, which directed the Florida Board of Education to develop a series of “meta-majors” to help students identify and complete courses that led efficiently to completion and four-year transfer. In response, the board specified eight meta-major academic pathways and the gateway courses associated with each meta-major. The eight meta-majors define broad areas of academic interest, and allow counselors to assist students in identifying gateway courses to prepare them for later curricular demands, based on their interests, test performance, transcripts, and achievements. Students seeking an Associate in Arts degree must identify a baccalaureate institution and, upon completion of 30 college credits, select a program of study. The meta-major allows students  to select specific majors, and also minimizes the likelihood of taking  courses not needed for program completions and also ensures that students do not miss course requirements needed to transfer successfully.


In 2009, Act 356 mandated the adoption of transfer and articulation policies that would establish a transfer degree guarantee for associate degree recipients, with implementation in 2010. The authorizing legislation earned the endorsement of all four of the state’s college and university systems—the Louisiana Community & Technical College System, the University of Louisiana System, the Southern University System and the Louisiana State University System, the latter of which was viewed as critical for the effort to succeed.

In response, the Louisiana Board of Regents created a Statewide Articulation and Transfer Council to foster agreement across the system on a set of core courses that would constitute the transfer degree requirements. The resulting Louisiana Transfer Degree Guarantee facilitates transfers between two-year and four-year institutions and makes it easier and less expensive to earn a four-year degree by starting at a two-year institution. The credential, the Louisiana Transfer Associate Degree, guarantees transfer to a four-year public university. To earn it, students must complete 60 credit hours, 39 in general education and 21 in the student’s major field of study. Students must pass each course with a C or better to earn an associate degree and the transfer guarantee. For more information, see Louisiana Transfer Associate Degree: Creating Systemic Success (one-pager) and Louisiana Transfer Degree Case Study.

New York

The City University of New York created its Pathways initiative in an effort to streamline and clarify transfer and general education requirements across the system. Pathways consists of three main components: the General Education Requirements, which include a 30-credit Common Core; pathways for the largest transfer majors; and full course transferability. Beginning in fall 2013, all CUNY undergraduate students must complete the Common Core, which consists of a 12-credit required core and an18-credit flexible core. The Common Core credits are fully transferable to any other CUNY institution. CUNY students in bachelor’s degree programs will have to complete 6 to 12 additional general education credits, specified by the college, through the College Option, which also will transfer between all four-year CUNY institutions. In developing the Common Core framework, developers consulted various efforts to define learning outcomes, including the Degree Qualifications Profile and Essential Learning Outcomes, to help ensure that courses in the Common Core maintained a level of quality and rigor. (See Define Learning Outcomes). For more information, see Moving Credit: Pathways to Degree Completion.

North Carolina

North Carolina leaders first created its Comprehensive Articulation Agreement in 1995. New legislation enacted in 2013 requires the University of North Carolina (UNC) and its constituent institutions to fully adhere to the articulation agreement with the North Carolina Community Colleges System (NCCCS) regarding the transfer of courses and academic credits and the admission of transfer students. The 2013 legislation also requires institutions to conduct biannual joint reviews of the agreement and to develop an articulation agreement advising tool for students and families.

Following passage of the legislation, the NCCCS and UNC worked jointly to overhaul the Comprehensive Articulation Agreement. Some of the key elements prioritized during this revision process included: aligning community college learning outcomes with major requirements in four-year institutions; convening faculty and administrators of two-year and four year institutions to work through barriers to smooth transfer practices and policies; and developing structured, clear and articulated pathways to completion that are consistent and easily understandable to students. The former agreement guaranteed transfer credits only when students at two-year institutions completed the entire 44-credit general education curriculum required by four-year institutions. Less than 15 percent of transfer students were meeting the requirement and had to take additional or duplicate credits to complete a bachelor’s degree. The shift in policy draws on existing research, allows for more flexibility in crediting general education courses individually, and reduces the minimum requirement from 44 to 30 credits. The new plan was implemented in 2014-2015 and will be subject to evaluation based on student outcomes to ensure that the revised requirements are maximizing attainment.

Other Resources