When a student transfers from one college to another, the receiving college has to decide how to treat the credits that the student earned at prior institutions. While the specific process varies from place to place, in general, the institution has to make two interrelated decisions: (1) the course equivalencyhow each course the student completed at another institution translates into courses in the catalog at the new institution, and (2) how the translated courses fit the requirements for the degree or certificate program the student has chosen. 

Both steps are critical for the student’s success in their new institution. Together these decisions will determine how close the student is to earning their degree, what else they need to do to earn it, and how much of their prior work they will be able to count, or in the worst situation, need to repeat, wasting the student’s time and money. But because both steps frequently rely on distributed decision-making and complex rules coded into proprietary third-party software, at most institutions, the “transcript evaluation” process is a black boxcertainly for the student and in many cases for advisors, faculty, administrators, and others with a role in the process. 

If this black box produced fair and positive results, we might not think twice about it. But it does not. Nationally, it has been reported that 43 percent of credits are lost during transfer, with dramatic consequences for student success. Community college transfer students who have had most or all of their credits transferred are 2.5 times more likely to graduate compared to those who have had less than half of their credits transferred.   

Since June 2019, the Articulation of Credit Transfer project (ACT) has sought to open up that black box and shed more light on how credits from one City University of New York (CUNY) institution transfer to another CUNY institution. In doing so, our aim is to help students count more of their transferred credits toward their new degree program, significantly improving their chances of earning a degree and doing it sooner.  

A new report by Ithaka S+R and the ACT team details one of the major steps we have taken to reveal how credits transfer within CUNY, and what we have started to do with the data to benefit students directly, track institutional transfer outcomes, and inform process improvements.   

As is the case at many other institutions, before the ACT project began, it was not possible to know at CUNY, with accuracy, the number of credits that would count toward a student’s degree following transfer. One reason for this was that CUNY’s degree audit software, Ellucian Degree Works (“Degree Works”), overwrites each student’s degree audit data every time there is a change in the student’s record, leaving no information regarding whether, how, or when degree applicability changes. 

To overcome this challenge, the ACT team initiated a daily archive of Degree Works data for students transferring between CUNY institutions participating in the project. Creating this archive has allowed the project team and other analysts to determine changes in how these students’ transferred courses count toward their degree programs at their new institutions. 

Access to this information permits three important actions:

1) Aggregate-Level Analyses of Student Transfer Outcomes. The archive can be used to assess in the aggregate how many of students’ transferred credits count toward their degree program at their new institution. These results can be analyzed over time for positive or negative trends and for patterns within or across institutions to inform improvements in administrative policies and processes.

Among other things, over the course of the ACT project, this analysis has revealed a significant improvement in the share of transfer students at ACT colleges who are able to count all of their transferred credits toward their new degree program. For example, the share of Hostos Community College to baccalaureate Lehman College transfer students who were able to count all their transferred credits toward their Lehman degree increased from 58 percent in fall 2019 to 72 percent in fall 2021, a 24 percent improvement.

2) Course-Level Analysis. The archive can also be used to examine the ways that transfer affects the degree applicability of different courses under different circumstances, to inform improvements in academic and curricular decision making.

For instance, the anatomy and physiology II course at Hostos often ends up not counting towards major or general education requirements for students transferring to Lehman. Closer analysis reveals that many of the affected students were nursing majors at Hostos, but did not continue that major at Lehman. These findings reinforce the need for additional seats in nursing programs as well as efficient off-ramps for those who decide to leave nursing.

3) Real-Time Monitoring of Transfer Students’ Fallthrough Courses. The archive can further be used to monitor changes in an individual student’s degree audit when they transfer, allowing advisors to provide just-in-time support to help students make course and program decisions, and changes that make the best use of their credits.

Since spring 2020, this model of advising at Lehman and Brooklyn Colleges (both baccalaureate colleges) has resulted in over 600 transfer applicants making changes to their programs and course schedules based on recommendations from their advisors, leading to an increase in the number of credits counted towards those students’ degrees. Such interventions have helped 27 of those students qualify for New York State financial aid when they otherwise would not have.

Even with all this progress, we have only scratched the surface of investigating this new trove of information, and the good uses to which it can be put. And while these data are all internal to the CUNY system, there are other contexts in which the concept can and should be applied. We all owe it to transfer students to crack open the black box and make their transition to a new school as transparent, as efficient, and as supportive as possible.