Monday, October 17, 2005

Double Dipping

Having managed on both sides of the non-profit/for-profit divide, I’m not especially spooked by the spectre of efficiency. If anything, I take comfort knowing that many of the for-profit ‘innovations’ that have sparked greater ‘efficiency’ in higher ed are as banal and fruitless as they are – adjunct/outsourcing, reducing travel funding, etc.

That said, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with efficiency, per se. In fact, as public funding gets progressively scarcer, we’ll need to get more efficient if we want to continue to do our best work.

I didn’t fully appreciate just how far we are from even reasonable efficiency until my recent trip to a prominent four-year school, to try to negotiate an articulation agreement. (An articulation agreement is a contract between two schools in which they agree that a student who transfers from the first school to the second, with a given major, will have x number of credits recognized. As a cc that sends a great many students on to four-year schools, these are big deals for us.) Students who graduate from our college with an associate’s degree (the equivalent of two years of full-time study) expect, reasonably, to be able to get a bachelor’s degree in two more years. There are exceptions, such as when students switch majors or go part-time, but a full-time student who sticks with a program, the theory goes, shouldn’t take any longer to get a four-year degree than a similar student who started at a four-year school.

Or so you’d think.

At the meeting with some high-level administrators of a nearby (public) four-year college, I was told, to my face, that students would lose a full year’s worth of credits. Possibly more, depending on some pretty bizarre variables.

Leave aside personal or professional pride, educational ethics, or what’s best for the student; from a taxpayer’s perspective, this is flat-out theft. The four-year school wants to re-teach a full year’s worth of what our local taxpayers have already subsidized. Why? Jobs and funding. The four-year school wants to get paid as much as possible, so it doesn’t want to ‘give away’ credits.

If the public sector wasn’t so caught up in respecting local prerogatives and faculty fiefdoms, it would simply mandate transferability of credits between public institutions in the same state, at least within a given major.

The for-profit at which I used to work was extremely generous, almost too much so, on the question of transfer credits. The reason was simple: it helped with recruitment, and therefore with enrollment. Educational outcomes weren’t in doubt; students who came in with transfer credits graduated at higher rates than ‘native’ students did (which is also true at the public four-year college in question). It isn’t about quality.

The problem is that the folks who have final say over these decisions (the tenured faculty at the four-year school) are disconnected from the consequences of the decision. Power without accountabilty leads to what economists call ‘rent-seeking’ behavior, or milking the system for one’s own benefit.

An intelligent (and empowered) manager of a state public system would simply impose two basic rules: common course numbers for intro courses (so Psych 101 is Psych 101 across the system), and mandatory transferability for intro courses across the system. Private schools that wanted to compete would have to play along, or transfer students would rarely choose them. That way, the taxpayers who subsidized Stacy’s freshman comp at the local cc wouldn’t have to subsidize her freshman comp AGAIN at the local four-year. (BTW, I have no issue with requiring, say, a grade of ‘C’ for the transfer to count. That’s pretty much the industry standard.)

This argument will probably get attacked as applying ‘commodity logic’ to something as ineffable as education. If so, what the hey. There’s a logic to not paying twice for the same course. If you want to call that ‘commodity logic,’ go ahead. I call it common sense, and something I can defend to my tax-hating father-in-law.

It could also be used to attack taxpayer funding of remedial courses in college – they already paid for high-school math in the high schools, so why should they pay again in the colleges? The answer, of course, is results. Students who transfer from cc’s to four-year schools graduate at higher rates than ‘native’ students; quality is not the issue. Students who fail basic cc placement tests for English and math graduate at much lower rates than other students; quality is exactly the issue. The stats tell the story.

Idiotic boondoggles like these just give the screw-higher-ed conservatives ammunition. Let’s get our house in order intelligently, so they can’t use forehead-slap moments like these as stalking horses for much broader agendas.