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Affordability Disconnects | Inside Higher Ed


Many in higher education talk frequently of how flaws in transfer and credit mobility cost students time and money, but how that plays out is not well articulated. To fill that gap, the Beyond Transfer Policy Advisory Board (PAB) is releasing today a paper that identifies key Affordability Disconnects faced by students as they transition into postsecondary institutions: clear drivers of both increased time to credential and price to students. Addressing, mitigating and eradicating these drivers would go a long way in making credentials more affordable for students who transfer and are mobile.

Learners face affordability disconnects at the following transition points (see Figure 1):

  • Transition point: Students seek to choose an optimal pathway to completion that maximizes credits from their existing learning and work experiences
    • Affordability Disconnect: Students are faced with a lack of information about how their previous work and learning experiences will apply to completion of a postsecondary credential
      • Impact on time and price: Students do not have information to inform decisions about which institutions or programs will maximize existing learning and how much time and credits will still be required before completion.
  • Transition point: Students seek to efficiently submit evidence of the quality of their previous work and learning experiences (e.g., transcripts)
    • Affordability Disconnect: Students are faced with a lack of sharing of electronic, machine-readable learner and employment records and transcripts, meaning they typically have to request their records, pay a fee and wait for local processes to take place (this often includes printing a hard copy and mailing it)
      • Impact on time and price: As students wait for their transcripts to be received and processed, they may miss out on the ability to register for the right courses at the right time. This can force students to wait to take needed courses or lead them to take courses that are not needed and will not count toward completion.
  • Transition point: Students seek to receive credits for prior learning in high-quality settings ranging from dual enrollment in high school to military experience, digital badging and work-based learning
    • Affordability Disconnect: Students are faced with a lack of robust Credit for Prior Learning (CPL) policies and practices
      • Impact on time and price: All too often, learners do not receive credits for prior learning and find they must take courses that cover content they already know or retake courses already taken, costing them time and money on their path to completion.
  • Transition point: Students seek to transfer and apply academic credits taken at other postsecondary institutions toward completion
    • Affordability Disconnect: Students are faced with a lack of intentional practice to ensure unbiased, efficient credit evaluation
      • Impact on time and price: If courses are rejected for credit, students lose time and money as they are forced to retake courses and forfeit their investments of time and money already spent. In addition, inefficient and lengthy credit evaluation processes can mean students do not learn which courses they need to take in a timely manner. Similar to the impact of waiting on transcripts, this can lead students to wait to take needed courses or to take courses that are not needed and will not count toward completion.
  • Transition point: Students seek to receive advice on the right programs to choose and courses to register for that will put them on an affordable and strategic path to completion of a credential
    • Affordability Disconnect: Students are faced with a lack of access to and knowledge of intentional career and academic advising
      • Impact on time and price: Without adequate advice and guidance, learners might not know how to choose an academic program aligned to their career aspirations or the courses required for completion of a program. This can lead students to take courses that are not necessary for completion of a career-aligned credential.
  • Transition point: Students seek to finance their educations
    • Affordability Disconnect: Students find a lack of fair and equal access to financial aid
      • ​Impact on time and price: Students are not receiving equitable aid and support to finance their educations.
  • Transition point: Students seek to matriculate into a postsecondary institution that is student-ready and equipped to serve them well
    • Affordability Disconnect: Students face a lack of institutions that are equipped and ready for students who transfer; students may not have fair and equal access to basic needs and critical student supports such as housing, reserved course registration slots and internships and other enriching learning experiences
      • Impact on time and price: Students face unfair challenges that can impede their academic performance and timely progression to completion.

Figure 1

The following concrete set of actions for institutions is designed to address these Affordability Disconnects:

  • Assess the Return on Investment of Students Who Transfer and Are Mobile: Postsecondary institutions face declining enrollments and uncertain fiscal environments. For many, particularly those with high percentages of students who transfer and are mobile, increases in transfer and credit mobility are likely to provide a return on mission—by educating a diverse workforce and better-serving communities—as well as a financial return on investment in the form of increased student enrollments, retention and completion. The TransferBOOST Affordability Financial Tool, developed by rpk GROUP in collaboration with HCM Strategists and the Institute for Higher Education Policy, provides step-by-step guidance on how institutions can understand more about the return on investment of better serving students who transfer and are mobile.
  • Leverage ROI to Change Policies and Practices: With an understanding of return on investment in hand, colleges and universities can begin to consider how to re-direct investments in ways that better support students who transfer and are mobile. A variety of tools in the field can help institutions identify gaps in policies and practice that serve as Affordability Disconnects, including the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students’ Transfer Policy & Practice Audit Tool, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning’s Resource Kit on Credit for Prior Learning, the What Works Clearinghouse’s Effective Advising for Postsecondary Students Practice Guide and the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers’ work to beta test a new transfer designation which identifies leading practices in transfer credit policy, practice, articulation and technology.
  • Implement a Suite of Credit Mobility Technologies: Nationwide, several states, systems and institutions are making advances in building intentional connectivity and interoperability. Strong examples include Arizona State University and City University of New York. While solutions vary, key areas of technological focus—that are greatly enabled by machine-readable, electronic transcripts—include:
    • Course equivalencies: Student-facing databases that help students see which courses are equivalent can be used as a planning tool as learners map their educational pathways;
    • Automated credit evaluations: Technologies that address the slow speed and bias inherent in manual credit evaluation can help to ensure that students who are mobile know quickly which of their previous learning experiences will transfer and apply to completion of their degrees and can help to eliminate inconsistency and bias by reducing individual decision-making;
    • Dynamic educational planning: Student-facing tools that allow students to plan out their pathways can help learners see how their current credits and learning experiences are equivalent to and will apply to completion on, a variety of pathways; and
    • Comprehensive learner records: A record that captures learning from a variety of academic and nonacademic settings; can be displayed in an electronic “wallet” that students can carry with them (e.g., on an app on their phones) can help students to holistically demonstrate their skills, knowledge and prior learning and work experiences.

In an era when nearly all students would benefit from improved transfer and credit mobility, the ecosystem continues to be plagued by many disconnects that make completion of a college credential more expensive and challenging for students. It is time to intentionally address these disconnects and cultivate a responsive ecosystem that ensures that students who transfer and are mobile are able to receive documentation of the learning they have completed, carry that documentation with them through their work and learning pathways and apply that documented learning to completion of a degree in a timely and affordable manner.

To read the full paper and recommendations in Affordability Disconnects: Understanding Student Affordability in the Transfer and Credit Mobility Era, please click here.

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Wednesday, February 1, 2023
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