What Really Happens to Transfer Students’ Credits?

Regular readers of this blog, and of the transfer literature in general, are by now very familiar with the leaky vertical transfer pipeline: the fact that some 80 percent of associate’s degree students wish to obtain at least a bachelor’s degree, but six years after beginning college, only about 11 percent have done so. These leaks disproportionately affect students from underrepresented groups—students who make it through the pipeline are more likely to be shite and have greater financial resources. Also familiar to transfer researchers and practitioners is the most common explanation for these leaks: credit loss. Often quoted is the United States Government Accountability Office’s figure of 43 percent of credits being lost as a result of transfer, and credit loss has been described as a major reason why students who begin community college with the goal of attaining a bachelor’s degree are less likely to achieve that goal than students who begin college in a bachelor’s program.

But what does it mean for credits to be “lost,” and what do we actually know about students’ credits as students progress in their undergraduate journeys? In our work we have found that, while transferring does seriously harm the applicability of credits to degree requirements, this harm is not as ubiquitous nor as severe as has been sometimes thought.

At the City University of New York, which has 20 undergraduate colleges and approximately 25,000 transfer students per year, we have been multiple projects to help characterize, understand and decrease the transfer pipeline leaks. These are the TOP (Transfer Opportunity Project), GROWTH (Growing Transfer in the Humanities) and ACT (Articulation of Credit Transfer) projects, described in previous blog posts and collectively known as A2B, for associate’s- to bachelor’s-degree transfer. TOP and GROWTH are research projects, and ACT directly helps transfer students. Repeatedly in our projects, consistent with past research, credit transfer has been shown to be a major difficulty for students.

Our work on TOP, which involves investigating the causes of the pipeline leaks, has helped us realize that we need to investigate two aspects of lost credits. First, the research literature now concerns, not just lost credits, but degree-applicable credits. There are certainly situations in which credits don’t accompany a student as the student moves from one college to another (although not within CUNY, where all credits transfer as at least elective credits). However, there are also situations in which the credits accompany the student, but they do not apply to any degree requirements at the new college and thus can become excess electives—essentially wasted time and money. Thus, we in TOP have realized that any work we have been doing on lost credits must look at the degree applicability of credits, not just whether credits did or did not accompany the students when they transferred.

A second realization with respect to investigate lost credits has come from an ACT member who has worked directly with transfer students (Lehman College’s director of student success initiatives Christopher Buonocore). Chris kept telling us that the degree of applicability of credits can change repeatedly throughout a vertical transfer student’s academic career. For example, most CUNY associate’s degrees have a maximum of 60 credits with room for very few electives. But CUNY bachelor’s degrees usually have a maximum of 120 credits with room for many more electives. It is therefore possible for students to have excess electives at a community college that do not apply to any requirements of their associate’s degrees, but when these students transfer to a bachelor’s program, some or all of those excess electives may now apply to the requirements of the students’ bachelor’s degrees. As another example, students may change their majors or add or subtract minors, and such actions can change whether certain credits do or do not apply to the students’ degree requirements.

What this all meant for us in TOP, with our goal of studying the leaks in the academic pipeline for vertical transfer students, was that we needed to know exactly what happens to the degree of applicability of credits specifically at the point of transfer. To obtain this information, we had one factor helping us and one hindering us. The factor helping us was that the software CUNY uses for students’ academic records and degree audits (Degree Works) shows which credits apply to degree requirements and which do not. The factor hindering us was that Degree Works is a transactional database, meaning that, every time there is a change in a student’s record, that change overwrites what was there before. This Degree Works feature means that, ordinarily, all we can see is the current status of students’ credits—there is no history, no way to see what happened when a student transferred. Credits that currently do not apply to degree requirements (what we call fallthrough credits) could have gotten that way due to transfer, or they could have gotten that way at the community college or at the bachelor’s college as a result of a major change.

But because TOP and ACT are under the same A2B umbrella, we in TOP knew that the ACT project was archiving changes in students’ Degree Works records every day. ACT was doing this in part to allow advisers to intervene when new transfer students registered for courses that would not apply to their degree requirements at their new colleges. However, we in TOP realized that this archive could also allow our analysts to identify students’ records right before and right after vertical transfer and, using those data, see exactly what happened to the students’ credits due to transfer.

So, using an ACT archive for a cohort of almost 900 students who transferred during the past few years from Bronx and Hostos Community Colleges to Lehman College (two of CUNY’s most friendly vertical transfer paths), TOP was then able to see that, for this group of students,

  • Just as Chris had told us, of these students’ fallthrough credits at their community colleges, 83 percent had become an applicable degree right after the students transferred.
  • In contrast, of these students’ degree-applicable credits at their community colleges, 5 percent had become fallthrough credits right after transfer.
  • In addition, of these students’ current fallthrough credits from community college courses, only about 46 percent of these credits had applied to degree requirements just prior to transfer and then changed to fallthrough due to transfer. The rest of the current fallthrough credits from community college courses would have found their way into fallthrough by means of other paths (eg, by a student having a fallthrough course prior to transfer that stayed in fallthrough after transfer).

TOP, with ACT’s help, thus showing that, if all a researcher does is look at how many current credits a transfer student has that came from the student’s previous college and that don’t apply to current degree requirements, such data may be very inaccurate for determining the effect of transfer on credits. We also now know that, though the problem with “lost credits” is severe, it may not be as large or as widespread as some people think.

The next step with these archived data? By digging even deeper, researchers can see which courses, majors and colleges are likely to be associated with fallthrough credits at particular points in the vertical transfer pipeline (for an example, see here).

In addition to telling us about what is really going on with vertical transfer students’ lost credits, this work has provided the A2B projects with two important lessons. First, there can be synergy between different types of transfer projects (in this case TOP and ACT)—research and application projects can stimulate and support each other. Second, in attempting to solve complex, real-world problems, actively involving a variety of people, including those who have direct experience with those problems, can help guide research projects to successful conclusions.

We are very grateful to the many dozens of people who have been contributing to the A2B projects, to the betterment of transfer students everywhere.


Alexandra W. Logue is a research professor at the Center for Advanced Study in Education, Graduate Center, CUNY, and the principal or co-principal contempt of each of the A2B projects. From 2008 to 2014 she was executive vice chancellor and university provost of the CUNY system. Nayeon Yoo is a research analyst in CUNY’s Office of Applied Research, Evaluation and Data Analytics (OAREDA). Kerstin Gentsch is a senior policy analyst in OAREDA. Colin Chellman is a CUNY University Dean, leads OAREDA, is a co-principal contempt of TOP and is president-elect of the Association for Education Finance and Policy.

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