Columbia -- More than 175 college administrators gathered here today to address "student swirl."

Student swirl isn't a new ice cream flavor - it's the term used to describe today's more mobile college population.

"Education isn't linear anymore," says Melissa Hattman, director of transfer students at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL). "Students may be enrolled concurrently in two institutions, or they may switch from one school to another and then back again. This is the 'swirl' we refer to."

Hattman says around 80 percent of the UMSL student body are transfer students. "A lot of students take advantage of the affordability of a community college and then move on to a four-year institution. For others, it's just a reflection of our more mobile society." Statewide, there are more than 24,000 transfer students.

Most of the students who end up in Hattman's office have one of two questions. "They ask, 'Will my credits transfer?' and 'What credits will apply to my degree?'" In the past, the answers were often "No" and "None."

In 1987, the Missouri Department of Higher Education (MDHE) formed the Committee on Transfer and Articulation (COTA) to standardize transfer guidelines and make degree requirements more consistent among institutions.

The effort has not always gone smoothly. "There was a lot of turfism and what I called 'sector discrimination' involved in transfer issues in the past," says Commissioner of Higher Education Robert B. Stein. "For example, a four-year institution might have accepted credits from another four-year school but not a community college, even though the courses were the same. The emphasis should be on treating everyone equitably and ensuring students aren't adversely affected."

Students who believe they haven't been treated equitably have access to a statewide appeals process. "If a student has a bad experience trying to transfer to another institution, the MDHE wants to hear about it," Stein says.

Transfer agreements among institutions make everyone a winner, according to Hattman. "We dealt with a lot of miscommunication in the past. Now our performance data show that transfer students are as or more successful at persisting through college and attaining a degree as non-transfer students."

There are still wrinkles, she admits, such as policies that sound good on paper but are unworkable in the real world. Practitioners such as Hattman form an advisory council to COTA to ensure that doesn't happen.

"We're making a genuine effort to make transfer seamless," Hattman says. "We consider this an investment in our students."