Nothing has come easy for Juretha Phillips as she worked to earn her college degree while battling health problems.
But few obstacles have proven more frustrating than trying to get credit for community college courses she has completed, now that she is ready to transfer to a four-year school.
"I'll be 50 in September. I just don't have time to mess around," said Phillips, who recently learned a private Christian college in Dallas she wanted to attend would not accept 26 of her credit hours. She hopes a public school close to home, the University of Texas at Arlington, will take them; otherwise, she may have to repeat a year or more toward her social work degree.
The waste of time and money when course work must be repeated irks students, teachers and legislators alike. But despite significant efforts in many states to smooth the transition from community to four-year colleges, the problem persists.
"Part of it is historical perceptions about community colleges, that they're not quite up to standards," said Philip Day, chancellor of City College of San Francisco. "There's this pervasive academic snobbishness about, 'If we don't teach it, we can't certify it.' "
Four-year colleges say they are addressing the problem but cannot let standards slip.
"It does none of us any good to accept students who can't succeed," said Susan Kinsey, dean of the College of General Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, which has taken steps to smooth transfers. "That's a waste of everyone's time and effort."
Some members of Congress want to get the federal government more involved in helping not only community college students but also the surging numbers of students at for-profit colleges to transfer their work.
Many educators dislike that idea, but they acknowledge that the patchwork of credit agreements between schools around the country has not solved the problem.
A 2004 report by the American Association of Community Colleges and another college group found 42 percent of community college students say they intend to move on and earn a four-year degree, although only 26 percent successfully do so. The four-year colleges surveyed said credit transfer difficulties were the No. 1 reason for that disparity.
Many states have taken significant steps to knit together the curricula of their community, public four-year and private colleges.
Florida's long-established system of common course numbering is considered a model. Community college students can get a core curriculum they know can be transferred and even take established "pre-majors" that flow into the programs at four-year schools. More than half of juniors and seniors in Florida's state system started in community colleges.
A half-dozen other states also have common course numbering, and about 40 have some kind of credit transfer agreement among their public two- and four-year colleges.
Schools have also acted on their own. New York's State University at Buffalo, which brings in more than 2,000 transfer students each year, has agreements with its leading feeder schools and a database of approved credits from 2,000 colleges. Administrators visit community colleges, host on-line chats and help with paperwork.
"UB really does do I think more than any school I'm familiar with," said Cynthia Lysczek, a junior there who said her credits transferred smoothly from Broome Community College, a Binghamton school that is part of the New York state system.
But some say it is not enough.
"I'm happy to see that schools are doing things," said Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), who is behind a proposal that would require colleges to publish their transfer policies and report data on them. "But we're talking about 6,000 schools across the country that deal with federal financial aid programs. While some are really trying, others are not."
One challenge is that cost-conscious students are collecting credits in increasingly complicated ways, according to a recent federal study -- sometimes co-enrolling in community and four-year colleges or going back and forth between them. For-profit and on-line schools further complicate the mix. A quarter of Buffalo's transfers come from five schools, but the rest are scattered among 600 institutions.
And the most comprehensive in-state agreements may not help students transferring out of state. Federal figures show 1 in 10 bachelor's degree recipients complete their degree in a different state from where they started college.
Finally, it is hard getting faculty from numerous schools to hammer out common standards.
The process in Florida was "painful," said David Armstrong, chancellor of the state's 880,000-student community college system, and he said it would be more difficult in other states.
"I thought this was a simple problem: just do what we've done in Florida," he said. "I quickly learned that it is a far more complex issue in a number of states because of the governance structures."