Transfer With Confidence: Articulation Agreements Save Time And Money

April 20, 2023

A student walks on a community college campus.

Meet McKayla. She's smart and she has a dream: a bachelor's degree in business and a boutique with her name on it. She's ambitious and dedicated, but the school of her dreams is expensive, so she makes a plan: two years at her local community college while she saves up. Then, she'll transfer.

She works. She follows the plan. She builds her credits and her college fund, and two years later, she's enrolled at her dream school with a 3.4 GPA and a bright future.

Then she gets a call from the registrar. Her math class won't transfer. And neither will her computer science class. Five minutes later, her next two years have become three and her savings are insufficient.

Dustin Grover, vice president for academics at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College, has heard this story and a hundred like it, and he has data to back them up.

"Some institutions are friendly to our curriculum," says Grover, who earned a doctorate in education from the University of Arkansas in 2021. "In-state students transfer with at least 80% of their credits, program depending."

At 15 credit hours per semester, 80% means the loss of 12 credits for two years' worth of classes — and that's a curriculum-friendly transfer.

"There are specific institutions in our state," says Grover, "our advisors don't try to sell because we know students are going to have issues."

Dustin Grover
Dustin Grover

He mentions a university where students struggle to have college algebra credits accepted.

"You'd think that's a pretty standardized course," he says, "but students can't transfer without taking an entrance exam validating their college algebra experience."

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, nearly 32% of community college students transfer to a four-year institution, but only around half finish a bachelor's. One reason for that might be their trouble transferring. A study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that students lost, on average, 13 credit hours with their first transfer. That's almost a semester's worth of courses, a full load unloaded during the move.

"[Educational] diversity in higher ed is a positive thing," Grover says. With wide and varied curricula, students can take a class about nearly anything they want. "But diversity can get in the way of transfer students achieving their goals because diversity equates to classes not always being equal."


Articulation Agreements: Agreeing to Agree

To fix this problem, curricula have to be made equal, and that's where articulation agreements come in.

What is an articulation agreement?

"Basically," Grover says, "it's a formal agreement between institutions standardizing the transfer process, so a student can go from, say, a business degree to a business degree."

Between four-year colleges and universities, articulation agreements ensure a guaranteed transfer path for particular degree programs. Instead of potential transfer students sticking to general education classes, articulation agreements mean their program-level coursework will transfer.

Between community colleges and universities, however, these agreements pave entirely new paths. Called the 2+2 model, students can start a program at a community college specializing in associate degrees but finish with a bachelor's from a university — with no horror stories along the way.

These agreements take work: Administrators must hammer symmetry out of the idiosyncrasies of different schools' programs.

Grover explains the process: "The goal is to build a relationship, one institution to another. From that, we can discuss common curriculum, whether courses and programs align, or if we can make them align. If so, we can come to an agreement and ensure our courses transfer."

Because hammering out articulation agreements is time-consuming, not every program or school has them, and because they are not universal, most students and some advisors don't know they exist.

"If you ask most students what the word 'articulation' means, they wouldn't have a clue," Grover notes. "But it's baked into our mission."

The core mission of the community college system is and always has been serving the educational needs of their communities, and part of that service is ensuring that the nearly 32% of students who go on to transfer to a four-year program do so smoothly. To help ensure leaders are prepared, the University of Arkansas offers a master's degree in community college leadership that is delivered online.

Articulation agreements can have a major impact on this mission, Grover observes, but "awareness on the student side and the advisor side is key."


Who Educates the Educators?

Grover, a product of U of A's College of Education and Health Professions, was taught the value of the community college mission.

"We're at a time when two-year colleges want in on the business of offering a bachelor's and four-year colleges want in on an associate," says Grover. "But it's all self-serving. We need to be student-serving."

Articulation agreements like the 2+2 model help to avoid mission creep by making sure students get the best of both worlds while giving both worlds a piece of the process. It's this double function that's made articulation agreements, once a hard sell, a must-have now.

"Ten years ago, there were more students," Grover recalls. "Today, higher education is struggling."

Enrollment has fallen slowly but surely since 2010.

Graduates of education programs such as the U of A's Master of Education in Community College Leadership offered online go on to take a variety of leadership roles — as deans, vice presidents, in student support services, student affairs, enrollment management — roles positioned to build articulation agreements and build awareness of their benefits among the student body.

So, what are the benefits?

Oklahoma has nothing like it: "Every institution is its own beast. They're not giving up their tuition rates. For a student to know they can go from a two-year to a four at the same rate? That's pretty slick."

Dustin Grover, Vice President for Academics, Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College


Articulation agreements save students money. Having guaranteed acceptance of credit hours prevents issues that slow or stop student progress.

What's more, the entire cost of a course of study, from community college to university, can be calculated in advance, letting students set budgets they can bank on.

Indeed, the U of A is committed to the ideal of affordable college education: in 2019, the university implemented the Arkansas Transfer Achievement Scholarship program, a program designed to ensure that transfer students can attend the U of A at the same base tuition rate as their two-year program.

U of A's tuition matching program is unique. Grover says Oklahoma has nothing like it: "Every institution is its own beast. They're not giving up their tuition rates. For a student to know they can go from a two-year to a four at the same rate? That's pretty slick."

The program is just for qualifying students — they must be from a participating college, they must enroll the semester upon completing their associate degree, and they must remain in good academic standing — but for qualifying students, this program is a lifesaver.



With affordability comes accessibility. The price of higher education can be a barrier to low-income students, first-generation students and students from underrepresented backgrounds.

"Finding ways to get students into college and be affordable enough that they can stay in college is our core mission," Grover says. Articulation agreements lock in the affordability and accessibility of starting at a community college.

The rapid growth of U of A's Arkansas Transfer Achievement Scholarship program attests to this. Compared to all transfers, the program's first year saw an increase in students of color from 30% to 33%, low-income Pell-eligible students from 17.1% to an impressive 36%, and a whopping increase in first-gen students from 44% to 61%.

Cutting costs opens doors.



It also ensures they stay open.

For McKayla, a single unanticipated course could represent a cost great enough to close the doors on her dream, but articulation agreements, Grover notes, "make the entire process as transparent as possible, giving students much more confidence."

Peace of mind is worth a lot to students like McKayla.

Articulation agreements can even accelerate the journey of college-bound high school students, dovetailing with community college dual credit programs.

"Dual credit students work through a gen ed core: composition, math, history," says Grover. With a solid path set by an articulation agreement, even high school students can be assured a safe path to a bachelor's degree.

Finally, articulation agreements ensure students stay on the path. The Arkansas Transfer Achievement Scholarship program specifically saw improved retention rates, by 2 to 4 points over other transfers, and articulation agreements see the same benefit.

"Students that understand articulation agreements aren't the students we're in fear of losing," notes Grover.

"We have at least 25 degree programs that could transfer. Developing 25 different articulation agreements with seven different institutions? That's a process."

Dustin Grover, Vice President for Academics, Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College

Cultures of Articulation

Students focus on a lecture at a community college.

So great are the benefits of articulation agreements, Grover thinks those taking roles in community college leadership should work to create "cultures of articulation."

According to 2022's Community College Survey of Student Engagement, 44% of respondents said they didn't discuss with staff the details of transferring to a four-year institution, and another 24% said staff didn't discuss which credits were transferrable.

"It takes time to build up awareness," Grover says, but it's worth it. "When a student comes into a two-year, they should know they have several options to move on to a four-year degree already laid. It should be part of the advisement process, the understanding that we can be pipelines into these other four-year institutions."

Community colleges need leaders to not just to raise awareness but also to build the agreements.

"We have at least 25 degree programs that could transfer," says Grover. "Developing 25 different articulation agreements with seven different institutions? That's a process."


Serving Local Needs

While the U of A has no active agreements with Grover's institution, Northeast Oklahoma A&M, it has dozens with local two-year institutions for programs ranging from poultry science to special education.

For example, in 2022, the University of Arkansas Community College at Rich Mountain partnered with the U of A's Sam M. Walton College of Business to offer a 2+2 agreement allowing students earning an Associate of Science in Business degree to transfer into their Bachelor of Science in Business Administration degree program.

U of A's College of Education and Health Professions has multiple agreements with local schools: The Human Resource and Workforce Development Education program delivered online has seven formal 2+2 agreements with two-year colleges across Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. From as far as Crowder College in Neosho and as near as Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville, transfer students can finish their Bachelor of Science in Education through the U of A. And since the HRWD program is also available online, this agreement is even more convenient.

Grover's institution has agreements with local universities such as Oklahoma State and Missouri State. For example, their agriculture program counts around 160 students annually, and nearly a quarter go on to four-year programs through articulation agreements, like one they have with Oklahoma State. "We're their ag program's biggest feeder."

In a given year, maybe 20 students would transfer to Oklahoma State.


Evaluating Articulation Agreements

A student works on a laptop in a community college common area.

And that's the point: stability and security. But articulation agreements aren't perfect solutions — students and advisors must plan their paths with care. Not all articulation agreements are equal. These are the questions students should be aware of when researching college paths:

Is It a Formal Agreement?

Students often confuse partnership programs with formal articulation agreements. Many institutions offer partnership programs, informal agreements between schools to recommend transfers to each other.

Such partnerships, however, are business decisions, serving the best interests of the schools rather than the students. Under partnership programs, students have no guarantee credits will transfer.

Is It Up-to-Date?

Curricula change. Programs evolve.

"It's arduous," Grover says, "keeping articulation agreements up-to-date as professions grow and course requirements change. An older agreement might be out of date."

To avoid credit attrition, Grover recommends students and advisors make sure the agreement has accounted for program changes.

What Are the Numbers?

Grover recommends checking the number of students actually transferring colleges.

"Traffic will demonstrate which path is the cleanest." If a path gets only two or three students a year, Grover says students should "look closely at whether they can really cash in all of their credits."

Beyond that, students should see if their agreement has guaranteed admission upon completing their associate degree, since some agreements specify admissions standards beyond the degree. Students should also check the credit transfer policy: Some agreements cap the number of transferable credits while others allow general education requirements to be waived with completion of an associate degree.

Of course, articulation agreements can be undermined in other ways.

"We've all seen data on how often students change their major," Grover says. The National Center for Education Statistics puts the number at around 30% in the first three years. "That can push an articulation agreement right off the rails."

Ultimately, articulation agreements work by keeping choices simple.

"In the United States, we embrace choice," Grover says. "Seventy-two candy bars at a convenience store is nice, but with an expensive product like higher ed, it can be pretty inconvenient."


Pathways to Success

McKayla's path through higher education was rocky, but, for some, articulation agreements can smooth the way.

Grover recalls one such student.

"She didn't fit the profile of a traditional ag student," he says. "When she came to us, she didn't know what she wanted to do. Then her advisor let her know about our ag partnership with Oklahoma State University. She jumped at the chance."

Taking full advantage of the pathway, she found herself in Alaska a few semesters later, doing research on a USDA grant. Now, Grover says, she's at Oklahoma State studying animal science, with not so much as a bump in her transfer process.

Her success, Grover says, is a testament to what articulation agreements can achieve.

"She'll tout her experience at NEO and Oklahoma State for years," he says, "because she got to experience a journey she never would have otherwise."

Journeys need knowledgeable guides. If you work in the community college system and want to be the one pioneering paths between two- and four-year degrees, helping students reach educational goals they never thought possible, visit U of A Master of Education in Community College Leadership program page.

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Master of Education in Community College Leadership

The demand for community college leaders is rising. You can prepare for these administrative roles through this unique online master’s degree program, the first in the region to focus on the development and enhancement of community college leaders.

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