New Research on Reverse Credit Transfer and the Value of an Associate’s Degree

by Jason L. Taylor / Feb 13, 2019

Reverse credit transfer (also known as reverse transfer) policies and programs are proliferating nationwide. Reverse credit transfer (RCT) refers to “the transfer of credit from a 4-year to a 2-year institution for the purpose of conferring transfer students an associate’s degree” (Taylor, 2016, p. 2-3).

RCT programs and policies expanded and flourished beginning in late 2012 as a result of the Credit When It’s Due (CWID) initiative, a multiyear national effort to support the development of reverse credit transfer policies and programs. Since its launch, my colleague Debra Bragg and I have led the CWID research agenda, and we have written extensively on the initiative.

In late 2018 and early 2019, my collaborators and I published two new studies based on CWID data that address a research question of interest since the start of the CWID initiative: How does receiving an associate’s degree after transferring influence students? The first study, published in The Review of Higher Education, is a quantitative examination that used data from two states—Hawaii and Minnesota—to predict how receiving an associate’s degree via RCT influences students’ completion of and retention toward a bachelor’s degree.

The second study, published by the Community College Journal of Research and Practice, is a qualitative analysis that examines how students understand and value an associate’s degree in the context of reverse credit transfer. Collectively, these studies tell an important story about RCT policies and programs and how they influence students or how they could potentially affect students. This piece reviews both studies and shares the implications of the results for policy and practice.

Study One: Modeling the Effect of the Reverse Credit Transfer Associate’s Degree: Evidence from Two States by Jason L. Taylor and Matt S. Giani

In this study, we used logistic regression to examine how receiving an associate’s degree via RCT predicts whether students are retained at the university and/or if they completed a bachelor’s degree. We analyzed data from two states—Hawaii and Minnesota—because they were early implementers of RCT, and we tracked student outcomes two years after implementation.

What did we find? We compared RCT recipients of associate’s degrees to several different groups of transfer students. Across both states and most groups, we found that RCT recipients were among the transfer students who had the highest completion rates of bachelor’s degrees. After controlling for other factors that might influence the completion of four-year degrees, we found that RCT positively predicted students’ progress toward a bachelor’s degree in many models. In some regression models, we also found no difference in student outcomes.

What do the results mean? The results should be interpreted with caution because we believe more time is needed to observe student outcomes and that we cannot make causal claims based on these data. That said, we think the results show that RCT is likely to help transfer students make progress toward their bachelor’s degree. That is, receiving an associate’s degree can assist transfer students with completing their bachelor’s degree. During CWID, we frequently heard skepticism from individuals at four-year institutions who were concerned that RCT mostly benefited community colleges and could potentially divert transfer students from their goal of attaining a bachelor’s degree. The evidence from this study should alleviate those concerns.

Study Two: The Value of the Associate’s Degree: Multiple and Contradictory Meanings by Edén Cortes-Lopez and Jason L. Taylor

This study draws from multiple focus groups with transfer students in several states who were part of the CWID initiative. We talked to students because we wanted to understand how those who transferred without an associate’s degree valued such an education, and what receiving a post-transfer associate’s degree would mean to them.

What did we find? Transfer students understood the value of an associate’s degree in varied ways, and they articulated four reasons why such an education was valuable: 1) students felt the degree encouraged them to make progress toward a bachelor’s degree; 2) students felt a sense of pride and personal accomplishment from attaining an associate’s degree after transferring; 3) students thought an associate’s degree via RCT was a solid backup or insurance plan in case they didn’t complete their bachelor’s degree; and 4) students felt an associate’s degree was beneficial to their employment.

Despite these benefits, transfer students talked about the limitations of an associate’s degree. For example, some of them labeled the general or transfer associate’s degree as “fru fru” since it was not relevant to their discipline or occupation, while other students suggested that the RCT degree could have a diversionary effect and prompt them to stop-out of a bachelor’s degree program. Finally, we found that transfer students contradicted themselves as they talked about associate’s degrees and were still working through the meaning of it.

What do the results mean? We used self-efficacy theory and human capital theory to interpret the results of this study. The qualitative results help explain what we learned from the quantitative analysis: why RCT might assist students’ progress toward a bachelor’s degree. The qualitative results suggest that receiving a post-transfer associate’s degree can boost students’ self-efficacy and their self-confidence. And for some students, the economic value of an associate’s degree seems to motivate them to further their education.

That said, students clearly wrestled with the limitations of an associate’s degree, and the quantitative results in the first study suggest that about 10% of students who receive an associate’s degree via RCT did not continue their pathway of a bachelor’s degree. The qualitative results from the second study offer potential explanations as to why some students may not benefit from RCT.

Collectively, these two studies suggest that RCT seems to be helping most students, which would indicate that institutional leaders, state leaders, and policymakers should continue to advance and promote RCT. That is, RCT can be a viable strategy to help transfer students complete an associate’s degree and progress toward a bachelor’s degree. However, the qualitative research suggests that transfer students have different understandings of an associate’s degree, and some of them may not be interested in pursuing it via RCT.

Overall, the results show that as RCT expands, both community colleges and 4-year institutions need to better convey the meaning and value of an associate’s degree, both pretransfer and post-transfer. And, as the qualitative research suggests, transfer students should have the choice to participate in RCT since some might not want to pursue an associate’s degree.   

RCT policies are more likely than not to increase transfer students' chances of completing a bachelor's degree."

RCT policies and programs can be controversial because many community colleges and the leaders within them often believe it is in students’ best interests to stay at the community college to complete their associate’s degree prior to transfer (due to low costs, preparation for transfer, completion agenda, etc.). However, research shows that, currently, only 20 to 30% of transfer students complete their associate’s degree prior to transfer. These two studies illustrate that RCT policies not only offer an option for more community college transfer students to receive an associate’s degree they earned, but that RCT policies are more likely than not to increase transfer students’ chances of completing a bachelor’s degree.

View Dr. Taylor's bio.