Subvert U.

Many U.S. states are facing declining secondary school enrollment or are projecting shortfalls in the number of residents holding postsecondary credentials compared to future employer needs and workforce demands. These forecasted challenges are magnified as an increasing share of careers require postsecondary credentials or degrees (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2013). Many states and organizations have established goals to mitigate these looming issues. The Lumina Foundation (2018) reports that more than forty-one states have established future postsecondary attainment goals. And since 1979, more than thirty states have also implemented some type of performance-based funding for public higher education that that is intended to increase degree attainment among other objectives (Umbricht, Fernandez & Ortagus, 2017). These concepts and policies have migrated across state lines and across the country, but have demonstrated limited impact on changing attainment outcomes (Gandara, Rippner & Ness, 2017; Rippner, 2016).

Reverse transfer is one strategy in which states and nonprofit organizations have invested to address the educational attainment potential of the approximately twenty percent of U.S. adults aged twenty-five or older who have earned some college credit, but not earned a degree or credential (United States Census, 2016). Reverse transfer allows individuals who have enrolled at a four-year institution and have previously completed college coursework or complete credit at the four-year institution to transfer the credit to a two-year college in order to be awarded an associate degree while continuing to pursue a baccalaureate degree. The awarding of these degrees is considered a momentum point which can help to retain students and motivate them toward continuing their enrollment toward a baccalaureate degree. The process also allows the individual to immediately benefit from the additional earning potential of a postsecondary credential. This advantage can be particularly beneficial in retaining students who may work part-time or full-time while enrolled. Likewise, this strategy has been a key approach in addressing inequities in employment opportunities for historically underserved communities as these groups have disproportionately lower educational attainment levels than their peers (Engle & Tinto, 2008).

Despite the promise of reverse transfer to address educational, economic, and social attainment gaps, states and institutions have found implementing these efforts challenging (Taylor et al., 2017). In states in which performance-based funding has been implemented, community colleges and universities may find themselves contending for allocation of the same resources which has created a more competitive educational environment. In other contexts, student interest in reverse transfer has been difficult to generate, with students expressing suspicion or skepticism of community colleges conferring a degree the student did not previously declare. Some states have found that, once conferred an associate’s degree, students left the four-year institution to go directly into the workforce. Further, multiple institutions have struggled to overcome concerns regarding the sharing of student data and data privacy (Taylor et al., 2017).

Institutions themselves have also sought ways to use these new structures to their advantage, particularly in states with performance-based funding models. Institutions have found ways to benefit from double-counting or triple-counting students based on the conferral of simultaneous credentials and degrees to student, resulting in augmented funding. This approach allows institutions to maximize funding awarded for a single student, but does nothing to change overall attainment outcomes.

While efforts to increase educational attainment may be in the best interest of individuals, institutions and states, policies enacted without effective input and consultation have created a number of unintended consequences across the nation (Umbricht, Fernandez & Ortagus, 2017). Whether subversion is intentional, in order to maximize benefit to an institution as can occur in performance-based funding environments or accidental, these outcomes demonstrate the impact of “street level bureaucrats” and others undermining the intention of policies and practices (Lipsky, 2010). Ultimately, more inclusive and comprehensive engagement at the onset of educational policy-making could lead to better outcomes and attainment for all.


Carnevale, A. P., Smith, N., & Strohl, J. (2013). Recovery: Job growth and education requirements through 2020. Washington, DC: Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Retrieved from

Engle, J., & Tinto, V. (2008). Moving beyond access: College success for low-income, first-generation students. Washington, DC: The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. Retrieved from

Gandara, D., Rippner, J., & Ness, E. (2017). Exploring the ‘How’ in Policy Diffusion: National Intermediary Organizations’ Roles in Facilitating the Spread of Performance-Based Funding Policies in the States. The Journal of Higher Education, 88(5), 701-725.

Lipsky, M. (2010). Street-Level bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the individual in public services.  Russel Sage, New York.

Rippner, J. A. (2016).  The American policy landscape.  New York: Routledge.

Taylor, J., Kauppila, S. A., Cortez-Lopez, E., Soler, M. C., Bishop, C., Meza, E., McCambly, H., & Bragg, D. D. (2017, May). The implementation and outcomes of Credit When It’s Due (CWID) in 15 states. Seattle, WA: Community College Research Initiatives, University of Washington. Retrieved from

Umbricht, M., Fernandez, F., & Ortagus, J. (2017). An Examination of the (Un)Intended Consequences of Performance Funding in Higher Education. Educational Policy, 31(5), 643-673.

United States Census. (2016). American Community Survey. Retrieved from

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