Losing credits when transferring to a new institution is a major barrier preventing many college students from earning a degree. Providing better information about how credits transfer, and providing that information early enough to enable students and advisors to plan, are crucial steps to tearing down that barrier. With an additional $4.4 million in philanthropic funding, the groundbreaking Transfer Explorer is poised to take those steps, at scale.

When students earn credits from one college and then enroll at another college, they often find that the credits do not count toward their new degree programs. This is a major problem in higher education, where enrolling in multiple institutions is now the norm. It has been estimated that, nationally, students lose as many as 43 percent of their transferred credits. This wastes students’ time, their (and taxpayers’) money, and makes them far less likely to graduate. A major driver of this loss of credit is that neither students nor anyone else is given clear information, in advance, about how transferred credits will count at the new college, making an informed choice about where to transfer impossible. Black and Hispanic students, older students, and lower-income students are the most likely to face obstacles in their transfer journey.

Through the Articulation of Credit Transfer (ACT) project, Ithaka S+R has collaborated with colleges and the central office of The City University of New York (CUNY) to make what happens to transferred credits crystal clear for everyone. A key product of this collaboration, CUNY Transfer Explorer, allows anyone to see, in real-time, authoritative information about how a course taken at one CUNY college is treated when a student transfers to any other CUNY college–critical information now fully accessible to students planning to transfer and those who support them. CUNY Transfer Explorer has been visited by more than 80,000 unique users since launching in May 2020, and has become a key resource in CUNY’s broader efforts to streamline transfer.

Ithaka S+R has now received commitments of nearly $4.4 million in grant funding from six philanthropic foundations that will take this effort to a new level of impact, at CUNY and beyond. We are grateful to our original funders, the Heckscher Foundation for Children and the Caroll and Milton Petrie Foundation, as well as new funders Ascendium Education Group, ECMC Foundation, The Ichigo Foundation, and The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, for supporting this work.

The new grant funding will be used to accomplish five major goals over the next three years:

  • Significantly enhance CUNY Transfer Explorer. The first set of enhancements went live on January 31, and include a refreshed home page and powerful new functionality. New functions include the ability for users to explore how courses taken at one CUNY college will count toward major and minor requirements at another CUNY college, as well as how non-CUNY courses, training, and exams (such as credit earned through the military or through AP/International Baccalaureate classes in high school) count at CUNY colleges. Users with a CUNY login are also able to access their CUNY transcript to see how their earned credits will count if they transfer. Additional enhancements are slated for June 2023 and beyond.
  • Invite other New York colleges and universities to join CUNY Transfer Explorer. Extending CUNY Transfer Explorer to additional institutions will help it become a true one-stop information hub for any student seeking to transfer into or between New York’s institutions.
  • Develop and pilot a universal version of Transfer Explorer with a higher education system outside of New York. ITHAKA, Ithaka S+R’s non-profit parent organization, will create and host a user-friendly application with the core features of CUNY Transfer Explorer, with the ability to ingest course equivalency and program requirement information from the most common higher ed enterprise software systems. This universal Transfer Explorer will be piloted in collaboration with a higher education system outside New York, with an eye toward much greater scale. In Spring 2023 we will be inviting potential collaborators to consider the opportunity to serve as a pilot site.
  • Facilitate an institutional community of practice. Institutional members of the community of practice will contribute to the design and application of all versions of Transfer Explorer, including by recruiting students, advisors, and other stakeholders to participate in user testing of the site.
  • Evaluate the usage and implementation of, and student outcomes associated with, all versions of Transfer Explorer. In addition to tracking student transfer outcomes and conducting qualitative research to understand how all versions of Transfer Explorer are used by students, advisors, and others, researchers at CUNY and Ithaka S+R will conduct analyses of transfer data to inform efforts to improve transfer policy and practice at CUNY and other partner sites.

The overarching goal of the ACT project is to open the black box of credit transfer, providing everyone with accessible, easy-to-use, accurate, and comprehensive information about how transferred credits count toward degree programs. Doing so has the potential to dramatically improve the educational experiences and outcomes of transfer students. As one concrete example, at the pair of colleges participating in the ACT project the longest—Hostos Community College and Lehman College—the share of Hostos 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.

Thanks to this generous new funding and the continued collaboration of exceptional colleagues at CUNY, the ACT project is poised to make Transfer Explorer even more useful to tens of thousands of additional students.