From Reverse Transfer to Degree Recovery

By Cliff Adelman, Institute for Higher Education Policy and member of the AIR Board of Directors

AirCharts (002)_Page_2.jpgIR officers may recall the birth of the descriptive “reverse transfer” from the (unfortunately) late Barbara Townshend of the University of Missouri in 1999. In an era of dawning consciousness-of-attendance patterns as a major factor in postsecondary analyses, “reverse transfer” described students who began their postsecondary careers in four-year colleges and subsequently moved to a two-year college. That definition carried enough authority that it became ensconced as a variable in NCES data sets (such as the NELS 88-2000), in a mass of literature on attendance patterns, and in the National Student Clearinghouse 2012 signature report devoted to the topic. It continues to be in use today.

With the subsequent explosion of college completion projects in recent years, reverse transfer has been used to indicate a very different population and process: resident four-year college students who had transferred from community colleges without associate’s degrees but who had accumulated enough credits to send back to their initial two-year institutions for both evaluation and, if added to prior community college credits, to result in the retroactive award of an associate’s degree. In that way, if students dropped out of the four-year school they would not leave higher education empty-handed. Over the past three years, in particular, many adopted this implicit definition, including state legislatures, ECS, the SHEEOs, and national higher education associations. After all, it produced degrees among the enrolled.

Earlier than these reverse transfer efforts, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) designed and led Project Win-Win (2009-2013), with a somewhat different population and approach. The target consisted of former community college students who had accumulated at least 60 credits but never received an associate’s degree of any kind from their referent institution and had not been seen at that institution for at least one year. The 60 participating community colleges first matched these students to both state and NSC data to eliminate those who had earned degrees elsewhere or were currently enrolled elsewhere, then put the balance through Degree Audit to determine who was really eligible for an associate’s degree and who was close enough to persuade back to school. The result, as in the reverse transfer movement, were retroactive associate’s degrees, 4,550 of them. There were 64 projects in Win-Win, four of which followed the new reverse transfer model, but only for students from a four-year college’s principal community college feed. Participants called this process “credit reallocation.”

The emphasis on the Degree Audit portion of the Win-Win procedure became a core of the subsequent Credit-When-It’s-Due project (CWID) that has swept up over 700 four-year colleges in a “reverse credit transfer” process involving all their feeder community colleges, and that, to date, has resulted in over 7,500 associate’s degrees. It’s a mass effort, executed principally by state higher education authorities, with guidance and analyses from the Office of Community College Research and Leadership at the University of Illinois, the University of Utah, and the University of Texas-Austin.

It’s obvious that Win-Win and CWID are closely related, and that both seek what we can more comfortably call “degree recovery,” a phrase aptly coined by my IHEP colleague, Lacey Leegwater. That is, in both cases, whether we’re working out from the community college or back from the four-year college, these are intense and disciplined efforts to document attainment and “recover” a missing degree marker from student records, impacting student success.

Maybe it’s time to take Lacey’s cue and change the descriptor again.



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Total Comments: 1
Gerry posted on 5/16/2016 10:55 AM
Thanks to Cliff for starting this conversation.
When I was at DePaul we also did some studies on what we called "Reverse Transfers" just to have a title for them. In our case we worked wit Oakton, one of our major feeder schools and shared data about the credits taken at DePaul with the community college. Oakton then worked with the students to transfer their credits back to the CC to let them qualify for an Associates degree. Some day the process may be automated but it seems to require person-to-person connection and human effort but it does award the students something they have already earned and recognizes the CC for something they have also earned - graduating students.