Victoria Tintori had three criteria in mind when applying to four-year universities: cost, distance from her family, and — most importantly — whether or not the school would take the 65 college credits she’d already accrued at Austin Community College.
When it came time to transfer, the 21-year-old psychology major from Dallas was deciding between Texas State University and St. Edward's University. Her decision was made after St. Edward's didn’t accept the two years of American Sign Language she’d taken as part of her foreign language credit.
"It's two years' worth of work,” Tintori said. “Which I guess isn't a big deal for them, but it's a big deal for me.”
Tintori is part of a growing number of students turning to community colleges for the first two years of their education, as four-year degrees in Texas become increasingly costly. But many of these students face an additional hurdle come transfer time: classes they’ve taken often don’t end up counting toward their degree.
"[Students are] frustrated. A lot of times they feel confused, but they kind of put it on themselves. Like, 'Oh I could have done more.' But they're doing so much," said Lauren Schudde, a professor at the University of Texas Austin whose research focuses on transfer students.
The problem has vexed lawmakers for several legislative sessions. In 2017, Sen. Jane Nelson, a Republican from Flower Mound, said she and other legislators were “growing impatient” with schools’ inability to solve the problem. That year, students, parents, and the state spent a combined $60 million on course credits that wouldn’t transfer, according to data from the Texas Coordinating Board for Higher Education.
Senate Bill 25, which easily passed both chambers in the Legislature and took effect June 14 after Gov. Abbott signed it into law, aims to help students like Tintori avoid losing credits as they move through the higher education system. Lawmakers hope that by making information about courses more accessible and transparent, students can avoid paying for classes that don't help them earn a degree.
“Can you imagine how a student who has scraped together pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, in order to pay for tuition and fees … [to] then find out that when they go to university they have to take the same course over again [must feel]?” said Sen. Royce West, a Democrat from Dallas who authored the bill.
The bill requires universities to develop recommended course sequences for all of their majors, laying out which classes students should take and giving them a timeline for completing them. It also requires universities to report any non-transferrable credits to both the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the Legislature no later than March 1 of each year.
“[It creates] clearer ways in which our students can look across institutions,” said Melissa Henderson, deputy director of policy at Educate Texas, a Dallas non-profit that works to improve higher education.
Lawmakers and experts attribute the confusion to the state’s complex higher education landscape. Texas has 148 public and private higher education institutions, including 50 community college districts and 75 universities. All are required to follow the core curriculum, which lays out the first 42 semester credit hours that all undergraduate students have to take. But the problem is that not everyone’s first 42 hours should look the same.
“This notion that the basics are universal are not in fact true,” Henderson said. “The math a liberal arts major is required to take, even within the core, is not the same math an engineering major is required to take.”
The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which collects data and oversees all higher education institutions in the state, uses “fields of study” to produce lists of courses that students should take toward degrees in fields like business, engineering and computer science.
But many say students don’t use fields of study to help them navigate selecting courses — Henderson said only 41% of Texas transfer students actually complete all of the core curriculum before they transfer.
“It’s not a tool that a lot of students are utilizing,” Henderson said.
Universities have also tried implementing a similar concept called “meta major” that has the same goal: to act as guardrails to prevent students from getting too far off track.
Ultimately, legislators tabled the discussion about the core curriculum, opting instead for a five-person commission to conduct a study on the matter. The commission will be made up of representatives from colleges and universities whose student population includes at least 25% transfer students.
Dustin Meador, director of government relations at the Texas Association of Community Colleges, said the 140-day session wasn’t enough time to hash out differences.
"I don't think anybody — university or junior college — would say that the core is working the way it was intended, or that it's a perfect system," Meador said. "It wasn’t ready for prime time."
Schudde, the UT researcher, has been following a group of 100 transfer-intending community college students for the past four years as they move through the higher education system. She isn’t convinced that the bill is as strong as supporters are purporting it to be.
"A lot of the work is really on the institutions right now to start actually reporting about the credits that aren't transferring [and also] reporting and posting the recommended course sequences,” Shudde said. “And all of that is important. But there’s nothing in it that screams to me that it’s going to trickle down to students.
"The whole point of this is so the students can get what they need out of college,” Schudde added. "That work is just necessary. We have to get there at some point."
Marissa Peña transferred from Austin Community College to UT-Austin before returning to ACC and eventually transferring again to St. Edward’s University.
Peña took college algebra at ACC and struggled before her advisors helped her switch to an intermediate algebra class. It wasn’t until it came time to transfer that Peña realized she didn’t have to take either class — as an English major, she could have fulfilled her math credit with a college mathematics class designed for non-mathematics and non-science majors.
“You kind of have to figure it out on your own, when you’re not trained for that,” Peña said.
For her, it wasn’t just about the credit hours, but the hours she’d spent studying, too.
“That was a lot of money, out of my pocket and my parents pocket,” Peña said. “And a lot of time wasted.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin, the Texas Association of Community Colleges, Educate Texas, the Texas State University System, St. Edward's University and the Austin Community College District have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.