Transfer-of-credit policies were the subject of much debate during the most recent reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (“HEA”). Postsecondary institutions that are accredited by national accreditors complained that institutions that are accredited by regional accreditors unfairly deny students’ requests to transfer credit solely because the credit was earned at an institution that is not regionally accredited.
Regional accreditors accredit institutions that are located in the states within their exclusive regions. National accreditors accredit institutions throughout the United States and tend to focus on particular types of institutions, such as those that offer primarily career-oriented or distance education programs. Non-profit and public institutions typically are regionally accredited. Many for-profit and faith-based institutions are nationally accredited.
At times during the reauthorization process, proposed legislation included language that would have prohibited institutions to refuse to consider transfer requests based solely on the accredited status of an institution as long as the accreditor was recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education. Ultimately, such language was not included in the Higher Education Opportunity Act (“HEOA”), signed into law by former President Bush on August 14, 2008. However, through HEOA, the U.S. Congress did address transfer-of-credit policies for the first time.
HEOA requires transparency with respect to transfer-of-credit policies but does not go so far as to regulate the substance of those policies. The law now requires institutions that participate in any federal student financial aid programs to publish their transfer-of-credit policies “in a readable and comprehensible manner.” The disclosure must include any criteria that the institution uses for transfer of credit earned at another institution. An institution also must disclose a list of institutions with which it has agreements regarding the acceptability of transferred courses toward meeting specific degree or program requirements.
The law does not require institutions to have particular policies or to use particular criteria in making transfer-of-credit decisions. In fact, the law forbids the U.S. Department of Education (“Department”) to mandate particular policies, procedures or practices with respect to transfer of credit. Further, HEOA emphasizes that its transfer-of-credit requirements create no legally enforceable right for a student to require an institution to accept a transfer of credit from another institution.
Role of Accreditors
Congress determined to require accreditors to monitor institutional compliance with HEOA’s transfer-of-credit requirements. Specifically, an accreditor must confirm that the institutions that it accredits have publicly disclosed transfer-of-credit policies and that the policies include criteria regarding transfer of credit earned at another institution.
On August 6, the Department proposed regulations to implement HEOA’s accreditation-related provisions, including those related to accreditor review of institutional compliance with transfer-of-credit requirements. During the negotiated rulemaking that developed the proposed regulations, some non-federal negotiators expressed concern about the meaning of “publicly disclosed.” To address such concern, the Department included in its proposed regulations a reference to the as-yet-unproposed regulation that will address institutional requirements related to transfer of credit.
The Department’s position seems to be that the “readable and comprehensible” requirement will serve the purpose of ensuring that transfer of credit policies will be readily available to students. Transfer-of-credit policies also will be available through the Department, which must post online a link to an institution’s website that provides transfer-of-credit policies.
As mentioned above, the Department has proposed regulations to implement the accreditor provisions related to transfer of credit, but it has not yet proposed regulations to implement the institutional requirements related to transfer of credit. Regardless, HEOA’s transfer-of-credit requirements were effective August 14, 2008. In addition, given statutory constraints on the Department’s ability to expand upon HEOA’s transfer-of-credit requirements, it seems unlikely that the Department’s regulations to implement institutional transfer-of-credit requirements will do more than reiterate the statutory language in the regulation. Institutions should ensure that they are complying with HEOA requirements related to transfer of credit, and they can expect accreditors to be assessing such compliance as part of current and upcoming accreditation reviews.