One useful, practical, and sensible concept in the pursuit of a college education seems to be a well-kept secret and certainly is not something students dwell on while thinking about attending college. That concept is the presence, or more often absence, of articulation agreements between different schools.
Articulation or transfer agreements are formal statements two institutions enter into documenting the transfer policies between the two schools. The specific departments and divisions at the schools carefully review the degree requirements and establish a checklist of sorts. If students comply with all the requirements at College A, their credits will all transfer to University B. It’s a win-win. Community colleges such as San Jacinto College can provide exact guidance to their students so they don’t waste credit hours moving onto the receiving transfer institution. And universities save recruiting and marketing costs by channeling in college-ready students more likely to complete programs in a timely manner. Students win because moving from one college entity to another is seamless. As commonsensical as this sounds, articulation agreements are in no way automatic.
Those outside of the educational profession, including many students who are the first in their families to attend college, may think that all college credit is the same regardless of if students take classes at a community college, a technical institute, or a research university. More likely, the possibility that these credits might be totally different doesn’t even cross their minds. This non-questioning of the relative value of credit hours particularly impacts students at community colleges across the country who take classes with the tacit but uninformed intent to transfer those credits to a university to complete a bachelor’s degree. This ignorance can become un-blissful very quickly after years of work. Most faculty and advisers understand that not all of the credits our students take at the community college will transfer to all universities for all majors. In fact, it is a rather complex matrix to determine if certain credits will be accepted by the transfer institution. And which hours will transfer depends on the specific transfer institution and even the department at that institution.
Students who blithely accept the general idea that almost any course can transfer as an elective find this tidbit is not overly helpful when most degrees only accept a limited number of non-major courses to fulfill the elective slots. Add to this restriction the limit of transfer hours universities will accept, and many community college students face the discouraging reality of the need for far more credit hours to complete the degree they are pursuing than they expected. And they may be at risk of running out of federal financial aid. This reality comes down to additional money for courses the students thought they had already ticked off their list, additional time away from family, work, and professional dreams as they take a deep breath and soldier on feeling a bit disgruntled—possibly even betrayed by the system. Or not. Some students just can’t move beyond this unexpected delay—the seemingly arbitrary readjustment of the finish line. Transferring to a larger, unfamiliar campus after their community college experience becomes yet another roadblock for students who attempt to navigate the process alone. They just stop, which is a human potential waste professionals in higher ed see as unacceptable and tragic.
To assist students in avoiding this sad scenario, colleges and universities work diligently to establish memorandums of understanding that create crosswalks between departments at the separate schools, essentially giving the students a promise that if they follow the clear and specific guidelines, the transfer institution will accept all the designated credits.
Articulation agreements are a bit like insurance policies—including the small print. Guessing and hoping credits will transfer for specific departments and degrees is not a strategy. Students must pay attention to all the details of the agreement between the two institutions or they may face the same disappointing news described above. Students cannot assume that they may be allowed to change majors, go off the degree plan without consequences, or just ignore some parts of the standard agreement and still receive the promised rewards. More and more community colleges and universities are working together to bring the topic of transfer credits out in the open so students know what will work and what will not.
Dr. Ann M. Pearson is Assistant Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at San Jacinto College (TX), where she’s currently working with Accreditation & Assessment. She was an English faculty member for 25 years, with 7 of those at SJC. She occasionally returns to the SJC English Department as an adjunct faculty member.