U.S. senators want to expand an innovative college policy, but is it necessary?

There is a forgotten group of college students. These are the students who start out at a community college, leave it to earn a bachelor’s degree, but drop out along the way. Without either an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree, these students end up empty-handed, with no credential to show for their time in college.

In the past decade or so, colleges have begun a practice to change that; they call it reverse transfer: Two- and four-year colleges collaborate to award associate’s degrees to former community college students who have accumulated sufficient credit to earn them.

Reverse transfer got a big boost in 2012, when 13 states received nearly $6.4 million in grants for a two-year pilot program called “Credit When It’s Due.”

The grants were pooled by the Lumina Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the Helios Education Foundation, USA Funds, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. USA Funds gave North Carolina’s portion of the grant, $450,000.

Piggybacking off of the newfound popularity of this idea, Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina has now sponsored a bill introducing federal incentives for states that adopt it.

The North Carolina pilot program is well underway. The Lumina Foundation expects the North Carolina program to create 2,094 new associate’s degree recipients. Currently, only 15 of the state’s 58 community colleges, and eight of the 16 UNC schools, are participating. Eventually, the plan is for all institutions to participate, at which point the number of new degrees is projected to reach 4,400.

Scott Ralls, president of the community college state board, and Kate Henz, the UNC General Administration’s associate vice president of academic policy, planning, and analysis, are optimistic about it without reservation. Henz told the Pope Center that over 3,000 student records were sent for evaluations to determine whether they qualify for associate’s degrees, although she could not predict how many would receive them. North Carolina’s participating colleges will know the numbers next month.

“We’re setting up a process for the long-term,” she said. That is, while it is a pilot program, the expectation is that reverse transfer is here to stay in the state. UNC’s General Administration has hired a director of reverse transfer, Michelle Blackwell.

Reverse transfer is an understandable outgrowth of the mounting concern about low graduation rates. Studies have shown that nationally, about 56 percent of students receive bachelor’s degrees in six years; the three-year rate for a community college degree is 29 percent.

In a 2011 op-ed for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Donna Ekal and Paula M. Krebs wrote that in pioneering reverse transfer, the University of Texas at El Paso and El Paso Community College were concerned about what they perceived as flaws in federal reporting of graduation statistics. The authors wrote of the new program:

Up go the graduation rates at the community college, up goes the self-esteem of the newly credentialed student, and up goes the retention rate at the university: It’s the ultimate win-win situation.

Like most policies that relate to spurring graduation numbers, though, it is not without its tension. In Indiana, the reverse articulation agreement between Indiana University and Ivy Tech Community College reached a stumbling block over concerns that Ivy Tech would receive credit for graduating students who completed most of their degree at Indiana University.

Henz does not consider this a problem in North Carolina: “We don’t have that tension, if you’d like to call it that.”

She said that to qualify for an associate’s degree through this process, a student must have completed at least 25 percent of his or her coursework at the community college. A key aspect of the program is making students aware when they qualify—many students are not aware reverse transfer is an option.

Senator Hagan’s bill, co-sponsored by fellow Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa, aims to expand the practice of reverse transfer. Titled the CREATE Graduates Act (the acronym is short for “Correctly Recognizing Educational Achievements to Empower”), it provides federal grants to “identify and reach out to students” that have earned a combination of community college and university credits. If the bill is approved, it will become part of the Higher Education Act when that law is renewed.

The reverse transfer parade is already well on its way at the state level, and Hagan has not made it clear why she sees the need to jump in front of it. She is, of course, undergoing a hotly contested race against Republican Thom Tillis, the North Carolina house speaker. Even if the problem is already being handled by the states, this bill is a risk-free way for a politician to show she cares about higher education. She also may have a sincere desire to attach her name to a policy she likes, and simply has not considered the boundaries of political authority when it comes to this issue.

Philosophically, Hagan indeed takes it for granted that this problem necessitates federal legislation. In a pitch for the bill, the section titled “Build on Existing Successes” names 15 states that have reverse transfer programs, but does not explain how the bill will improve the situation. Nor does Hagan argue that any state has insufficient capacity to improve the situation on its own. She simply calls attention to the problem, and deems the wisdom of her solution to be self-evident.

If anything, however, federal intervention is to blame for the problem in the first place. Easy college loans have led to a crowded field of graduates in the workforce. Because of this, everyone is expected to have some kind of degree, even for jobs that previously required only a high school diploma.

The success of reverse transfer policy, such as it might be, is an innovation of individual colleges and backed with the commitment of private foundations. A federal grant sounds like a benevolent enough idea, but even those who support expanded use of reverse transfer should be cautious about another national encroachment upon state education policy. All federal proposals to spend taxpayer money for higher education deserve skepticism, especially those that lack justification.