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Business Officer Magazine

Matriculating Mix and Match

Whether sending or receiving, your institution—and its students—can reap the rewards of a carefully crafted articulation program for seamlessly transferring credits.

By Margo Vanover Porter

*While they are designed to prevent the loss of credits when students transfer within higher education systems, articulation policies inevitably incur additional advantages for receiving institutions.

“Four-year institutions benefit because they get highly qualified students arriving at their doors who have already proven they can be successful in postsecondary education,” says Christopher M. Mullin, program director for policy analysis, American Association of Community Colleges, Washington, D.C. “Research shows that transfer students do as well as native students in terms of graduation.”

Referring to research from the book Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Public Universities (Princeton University Press, 2009), Mullin also suggests that a planned program for transfer students can increase campus diversity. “Students who attend community colleges are more likely to be from low-income families or from a racial or ethnic minority than those who attend the four-year institutions,” he says.

That's one reason officials at the State University of New York at Geneseo (SUNY Geneseo), which currently has two-plus-two articulation agreements with three area colleges, are contemplating additional agreements with Florida schools and several state community colleges. “It would give us greater diversity and allow us to reach out to different parts of our state and to Florida,” says Kenneth H. Levison, vice president for administration and finance. “One of our issues is trying to diversify the student body.”

Another reason: Articulation agreements help compensate for the inevitable attrition that institutions experience. “Articulation agreements allow you to keep the size of classes about equal,” Levison says. “You will have a certain amount of attrition from freshman-to-sophomore and sophomore-to-junior years. They also provide us with the ability to even out the sizes of our classes and some of our majors. We can do better enrollment planning by having people coming in starting with their junior year.”

Lee Furbeck, senior associate director, targeted recruitment, University of Kansas, Lawrence, concurs that articulation agreements can assist in institutional planning. “By December, we probably have 80 percent of our freshman applications, but we tend to hear from transfer students very late in the admissions and recruitment cycle. For our transfer students, we get 50 percent of the applications in February, March, and April. Many times, this is the first time we've ever heard from these students. If we knew about them earlier,” says Furbeck, “we could help them select courses, complete their degree programs, and save money. Articulation agreements identify those students earlier, which not only helps the student but it helps the institution.”

While the articulation process has its challenges (see sidebar, “Transfers Can Be Tricky”), a number of institutions are finding them well worth the effort.

Students Save a Bundle

Dorothy B. Plantz, director, transfer center, Howard Community College (HCC), Columbia, Maryland, agrees that articulation agreements can be a win-win for both the student and the institution. “For the four-year institutions, it's an excellent arrangement. They face attrition in their freshman and sophomore classes that creates space, particularly at the junior level. Transfer students, who have already built college skills and shown success in higher education, are available to fill these spots. Studies show their likelihood of succeeding and remaining at the institution is excellent.”

“It's quite beneficial also for students who are looking to save money,” Plantz says. “Perhaps they can't afford dorm life, had not initially 'settled' for a four-year institution they did not wish to attend, or did not receive the necessary funding to make it affordable. Transfer articulation agreements enable these students to pursue their dreams of attending and graduating from the four-year college or university of their choice. When they apply for employment or for graduate education, they can attest to the same credentials as any other graduate of their four-year institution.”

Students who attend Howard Community College can easily determine if their classes and credits will transfer to a four-year institution of their choice, Plantz says. “In Maryland, we have an electronic system known as ARTSYS. Students can enter the number of a course they take at HCC and see how it will transfer and work in any program throughout the Maryland state system.”

ARTSYS, a computerized data information system, indicates whether a course is transferable and, if so, reveals the four-year institution's equivalent course number. It also indicates the general education area(s), at both the sending and receiving institution, applicable to the course. Developed and maintained by the University System of Maryland (USM), ARTSYS is used at all public institutions and many independent colleges and universities in Maryland.

Officials at Howard started discussing articulation agreements about 20 years ago. The institution now has agreements or partnerships with public and private institutions throughout the country. “We have an interesting partnership with Excelsior College in Albany, New York, which greatly benefits our adult learners, including HCC staff and military personnel and veterans,” Plantz says. “Through this program, they can earn up to 90 credits at Howard Community College and then take the last 30 at Excelsior through distance learning without ever leaving the community.”

She classifies a “partnership” as an articulation agreement with added benefits for the student. For example, students who sign up for the Excelsior partnership receive on-site academic advising and can attend information sessions cosponsored by both the receiving and sending institutions. In addition, as partnership participants, students pay reduced fees if they complete 12 credits at Excelsior College.

Plantz reports that Howard Community College is currently in the process of signing an agreement for students in engineering who transfer to the Catholic University of America, a private research institution in Washington, D.C. “We're a little different from most community colleges in that our average age is in the low 20s,” she says. “We have a very traditional age group and reside in a region with a great deal of higher education opportunities. Our students have choices at different points in their educational journey. About 80 percent say they expect to transfer, move on, and earn a four-year degree—and our goal is to enhance the array of choices, adding quality, service, convenience, and affordability to the mix.”

Planning to Place 8,000 Transfers

One institution that has earned its reputation as “transfer friendly” is the University of Central Florida (UCF), Orlando. “We have the largest portion of community college transfer students in the state of Florida,” says Mark Allen Poisel, associate vice president for student development and enrollment services. “Over 25 percent of Florida's community college transfer students come here. Last fall, we admitted and enrolled more than 8,000 transfer students. With those large numbers, articulation makes sense for us.”

Transfers Can Be Tricky

While colleges and universities with well-managed articulation agreements can make the process seem easy, challenges await the novice institution. And, even the most effective transfer policies may need a tune-up over time.

Here are some issues to keep in mind:

Waiting for space. In this economic environment, some colleges and universities  are opting to manage growth, says Dorothy B. Plantz, director, transfer center, Howard Community College, Columbia, Maryland. This can result in transfer students sitting out a semester if the four-year institution reaches full enrollment. “If students apply early and meet the admission criteria, they will typically be admitted, but if they wait until the last minute, they take a risk and may have to wait until space is available.”

Finding a fit. It isn't easy for transferring students to jump into the middle of a four-year program, find their bearings, and become fully functional members of the campus community, says Kenneth H. Levison, vice president for administration and finance, State University of New York at Geneseo. “While we have special transfer orientation and do a series of things to provide support, a lot depends on the student's ability to acclimate. That's a challenge.”

Keeping current. “The first thing you have to overcome as an institution is to make sure the agreement is more than just a piece of paper,” says Mark Allen Poisel, associate vice president for student development and enrollment services, University of Central Florida, Orlando. “I can write an agreement that two people can sign but, unless it's a living document that describes what you do and how you do it, it's somewhat pointless. In an institution like UCF, there are no two years alike. When programs change, you have to update and evaluate your agreements, asking questions such as, 'Are the agreements still viable?' and 'Do they still make sense?'”

Managing expectations. “We try to help folks manage expectations of what should happen and recognize people for the knowledge and outcomes they have already achieved,” says Jess D. Ray, university registrar, Illinois State University, Normal. “The biggest challenge is trying to educate the consumer. Everybody thinks they know how transfers work. It seems from an outside perspective to be a very easy process. But students and their parents often believe that transferring classes should be like trading one apple for another apple, thinking, 'I took an English class here. It should meet the English requirement at the next place.'

“What people don't realize,” he says, “is that it's more like trading a Gala for a Granny Smith. They're both apples, but they have different flavors.”

Several years ago, the Florida legislature passed a state-mandated articulation agreement. The premise: When students complete their associate of arts (AA) degrees from a public Florida community college, they will have completed their general education requirements, their Gordon Rule requirements (a state policy mandates that students entering college must successfully complete 12 credits of writing and 6 credits of math), and their testing requirements. “The agreement states that with those qualifications, they are guaranteed admission to at least 1 of Florida's 11 four-year universities—not necessarily their top choice—but they are guaranteed admission,” says Poisel.

Each of the state institutions by statute has a 36-hour general education requirement, Poisel explains. “The individual institutions can decide what happens within those 36 hours,” he says, “but students who have completed AA degrees—whether from a university, community, or state college—don't have to complete the general education requirements at another school. Even though our general education requirements may differ from Valencia's, for example, once they've done 36, their transcript is stamped 'general education requirements met.'”

To ease the transfer process, Florida has also instituted common course numbering. “So if you take ENC (English Composition) 1101, which is the introductory English course, it's the same across the state,” Poisel says. “We all teach it, which means it automatically transfers. There's no evaluation process. It comes into the system, the system sees ENC 1101 from Valencia, and—boom—it meets our requirement.”

In addition to the state-mandated articulation agreements that relate to AA degrees and certain other programs, UCF features individual articulation agreements with two-year institutions for specific program-to-program articulation or for certain courses. For example, a student who completes the honors program at Valencia can articulate into UCF's honors program. UCF students can also take advantage of out-of-state and international articulation agreements, as well as secondary public, private, and home-school agreements that allow students to participate in dual enrollment and early admission.

“We believe in access,” Poisel points out. “Significant portions of our graduates are transfer students. Depending on the college and the program, we may have more transfer graduates than native graduates. The bottom line: We try to create a pathway to success. We want students to have greater access to the baccalaureate degree in central Florida and to be able to start and finish their degrees.”

One UCF program that has proven popular since its 2006 introduction is DirectConnect. Unlike Florida's two-plus-two articulation program, which does not guarantee admission to the institution of choice, the DirectConnect program assures admission to UCF by students who complete associate degrees at Florida's Brevard Community College's four campuses; Lake Sumter Community College's three campuses; Seminole State College of Florida, Seminole County; and Valencia Community College's four campuses.

“We have students who are denied admission as freshmen, but they know if they sign up for DirectConnect at one of the participating consortium schools, they will automatically get admitted here,” says Poisel. “All they have to do is wait out their two years, do their 60 hours, and get their AA degrees. In fact, there are apartments across the street where community college students can live with UCF students. Technically, they can live with their friends, really just taking classes on a different campus. In some sense, students don't feel the difference.”

Initiative Encourages Participation

Illinois State University, Normal, relies on several types of articulation agreements for its more than 20,800 students, of which 1,926 were new transfers in fall 2009. “We have articulation guides, which explain course-by-course articulation with 48 community colleges in the state,” says Jess D. Ray, university registrar. “We participate in the Illinois Articulation Initiative, which is a statewide agreement that explains how general education courses will transfer into the institution. In all, 109 schools participate. We also have about 12 different program agreements with various institutions, such as international, private, public, and community colleges that are program specific.”

The single greatest challenge to articulation agreements is establishing course equivalencies.

Barmak Nassirian, American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers

All of the institutions voluntarily participating in the Illinois Articulation Initiative, which went into effect in 1998, agree to accept a package of general education courses in lieu of their own comparable lower-division general education requirements. As Ray notes, “participation is not legislated, but it is, of course, encouraged.”

Ray believes articulation agreements can be a bonus for the recruiting efforts of four-year schools. “If you have a specialized program, articulation agreements really help showcase it. They also help build partnerships and collaboration with other institutions, bringing in diversity and new ideas. They can be a pretty good return on investment for both the student and institution.”

He is quick to point out that the agreements do carry a price tag. “The cost is really staff time,” he says. For example, he indicates that managing program articulation agreements can be time-intensive. “It's not just a school saying how this course is going to articulate. We need to meld the two curricula together so students can earn quality degrees and be successful. Depending on the complexity of the program, that takes a varying amount of faculty time and effort.”

Is Regulation the Right Step?

David Longanecker, president, Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, Boulder, Colorado, believes that institutions located in states that adopt articulation policies have an advantage. His organization tracks national and state articulation summaries on its State Policy Inventory Database Online. “An explicit state policy requiring institutions to work together on transfers makes a difference,” Longanecker says. “Intentionality seems to matter. If people are required to and expected to have better articulation and transfer agreements, they tend to. It doesn't happen by accident; it needs intervention.”

University of Kansas's Furbeck has a mixed reaction to state mandates on articulation. “In the best-case scenario, the institutions should work together and enter into voluntary agreements,” she says. “Curricular integrity is the responsibility of the institutions, and I would hate to see state or federal governments get in the business of regulating how a particular course might transfer or apply to a degree program. That's not the way to go.”

While praising the Florida system, Poisel remains happy the statute does not get into specifics about upper-division programs. “What the state has tried to do in Florida is keep the lower divisions similar so the general education and other prerequisites are basically the same. In the upper division, the institution, its philosophy, and its faculty determine programs.

“I think we have the best statewide system in the country,” he continues. “It's the easiest. Think about it: We have guaranteed admission for an AA degree; the general education requirements are met; we have common program prerequisites for the universities; and we have a common course-numbering system for the state.”

Establishing Equivalency

The single greatest challenge to articulation agreements is establishing course equivalencies, says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director, external relations, American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, Washington, D.C. “The two sides—the sending and receiving schools—have to negotiate the course content so students can actually satisfy prerequisites.”

“In registrar land, there is a basic equation,” he continues. “General education courses plus electives plus required courses equal 120 credits, which equal a bachelor's degree. The specific composition of that coursework tends to change at every institution. Articulation is very difficult, because you are attempting to map a very complex set of requirements from one institution to an equally complex set of requirements at another institution.  Therein lies the challenge. It requires tremendous involvement by the faculty and significant administrative effort to set up the process and negotiate the equivalencies.”

For example, he says, if Taylor series expansion is missing from the calculus course at a community college, the receiving institution can't very well place students in differential equations. Yet, if the transferring students are required to take calculus again, they are repeating at least one course unnecessarily because they already know and understand at least 90 percent of the class material. “But that 10 percent they don't know can kill them in differential equations,” he says. “That's why the two sides, including faculty, need to sit down and negotiate course content. That's really the trick. Once the faculty has worked out equivalencies, the heavy lifting is done.”

Fear of the unknown can be another challenge, says Furbeck. “Initially four-year institutions have the same fear: 'Oh my goodness. If we set up all these agreements and we make it easier for students to move from two-year institutions to four-year institutions, then all we'll have are juniors and seniors.' If you look at institutions that have set up articulation agreements and more in-depth partnership programs, you'll find that's not the case. The institutions still have the same number of students—and in some cases more—who are coming to the institution as freshmen.”

Faculty members may also fear that they will lose control of curriculum development. “That is definitely not the case,” says Furbeck. “They are the experts. It's their curriculum, and they should have the freedom to change it. I strongly believe that. But they do have to make sure that the lines of communication are clear to folks within and outside the institution so that transferring students don't have a surprise waiting for them when they arrive.”

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Virginia, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.