Featured Reports

Students Need More Information to Help Reduce Challenges in Transferring College Credits

21 September 2017 In Featured Reports

Students Need More Information to Help Reduce Challenges in Transferring College Credits


By Jared Bass

In a recent report from the US Government Accountability Office, the government watchdog highlights several obstacles students encounter when attempting to transfer academic credits from one institution of higher education to another.  Among these obstacles are a lack of information about the transfer process and the financial implications associated with credits lost in the process.  In conducting this study, GAO analyzed transfer rate and transcript data primarily from the 2004-2009 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study (BPS) and data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).  GAO supplemented these data with information obtained from interviews with students, higher education organizations, and institutions. 

Key findings and recommendations:

  • From 2004 to 2009, Approximately 35 percent of students transferred at least once to a different institution.
  • The report found that a majority of all transfers occurred among public institutions (roughly 62 percent), with transfers between 2 year public and 4 year public institutions being the most prevalent in the sector (26.2 percent).
  • Among students who transferred, approximately 43 percent of their credits (roughly 13 credits on average) were lost.
  • When considering loss of credits by institutional type alone, the report found that students lost 94 percent of their credits when transferring from a private for-profit to a public institution; students lost 37 percent of credits when transferring among public institutions.
  • When considering institutional type and 2 year or 4 year status, the report found that only 22 percent of credits were lost when transferring from a 2 year public to a 4 year public, compared to 97 percent credit loss when transferring from a 2 year private for-profit to a 2 year public institution.
  • As a result, the report found that students may use additional federal financial aid to make up for these lost credits, entailing not only personal costs (e.g., student loans) but costs to the Federal Government (e.g., Pell Grants).
  • The report also found that students may receive limited or inadequate information about the credit transfer process, including articulation agreements (agreements between two institutions that outline how credits from one institution may be applied to degree and program requirements at the other.). While all Title IV participating schools are required to make transfer policies publicly available, only 68 percent of the websites surveyed listed the schools with which the institution had an articulation agreement.

Among its recommendations, GAO suggests the Department provide students with better information about the transfer process, possibly through a consumer guide, and that schools provide a list of the schools with which it has articulation agreements on their websites.