LA VERNE, Calif. — Gage Ramirez was a year and a half into his studies toward a biology degree at a California public university when he came up against an unexpected roadblock: calculus.
Ramirez ultimately found himself changing majors and transferring to another California public institution. Little of the work he had put in came with him.
“As soon as I got there, it was like I was starting fresh. Even the high school credits I got didn’t mean anything,” he said. Before long, Ramirez said, “I was six years deep and still not done.”
It is as common an experience for college students as it is frustrating, time-consuming and expensive for them, their families and taxpayers: credits that will not transfer, even among public institutions in the same states.
After decades of demands that this be fixed, a report from the Government Accountability Office finds that students who transfer among colleges and universities still lose more than 40 percent of the credits they have earned and paid for. Even some of the credits that are accepted do not apply toward students’ majors.
This increases the time it takes to get degrees, compounding costs and debt. Many students simply drop out. Instead of narrowing, the scale of the problem has widened. Thirty-seven percent of students today transfer at least once in their college careers, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center , which tracks the issue; of those, nearly half change schools more than once.
Now, there are signs schools are slowly lowering the barriers for transfer students, as much as in their own self-interest as in the students’.
An enrollment slump is forcing private institutions to reconsider transfer students as a way to fill seats. So is new competition from community colleges in some states and regions that have been made tuition-free; those schools are seen as sources of potential transfer candidates for bachelor’s degrees.
More than two-thirds of four-year university and college admissions officers said in a survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling that transfer students had become “significantly important” in meeting enrollment goals.
Meanwhile, fed up with waiting, growing numbers of governors and legislators have ordered public colleges and universities to do a better job helping transfer students, in some cases threatening schools’ budgets if they do not.
“Regardless of the institution where you work, if you’re a president or the dean of admissions, you’re very aware of these trends,” said Devorah Lieberman, president of the University of La Verne, near Los Angeles.
It was to La Verne that Ramirez eventually made his way, drawn by a transfer process the university made comparatively simple. He was able to transfer the maximum 80 credits and finally got a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology after 7½ years at three colleges and $32,749 in student loans on top of what he paid from his earnings as a sales clerk at Forever 21, an EMT and a Zamboni driver at an ice rink.
Other institutions he approached about transferring “didn’t seem all that interested in me,” Ramirez said. “I’d send emails, and a couple weeks later, I’d hear something like, ‘Well, you can come by if you want.’ ”
At La Verne, he said at a cafe in the student union, “There was one person in charge of everything [related to transfer], and she put me in touch with the people I needed to talk to by the next day.” He managed to finish the rest of his degree in three semesters.
La Verne takes more than 250 undergraduate transfer students a year and about 500 older-than-traditional adults who also cash in prior credits. That is just under 10 percent of its enrollment. It has transfer agreement plans with 41 community colleges and on-the-spot admission for students from 17 of those, as long as they meet certain prerequisites. Faculty are redesigning majors so the course offerings match what prospective transfer students are likely to have already learned.
Its transfer-friendly strategy stems partly from the university’s history and culture; the stern, stiff-collared and mostly bearded countenances of its presidents staring down from portraits in the main administration building testify to its 1891 founding by a Christian denomination similar to the Quakers called the Church of the Brethren.
There are also practical motivations. California Gov. Jerry Brown threatened to strip private colleges and universities of their eligibility for the Cal Grant state financial aid program unless they did a better job of admitting transfer students from community colleges. The member institutions of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, which Lieberman chairs, agreed to take 3,000 annually by the 2020-2021 academic year.
“The governor made it clear that if we’re going to all play in the same sandbox, we need to be able to be more collaborative,” said Lieberman, whose own education began at a community college before she transferred to a public university.
While 3,000 students are only a tiny fraction of the 2.1 million who attend California’s 114 community colleges, Brown’s hard bargain is symbolic of the political pressure being brought to bear.
Connecticut lawmakers, for example, have imposed a requirement that public universities and colleges disclose in advance which transfer credits they will accept; this followed a finding that community college students who transferred to the University of Connecticut were losing a quarter of their credits.
The Texas legislature also ordered improvements in the transfer process. Two out of 5 students in Texas lose all their credits when they transfer, wasting $58 million a year on top of $57 million Texas taxpayers spend on excess credits, according to the Greater Texas Foundation.
Minnesota’s legislature has ordered the transfer process to be made more efficient for the nearly 20,000 students who move among that state’s community colleges and public universities.
In all, about three-quarters of states have adopted some sort of policy to make transferring easier among community colleges and public universities, with varying success, the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, found.
(The Hechinger Report, which produced this article, is based at Teachers College.)
Still, those policies apply only within states or systems, while nearly 1 in 5 community-college and a quarter of public university students who transfer move across state lines, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
That complication has given rise to something called the Interstate Passport, which lets students who have mastered agreed-upon “learning outcomes” transfer among participating institutions in nine states — Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Idaho, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming — without having to retake general-education courses.
Ramirez’s experience at La Verne has encouraged him to stay another 2½ years to get a master’s degree he needs to become an athletic trainer.
“When I finally graduated [with a bachelor’s degree], I didn’t think I’d feel a lot about it, but I was actually kind of proud of it,” he said. He learned on his way to the stage that he had earned departmental honors and saw his relatives, who had come to surprise him, holding up letters that spelled out his name. “I was getting pretty emotional.”
Reaching that moment, Ramirez said, had been “ a grind. It was definitely a grind.”
He stuck with it. But many of the classmates who started with him gave up.
“I have a lot of friends,” Ramirez said, “who just dropped out.”
This article was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s higher-education newsletter.