Associate Executive Director
The idea behind dual enrollment is powerful. When high school students enroll, and succeed, in college courses, they simultaneously gain access to advanced coursework while saving on college costs. Savings take place in two ways. First, students save money by reducing their “time to degree.” That is, they can earn a degree faster because they have already taken at least some of their required courses and earned college credits in high school. In addition, students save money because college courses taken in high school frequently cost less than traditional courses taken in college. In many states, dual enrollment is offered at no or fairly low cost.
But these benefits depend on whether the college credits earned in high school are transferred to the college from which a student ultimately earns their degree. Unfortunately, credit transfer is not guaranteed unless policies and practices are in place requiring it. The Government Accountability Office estimated that 43% of credits are lost upon transfer, and 37% are lost when students transfer between public institutions of higher education.
When hard-earned credits are lost and students must repeat or take additional college courses, it delays the progress of community college students towards obtaining a degree and increases the overall cost of their postsecondary education.
It is crucial to address transfer issues for dual enrollment students, as they may attend a different institution after high school graduation and may be just as likely to transfer as all college students.
Applying the Government Accountability Office’s estimated rate of credit loss between public colleges to the number of dual enrollments would mean over 750,000 of the two million dual enrollments reported in 2010-11 may not have resulted in transferable credit.
Credit transfer policies are essential for ensuring public investments in dual enrollment programs pay off and meet their intended purpose of increasing degree attainment. This is important because 80% of good-paying jobs require at least some college, demonstrating that education beyond a high school diploma is not a “nice-to-have,” it’s a “need-to-have.” Nonetheless, postsecondary completion rates remain low. In 2020, the six-year graduation rate for four-year colleges was only 64%. Similarly, only 34% of community college students earned a credential (degree or certificate) within three years.
Making matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a decrease in postsecondary enrollment that disproportionately affected systemically disadvantaged students, including Black students, Latinx students, and students from low-income families.1Prior to the pandemic, freshman enrollment among Latinx students was on the rise overall and in community colleges (i.e, there was a 3.2% increase from 2018 to 2019). That changed in 2020, when freshman enrollment among Latinx students in community college dropped 27.5%. For Black students that year, freshman enrollment declined by 28.4%. While postsecondary enrollment rates are starting to recover, the nation is still below pre-pandemic levels.
We will also showcase various examples of states who have adopted these policies to provide insights for policymakers and conclude with recommendations. The examples presented in this report are not exhaustive, but rather illustrative. Many states have adopted versions of these four credit transfer policies. The examples below are intended to provide policymakers with concise descriptions from a sample of states that have implemented the policies in ways that are especially noteworthy.
Specifically, the selection of featured states is based on consideration of their unique contributions, demonstrated results, comparative relevance, and geographic diversity. Some states implement unique approaches that extend credit transfer policies, which are typically designed to benefit traditional college students, to dual enrollment students. For example, this report highlights Florida’s statutorily required statewide articulation agreement as illustrative of a state with a comprehensive policy approach, including a focus on dual enrollment. Indiana and North Carolina’s transferable core course sequences are likewise featured because these states are intentional about making core course sequences available to high school students in dual enrolllment. California and Minnesota are included to illustrate different state approaches to common course numbering, one of which is more comprehensive than the other. Finally, the report describes the work of Illinois and Massachusetts in support of the transfer of associate degrees. Illinois was selected because of evidence of success regarding the state’s policy. Massachusetts was selected to highlight its user-friendly and highly transparent approach for students.
Dual enrollment has increased substantially over the past 20 years. Now, approximately one in five students attending community college are actually high school students. For these students who begin their postsecondary journey in high school and are likely to enroll in multiple institutions to earn a college credential, an efficient and comprehensive credit transfer process is paramount.
Credit transfer policies are defined in articulation agreements. In their most basic form, an articulation agreement is an agreement between at least two institutions of higher education that specifies how credits will transfer from one institution to another. These agreements are typically designed to define how credits can transfer from one educational institution to another, as well as admission requirements, program prerequisites, and other essential elements of the transition process between institutions.
Because there are so many institutions of higher education in a single state, the most effective articulation agreements establish policies that apply across all public institutions of higher education in the state. In addition, because there are so many facets to credit transfer, it is important for articulation agreements to be comprehensive. One potential element of statewide articulation agreements is a universal “core”, or set of courses, which fulfill general education requirements for two- and four-year degrees at state public institutions (discussed in greater detail in the following section). Other policies and practices covered in articulation agreements can include common course numbering systems (also discussed below), transfer admission guarantee programs, guaranteed transfer of associate degrees (also discussed below), and reverse transfer policies.2This paper does not address transfer admission guarantee programs and reverse transfer policies because, while they are important for community college students, their applicability to dual enrollment is limited.
The sophistication, level of detail, and scope of articulation agreements can vary. One-off, individualized articulation agreements between each and every institution of higher education in a state are far less clear and beneficial for transfer students than a universal articulation agreement that includes all, or nearly all, public institutions of higher education in a state. Fortunately, many states have developed statewide articulation agreements that include all, or nearly all, of their public institutions of higher education. Even better, several states have wide-ranging articulation policies covering multiple components of credit transfer.
Florida is an example of a state with a comprehensive, statewide articulation agreement required by law. It includes provisions that ensure students who complete an associate in arts degree at a community college will be admitted as a junior at one of Florida’s 12 state universities.
It also requires common course numbering (discussed below) and reverse transfer, a procedure that provides a student with an associate degree if the student transferred to a four-year institution prior to earning an associate degree, but later fulfills all the two-year degree requirements at a different institution.
Florida law also requires articulation agreements for dual enrollment programs. Each school district and community college is required to develop and annually submit an articulation agreement to the Florida Department of Education. The articulation agreements are required to include such information as:
States with policies establishing statewide, transferable core coursework have defined a sequence or block of lower-level, general education courses that will be accepted in transfer at all public colleges and universities statewide and satisfy all (or most) general education requirements for a degree. The “core” typically includes courses in subjects like English, mathematics, natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. The number of credits in the core varies by state and often includes between 30 and 40 credits (typically, an associate degree requires 60 credits). Therefore, students completing the core will have secured a substantial number of credits on their way to securing a degree.
If made available to high school students in dual enrollment programs, these blocks of courses can greatly expedite their time to degree. Indiana and North Carolina offer examples of states that have specifically prioritized offering the transferable core of courses to high school students.
Following state legislation in 2012, Indiana established the Indiana College Core (ICC) (initially called the Statewide Transfer General Education Core), a set of 30 general education credits that are universally transferable to and across all in-state, public colleges and universities. The ICC, one of several state policies focused on credit transfer, was originally intended to support multi-directional transfer among all public colleges. However, the growth of dual enrollment in Indiana opened the opportunity for the state to use the ICC as a high school-focused strategy to increase postsecondary enrollment and completion.
Under Indiana’s law, each public institution of higher education is required to develop a “core,” based on a set of competencies developed at the state-level among faculty representing Indiana’s colleges. In addition to earning ICC credits via coursework at the college campus or online, high school students can complete the ICC through a combination of dual credit, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and CLEP. After a student successfully completes the ICC with a grade point average of at least 2.0, the accomplishment is documented on the student’s official transcript. If a high school student who has completed the ICC is accepted to and enrolls in a public college in Indiana, that college will accept this documentation as meeting its own ICC criteria and will recognize 30 credit hours as applicable toward fulfilling the student’s degree requirements.
The ICC ensures students earning introductory credits will not lose them when they transfer to another in-state college or university. And with the state’s focus on offering the ICC in high schools, the program is growing and students are reaping benefits. Between 2014 and 2021, the number of high school students earning the Indiana College Core grew from 42 to 2,100. Approximately 90% of students who earned the ICC in 2021 matriculated to college. At the start of the 2023-2024 school year, nearly half of the state’s high schools (222) offered the ICC and the Indiana Commission for Higher Education set a goal for all high schools (over 500) to do so by the end of 2026. To maintain a high standard of quality while increasing access to ICC, the Commission has established specific criteria high schools and institutions of higher education must adopt. In 2023, the Commission also released My College Core, a user-friendly website and planning tool that assists students, families, and counselors in accessing information about the ICC and planning to earn it.
Students and families are also saving money through the ICC. The state estimates that most high school students who complete the ICC through dual enrollment spend anywhere between $0 to $750, compared to $7,000-$10,000 they would have spent at a four-year university.
In North Carolina, students can participate in the Career and College Promise (CCP) program following legislation in 2011. CCP includes the College Transfer Pathway, which offers students the opportunity to earn 30 or more credit hours towards an associate or baccalaureate degree program. The state offers nine College Transfer Pathways. Each provides tuition-free dual credit that transfers to any University of North Carolina system institution (as well as some private institutions) toward an associate and baccalaureate degree in arts, science, nursing, music, fine arts, theater, or teaching. Advising is an important component of North Carolina’s efforts. In 2015, the legislature created the Career Coach Program, which places advisors from community colleges in high schools to help students develop career goals and develop academic plans. State funding has grown for the program from $500,000 in 2015-16 to $4.5 million in 2021-2022. That year, 84 Career Coaches from 39 community colleges served 27,103 students from 57 school districts.
During the 2020-21 academic year, 12% of high school students in North Carolina were dually enrolled, including 7% (31,655 students) who participated in a College Transfer Pathway. College Transfer Pathway students took an average of 3.5 credit-level college courses, completing 85% of their courses with C or better and an average grade point average of 3.22. According to an evaluation of the program, College Transfer Pathway participants were nine percentage points more likely to enroll in college than non-participants. Importantly, students from racial and ethnic groups who are underrepresented in higher education (i.e., Black, Latinx, Native American, and multiracial students) were 10 percentage points more likely to enroll in a North Carolina public college than those who were non-participants. In addition, College Transfer Pathway participants from economically disadvantaged families were 13 percentage points more likely to enroll in a North Carolina public college than those who were non-participants. College Transfer Pathway participants also saved money. Among the 2019-20, 2020-2021, and 2021-22 academic years, College Transfer Pathway students received fee waivers totaling over $93 million.
Common course numbering systems offer another tool for making the credit transfer system more efficient and effective. When courses covering the same material have different numbers and titles across institutions, students may have to argue with their new institution that a course at a prior institution is equivalent to one at their current college and should be accepted in transfer. Statewide common course numbering policies assign a unique course number to courses, often going beyond the courses included in the “core” of lower-level general education requirements. This system simplifies course identification, helps to ensure transferred courses count toward meeting general education requirements (i.e., not just electives), guarantees course equivalence, and prevents students from taking duplicate courses. In other words, common course numbering systems streamline the path to degree completion. Without such a system, students risk repeating courses, delaying their progress. Given the benefits of a common course numbering system, many states have adopted variations of these systems.
In Minnesota, for example, there are at least 28 different course numbers for equivalent college level algebra courses and over 30 course numbers for college level writing. To address the inefficiencies caused by such inconsistencies, legislation was passed requiring the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems to develop and maintain a common course numbering system. Minnesota State Board Policy outlines the specific requirements for the system. For example, courses are assigned three- or four-digit numbers. The first digit in the course number designates the course level. For example, a “1” indicates a lower division course for first-year students, and a “2” indicates a lower division course for a second-year student, and so on. Courses numbered as 0xxx are developmental courses designed to prepare students for entry into college-level courses and do not count toward a certificate, diploma, or degree. Additionally, colleges and universities have the flexibility to establish numbering systems for various types of courses, such as independent studies, directed studies, thesis credits, specialized topics courses, internships, practicums, and field studies. The Minnesota common course numbering system differentiates among remedial, lower division, upper division, and graduate level coursework. While this is helpful, particularly for students who want to avoid accidentally taking remedial coursework, other states have course numbering systems that are more comprehensive.
California, for example, has the Course Identification Numbering System, a faculty-driven system developed to assign unique identification numbers (C-ID numbers) to key transfer courses. It addresses the need for standardized course numbering to identify comparable courses and is primarily focused on lower-division transferable courses commonly articulated between California Community Colleges (CCC) and the Universities of California, the California State Universities (CSU), and independent colleges and universities in California. The system includes “course descriptors” comprised of several key components, including a comprehensive course overview, the minimum units required, any necessary prerequisites (if relevant), advisories or recommendations (if applicable), the course’s content, any laboratory components (if applicable), the course’s objectives, assessment methods, and examples of affiliated organizations or recommended textbooks and support materials. This common course numbering system serves as the basis for transferring between CCC and CSU using Associate Degrees for Transfer3An Associate Degree for Transfer is a CCC associate degree that guarantees admission into the CSU system.constructed from courses with a C-ID approval. The original legislation requiring the common course numbering system applied only to the 20 highest demand majors for CCC and CSU institutions. However, legislation passed in 2021 expands the policy by requiring CCC to adopt a common course numbering system for all general education requirement courses and transfer pathway courses on or before July 1, 2024.
Policies guaranteeing transfer of an associate degree ensure that students who have earned an associate degree prior to transferring to a four-year institution can seamlessly transfer all their credits to the four-year school and begin their studies at the junior level. Typically, these policies indicate that students are exempt from taking additional general education courses unless they are mandated by their chosen major. From the perspective of dual enrollment, this is important because an increasing number of states and organizations are working to make postsecondary credentials available to students before they graduate from high school. In Indiana, for example, the number of students earning a college credential before graduating from high school tripled between 2016 and 2018. In 2022, 4,075 dually enrolled North Carolina high school students completed an associate degree. To maximize the impact of these efforts, it is critical for students to be able to transfer their degrees to a four-year institution and enroll with junior status.
Illinois is an example of a state that has prioritized the transfer of associate degrees. The state has a 25-year history of implementing credit transfer policy. An independent analysis found Illinois had the highest bachelor’s degree completion rate in the country among students who began their postsecondary education at a community college. The state’s success is due to the Illinois Articulation Initiative (IAI), a statewide system designed to facilitate the transfer of core courses (referred to in Illinois as the General Education Core Curriculum (GECC)) and associate degrees.
State law requires all public institutions of higher education to participate in IAI, both by maintaining and accepting the GECC and by accepting associate degrees for transfer. Students who transfer with an Associate of Arts degree are considered to have satisfied general education requirements because the degree incorporates the GECC. Students transferring with an Associate of Science degree must take one additional math course and one additional science course; therefore, they complete the GECC once they transfer to the four-year institution. Students transferring with an associate degree that have satisfied major-specific prerequisites, meet the requirements of the transfer degree, and have a grade point average of at least 2.0 will be admitted to a public university as a junior. State law prohibits four-year universities from requiring transfer students to take more than 60 hours of additional credits to satisfy lower division major requirements for majors requiring 120 credits and from requiring students to repeat courses that transferred.
Illinois law also prioritizes student advising. Public institutions are directed to convene meetings with students who complete 30 credits and are interested in pursuing an associate or bachelor’s degree. During the meetings, an academic advisor must educate the student regarding prerequisites for their degree programs of interest. In addition, the IAI Efficiency Course Transfer Act calls for collaboration among the Illinois Board of Higher Education, Community College Board, and State Board of Education to ensure high school counselors are informed about IAI. However, the latest IAI Annual Report states that the charge to engage with high school counselors “remains unfulfilled to date.”
Students in Massachusetts have the opportunity to participate in the MassTransfer program, a transparent and streamlined process for students to begin their postsecondary education at a community college and transfer to a state university or University of Massachusetts campus with an associate degree and 60 credits guaranteed to transfer. The “A2B Mapped Pathways” allow students to identify the community college they plan to attend, the state university or University of Massachusetts campus to which they intend to transfer, and the bachelor’s degree field they would like to pursue. A2B Mapped Pathways are available in more than 40 majors, including STEM, health care, social work, humanities and social sciences, education, business, and arts and design. With the help of institutional advisors, the MassTransfer website is a very useful tool for students to plan which courses to take for guaranteed transfer from their community college to their chosen major at the four-year institution they have selected. The Mapped Pathways also include the MassTransfer General Education Foundation, a sequence of 34 credits that fully transfer across Massachusetts public institutions of higher education. High School students engaged in the Commonwealth Dual Enrollment Partnership also enroll in these courses. 4Dual enrollment students enroll in courses from the MassTransfer General Education Foundation; however, they cannot participate in the MassTransfer program until they are degree-seeking students at a community college. In other words, students cannot concurrently participate in the Commonwealth Dual Enrollment Partnership and MassTransfer. Students graduating from a community college who follow an A2B Mapped pathway with a 2.0 grade point average receive a guaranteed transfer of 60 credits, pay no application fee, and do not have to write an application essay. When transferring with a 2.5 grade point average, their admission is guaranteed.
The MassTransfer A2B program also allows students to earn a bachelor’s degree at a reduced cost. Students who earn a bachelor’s degree through the A2B program can save an average of 26%. Students who commit to complete their associate degree in 2.5 years, immediately transfer to a state university or University of Massachusetts campus, and complete a bachelor’s degree within two years and with a 3.0 grade point average, are eligible for additional savings through the “Commonwealth Commitment” program. This program can reduce the annual cost of completing a bachelor’s degree by an average of 37% by freezing tuition and fees for four years (beginning when a student indicates they are pursuing the Commonwealth Commitment) and by providing students a 10% rebate of tuition and fees at the conclusion of each successfully completed semester.
Students who begin their postsecondary education in high school deserve to have their credits follow them and not repeat coursework; being a transfer student should not relegate students to needing extra time and spending extra money to earn their degrees. Below are recommendations for state and federal policymakers that will ensure credit is given where credit is due.
Recommendation 1: State policymakers should direct their systems of K-12 and higher education to conduct a quantitative analysis regarding how many dual credits are conferred in comparison to how many dual credits are successfully transferred toward the acquisition of a postsecondary credential. How many credits are lost? How many students could have earned a degree faster if their credits had transferred, and how much money would taxpayers have saved as a result? What would the long-term economic benefits be if more students earned postsecondary credentials, thereby increasing their own earning potential and the state’s GDP? By placing numerical and financial values to the systemic inefficiency of credit transfer, policymakers and advocates can work together to improve dual enrollment programs and degree attainment.
Recommendation 2: State policymakers should also call for qualitative analysis of their current credit transfer systems. What policies, or combination of policies, are effectively supporting the seamless transfer of college credit? What policies sound logical in writing but appear to have only modest impact in implementation? What challenges do students and institutions face in implementing current policy? By listening to the voices of students and practitioners, lawmakers will be equipped to make their systems more effective and responsive to students’ needs.
Recommendation 3: State policymakers should require their higher education system(s) to develop statewide articulation agreements that include all public institutions of higher education across all higher education systems within the state. Standardized agreements make it easier for students to navigate the transfer process and ensure that credits earned at community colleges are accepted by all four-year institutions within the state. Additionally, statewide articulation agreements should clearly communicate with students how their credits will be awarded, how they transfer to different institutions in the state, and how they will—or will not—apply towards their major and degree requirements.
Recommendation 4: State policymakers should require their public institutions of higher education, in collaboration with their systems of elementary and secondary education, to define transferable core sequences of general education coursework that (a) consist of at least 30 college credits, (b) are transferable en bloc across all public institutions of higher education in the state and accepted toward general education requirements at all institutions, (c) are made available through dual enrollment or other forms of advanced coursework to all high school students in the state free of charge to the students and their families and, if successfully completed, count toward high school and postsecondary credit requirements, and (d) are delivered in conjunction with student advising programs to facilitate the matriculation of students from high school to college.
Recommendation 5: State policymakers should require their public institutions of higher education to work together to create a comprehensive transfer course list containing information related to which courses transfer between dual enrollment programs and two- and four- year public postsecondary institutions in the state. The transfer course list should be regularly updated (at least annually), include information on the specific public colleges and universities where each listed course is offered and accepted in transfer, and describe how each transferred course will be credited (e.g., whether each course will qualify as meeting general education requirements, major requirements, or count as elective credit).
Recommendation 6: State policymakers should require their public institutions of higher education to develop statewide common course numbering systems to provide consistency and clarity in course numbering and titles across institutions. This will both facilitate the transfer of credits for equivalent coursework statewide and help students avoid taking repetitive coursework—by making clear which courses will be accepted for credit at their receiving institution and by helping identify duplicative courses with different names and titles at different institutions.
Recommendation 7: State policymakers should adopt a statewide, cross-system guaranteed transfer of associate degree policy that ensures a variety of associate degrees are eligible for guaranteed transfer, including an Associate of Arts, Associate of Science, Associate of Arts and Science, Associate in Applied Science, and Associate in Applied Arts. Critically, policies should also ensure that students who earned these degrees before transferring to any public four-year institution can transfer all of their general education, core credits to the four-year institution and will not need to retake any courses to meet general education requirements at their four-year institution.
Recommendation 8: State leaders should expand and clarify their policies to guarantee junior status to all students transferring with associate degrees to all public institutions, without exceptions for particular university systems or institutions. At a minimum, if additional coursework is required for transfer students in certain fields to attain junior status, that information should be clearly communicated to prospective students so that they can make adjustments and plan to stay on track to complete their bachelor’s degree on time.
Recommendation 9: State higher education leaders should develop an online, intuitive, and user-friendly platform or tool that allows students to understand which two-year degree programs are transferable in the state to four-year institutions, which courses they should take at their community college to successfully earn and transfer an associate degree to a four-year university, and how particular credits will be accepted in transfer across various institutions and programs. This will increase transparency and empower prospective students to make better-informed decisions about which community college to attend, which courses to take, and which institutions to target when transferring.
Recommendation 10: Several important bills have been introduced in Congress to expand the availability of dual enrollment and make community college more affordable. While the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) should certainly expand dual enrollment opportunities and put community college within reach of every student, HEA should require improved credit transfer policies as a condition for receipt of additional federal funding.
Dual enrollment has the potential to significantly increase postsecondary enrollment and degree completion; however, its effectiveness hinges on the seamless transfer of credits earned during high school to college and university programs.
This report has highlighted four key policy approaches that state and federal policymakers should consider to strengthen credit transfer: statewide articulation agreements, statewide transferable core coursework, statewide common course numbering systems, and statewide guaranteed transfer of associate degrees. These policy mechanisms aim to streamline the credit transfer process, reduce inefficiencies, and ultimately facilitate the timely attainment of postsecondary degrees.
Several states have already implemented these policies, resulting in increased enrollment, cost savings for students and families, and improved educational outcomes. These success stories serve as examples for other states looking to enhance their dual enrollment and credit transfer policies.
Furthermore, this report provides a set of comprehensive policy recommendations for both state and federal policymakers. These recommendations emphasize the need for data-driven analysis of credit transfer inefficiencies, the development of statewide agreements and standardized course lists, and the creation of user-friendly tools to assist students in understanding credit transfer pathways. Additionally, the report suggests that federal funding for dual enrollment programs should be contingent on the implementation of effective credit transfer policies.
In an era where postsecondary education is increasingly essential for career success, it is imperative to remove obstacles hindering students from fully capitalizing on the benefits of dual enrollment. By giving credit where credit is due, policymakers can reduce time to degree completion and enhance educational access and affordability.