By Christine Arnold

Picture1Have you ever played a game of Snakes and Ladders with friends or family? At the end of the game, were you frustrated by the sheer amount of time you were forced to spend playing to arrive at an outcome? Humour me for a minute and picture yourself as a pawn in a game of admission and credit transfer Snakes and Ladders where the goal at the top of the board is recognition for your previously completed postsecondary education.

First roll, you reach a ladder. College-to-university transfer has been occurring on an ad hoc basis since the 1960s primarily via articulation agreements (pre-determined comparable coursework and academic requirements that can be met at one institution and transferred to another).

Building on this foundation, in 2011, the Honourable John Milloy announced a plan to construct and operate a functional new centralized credit transfer system and, with that announcement, the Ontario Council on Articulation and Transfer (ONCAT) was created (formerly the College-University Consortium Council [CUCC]). Since this time, the Ontario Postsecondary Transfer Guide (OPTG) was redesigned and a course-to-course initiative was launched. The portal now provides comparable program and course transfer information.

Second roll, you land on a dreaded snake. You spend all afternoon investigating each university’s credit transfer policy. The policies and academic regulations that govern credit transfer vary across institutions. While procedures across the college sector are fairly consistent with regard to major academic regulations, the autonomy of the university sector has resulted in substantial variation in grading scales, GPA calculations, credit values/weight, credit assessment fees and timing, course repeats, and declarations of previous postsecondary education.

While we could continue with our play-by-play action, I will instead provide you with a synopsis of the remaining snakes one may encounter. Setbacks in Ontario’s credit transfer information system stem from institutional variations and system design. They include: assessment of college bachelor degrees for credit, unspecified credit applications, reach backs, advising practices, credit transfer nomenclature, information location/relevance, program affinity, and degree vs. program requirements.

The Credit Transfer Information System

The analogy of admission and credit transfer as a game of Snakes and Ladders is one I have applied since I began studying student mobility over a decade ago. The challenges encountered while playing this game in the province of Ontario have changed over time from structural to informational. While the foundational structure of the Ontario credit transfer system (partnerships, models, and innovative programming) has received primary attention from the Government of Ontario, agencies, and institutional administrators, development of the transfer information system has been limited.

Current research from Colleges Ontario states that 30% of college students lack access to basic credit transfer information and 26% lack more detailed information (loan effects, transfer credit assessment, and application fees). A comprehensive credit transfer information system where all stakeholders understand the fundamental processes and outcomes would reduce this amount of omitted and/or inaccurate information.

My recent multi-institutional doctoral research examines the extent to which the Ontario college-to-university transfer information system is performing efficiently. It reveals several areas where information symmetries and asymmetries exist between the Government of Ontario, agencies, institutional administrators, and students. In particular, the research identifies both symmetries, areas where shared information exists, and asymmetries, areas where some stakeholder(s) would directly benefit from additional information from other(s) that is not being disseminated adequately.

In addition, the research suggests that improving accessibility and reliability of information is not in itself sufficient to resolve problems that may exist in the transfer system. It is also essential that the time students spend gathering and processing information is not prohibitively costly. Governments and institutional administrators can more efficiently package information to enhance the credit transfer process. Investments to reduce 100 board game squares into only 10 squares would make the credit transfer process more transparent, simple, and efficient.

For example, my research found that students often lack information about GPA calculations/conversions and how courses/units are weighted when transferring from college to university. In Ontario, a number of colleges use letter/alpha grading scales and there are seven different numerical grading scales used across universities (4.0, 4.3, 9.0, 10.0, 12.0, 13.0, and 100%). This issue affects students as they attempt to determine the grades they require for both admission and transfer credit eligibility. Even if students have all of the scales, conversions, weights, and prerequisite requirements available to them, the time needed to comprehend and apply the information is overwhelming.

A province-level solution to this problem introduced by Alberta’s Universities Coordinating Council, following an initiative by the Alberta Council on Admissions and Transfer (ACAT), was to prompt all universities and university colleges to adopt a universal 4.0 grade point scale. The purpose of this initiative was to identify an academically sound grading scale to meet students’ needs and facilitate simplified transfer within the province.

To overcome cognitive limitations associated with collecting and processing complex information, behavioural economists often advocate the use of programs that educate, simplify choice, and direct individuals in desirable directions via defaults, framing, and nudging.

The Art of Simplification and Nudging

While there are several recommendations resulting from this research, I describe three optimal strategies for improving the credit transfer information system. These strategies weigh the costs of supplying students with the information they require to make informed credit transfer decisions and the cognitive limitations associated with processing information. Constructing information-based ladders and reducing squares in a rather nuanced board game will require the following: 

  1. Establish more transparent and system-wide nomenclature and academic regulations across institutions to assist both institutional administrators and students.

Heterogeneity in nomenclature and academic regulations across institutions (deadlines, fees, tuition rebates, advising, and assessment methods) often results in disconnected advising practices. The development of a ‘Tips for Articulating’ guide produced in consultation with institutions would take strides towards the harmonization of credit transfer exchanges. Simplification and the reduction of unnecessary variations are essential.

For example, my research found that students require clarification with regard to the concept of advanced standing and the accompanying conditions. Generally, ‘advanced standing’ refers to students admitted to a second or higher term or year of a program as a result of transfer credits granted for courses completed at another institution. However, this definition diverges across institutions; there are examples in Ontario where advanced standing refers to any awarded transfer credit. Despite these variations, students were required on the Ontario Universities’ Application Centre (OUAC) 105 application (university applicants not currently attending an Ontario high school) to select their year code (first year or advanced standing). Administrators received numerous questions from students regarding the various meanings of the term and which option to select on the application in order to be considered favourably at their institution.

Recognizing the variations within the system, a working group was convened in 2013 to review the nomenclature utilized on the OUAC 105 application. Students are now asked to select either ‘first year’ or ‘upper year’ to avoid confusion.

  1. Implement default credit assessments at all institutions for coursework where precedent cases have occurred.

The implementation of default credit assessments or coursework where established precedents exist is essential. Assessments that are completed automatically for the student upon admission via transcript review increases students’ capacity to focus on: the type of credit(s) awarded; application of awarded transfer credits to degree and program requirements; and submissions for more specialized credits. Instead of supplanting transfer literacy, this default option allows students to focus on remaining transfer tasks. 

  1. Flag credit transfer students upon application and automatically provide them with the materials and language to seek credit options.

This is advantageous because it alerts students of their ‘transfer status’ and frames their rights and responsibilities to have previous education assessed for recognition. Sending information packages automatically, rather than requiring students to request or locate information themselves, reduces the likelihood that students may not find the information they require. This is a simple nudge that would direct students to pay attention to credit assessment and what it may hold for them. Additionally, this policy would provide them with more time to gather supplementary documentation for credit applications.

Overall, my research shows the need for more but simplified information about credit transfer for stakeholders, as well as using defaults and other nudges to help smooth this process. When it comes to credit transfer, governments and institutional administrators need to put in place decision shortcuts. Altering the structure and rules of the game to be more student-centric in nature is beneficial.