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Course Transfer Process Causes Headaches, Delays Graduation for Texas College Students

Josh Pippins expected to be out of college and a few years into his career by now. Instead, he's just wrapping up his junior year at the University of Texas at Arlington.

When he came to UTA three years ago, Pippins, of Arlington, had taken two years of classes at Tarrant County College's Southeast campus. He planned to knock out many of his degree requirements at a lower-cost community college before transferring to the university. Advisers at TCC had shown him which classes there would likely transfer to UTA, and he expected to arrive on campus as a junior.

But when the time came to transfer, advisers at UTA told Pippins that so few of his course credits from TCC would carry over that he would need to start over again as a freshman.

"It was very frustrating," Pippins said.

Pippins, 24, is one of thousands of Texas college students who transfer each year. Many of them, like Pippins, lose credit for courses they took in community colleges. In some cases, those community college courses don't apply to their degree programs at the four-year institutions where they transfer. In other cases, the four-year universities refuse to give incoming students credit for those courses at all.

Texas' higher education system relies heavily on community colleges to help students work toward undergraduate degrees. Nearly three-quarters of all Texas students who graduate with a bachelor's degree have some community college credit on their transcripts, according to the Texas Association of Community Colleges. But lawmakers, education advocates and students say the state needs to do a better job of helping students avoid losing course credits when they transfer.

Lawmakers are considering more than a dozen bills they say will help students better manage the transfer process. Among those measures are a pair of bills in the Senate, introduced by Dallas Democratic Sen. Royce West.

Senate Bill 25 would break the 42-hour core curriculum required for undergraduate degrees into two categories: a general core curriculum, made up of courses that would transfer to any degree program at any public university in Texas, and a disciplinary core curriculum, which would include courses that applied to broad academic areas like business, education or physics and engineering. Those courses would transfer to degree programs within those disciplines at any university in the state.

Senate Bill 1923 would create transfer pathways within broad academic disciplines, giving students reliable information about how courses they take at the community college level will transfer to a four-year university.

During a Senate Higher Education Committee meeting last month, West said when students lose course credits during a transfer, it represents a waste of money, both for students and taxpayers. The state wastes millions of dollars each year offering college courses for which students will ultimately lose course credits during a transfer, he said. For students, those wasted courses can delay graduation by as much as two years. The two bills represent a first step in fixing the system, he said.

"By no means have we solved the problem yet," West said.

In the House of Representatives, lawmakers are considering a number of bills related to course transfer, including one that would require the Texas Coordinating Board for Higher Education to compile a list of the 25 degree programs with the largest number of transfer students. Universities would then be required to publish a list of all lower-level course requirements for those degrees and what courses they will accept for transfer credit. That bill, which is House Bill 2078, was authored by Rep. J.M. Lozano, a Republican from Portland.

During a House Higher Education Committee meeting last week, Brenda Hellyer, chancellor of San Jacinto College, a community college system in the Houston area, told the committee that a lack of coordination between community colleges and four-year universities prevents some students from completing their degrees at all.

For transfer students to succeed, it's critical that they receive early, accurate help from college advisers, Hellyer said. But it's also critical that those advisers have accurate information to pass along to students, she said.

The state should encourage students who plan on transferring to file their degree plans as early as possible so they can get a better idea of what courses they'll need to take, she said.

"We know students will change their mind, but they need to understand all those consequences," Hellyer said.

Nationwide, about 38 percent of students who complete college have credit from more than one institution, and credit transfer is becoming more common as online courses become more widely available, said Janet Marling, executive director of the University of North Georgia's National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students.

College students who successfully transfer from one institution to another tend to do well in the rest of their college careers, Marling said, but the transfer itself can be difficult, with many students losing huge amounts of course credit along the way.

If they want to help transfer students complete their degrees, state lawmakers would do well to encourage four-year schools to take a broader view of what courses they accept for transfer credit, Marling said. By adopting transfer policies that prioritize what's best for students rather than what's best for the institution, colleges and universities could help students complete their degrees more quickly.

Like many states, Texas' course transfer system isn't as effective as it could be, but the fact that lawmakers are interested in improving it is a good sign, she said.

Pippins, the UTA music student, said he'd like to see community colleges and universities give students clearer, more definite guidance about which community college courses will transfer and which won't. Community colleges market themselves as a good option for students to complete their lower-level courses before transferring to a four-year school to finish a bachelor's degree.

Pippins said those colleges owe it to their students to make sure they have the most reliable information possible. That information could help those students avoid the kinds of headaches the transfer process gave him.

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