Untangling Transfer: Regulatory Reform in Maryland

As in many other states, Maryland’s historic statewide transfer regulations have reflected the confusion that is often engendered by transfer: disorganized, often unclear and lacking concrete processes. Recent legislation in Maryland has given the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC), the state responsible agency for coordinating between institutions of higher education, an opportunity to create broad reform of transfer procedures and standards. Unsurprisingly, the goals of this reform have been to reduce confusion and increase transparency for students and institutions, foster collaboration among all two-year and four-year institutions, and reduce costs and time to degree for transfer students.

At the heart of these goals is a paradigm shift: distinguishing between the terms “course” and “credit” as they relate to transfer. These terms are often used interchangeably, putting the focus on the number of total credits a student needs to complete a degree. However, we believe that student transfer is better predicated on the successful completion of specific coursework and the assessment of student learning objectives and outcomes, rather than simply the transfer of credits. This distinction allows us to separate two different but related processes: (a) the evaluation of the transferability of a course and (b) the application of credit for that course at the receiving institution. The first step is evaluating if a course is transferable. General education courses must transfer, no questions asked. Articulation agreements and institutional policies on prior learning can allow for the transferability of courses.

However, what is new is a statewide standard for course equivalencies, proposed by a work group of higher education stakeholders: if at least 70 percent of the learning objectives of the two courses are the same, the course is transferable. Specific learning objectives must be evaluated by academic staff who are subject matter experts rather than administrative staff, and institutions may not use any other measures—for example, whether the courses use the same textbook or were delivered online—to evaluate equivalencies and transferability. The process requires that this evaluation of transferability of completed courses must occur before an institution awards credit for the transferable course, allowing maximization of the number of courses and credits that will transfer.

The second, perhaps more challenging step, is how that transferred course will be applied to a specific academic program and graduation requirements. A decision regarding transferability is binding; However, the applicability of the course may shift as a student may change majors. We hope that teasing these two processes apart will provide consistent and clear statewide standards regarding the evaluation and awarding of previously earned credit.

Students will receive a detailed report regarding the denial of courses for transferability. With no action on the part of the student, the sending institution will be informed of the denial with an opportunity to evaluate the denial and provide written commentary to the receiving institution. This mandates a new feedback loop to the sending institutions about the potential misalignment of courses between institutions in the context of transfer.

Finally, Maryland is also fostering the development of articulation agreements. Articulation agreements between public four-year institutions and community colleges will be required to be developed as part of our statewide academic program review process. An institution that wants to opt out of this process must provide justification for doing so. All articulation, as well as other transfer policies agreements, must be written in clear, understandable language and made publicly available.

This is only the beginning of transfer reform in Maryland. While formal enactment of the regulations is pending, detailed guidance and sample templates are being drafted to ensure that these measures are uniformly interpreted. In particular, a new statutory requirement for institutions to provide data to MHEC regarding transfer denials will provide crucial information in understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the new schema. Enforcement mechanisms can be put into place after gathering this data, and other areas of transfer can be evaluated, such as the age of credit.

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