Monday, September 17, 2007

Credits Where They're Due

According to this article (and check out the comments!), the governor of New Jersey just signed a law mandating that the four-year public colleges there recognize the academic credits students earn at the state's community colleges. The idea, apparently, is to allow a student who graduates a cc with a two-year degree to complete the remainder of a four-year degree in two more years.

This is one of those “well, duh” laws that makes you wonder why it wasn't passed years ago.

There's an obvious argument from fairness. If a student has successfully completed accredited coursework, and doesn't change majors, it seems clear that she should get credit for that coursework. This is especially the case for the courses in the first two years, which are largely the general education courses that aren't unique to any given major. (I'm thinking here of English comp, general psych, etc.) Anybody who got a doctorate at a public flagship (hi!) can attest that those intro courses are often taught by graduate students with minimal training and no experience.

(True story: shortly before my first session as a t.a., my fellow t.a.'s and I met with the professor to get a sense of what he wanted us to do. I was hoping for some sense of structure, maybe some teaching tips, perhaps even some wisdom of experience, or, failing all that, at least a pep talk. We were told – and I remember this like it was yesterday -- “you'll be fine.” That was the extent of my pedagogical training before teaching a course that carried greater prestige than anything taught by thirty-year professors here. Makes ya wonder...)

There's also an argument from economics. Since the same taxpayers subsidize both the cc's and the public colleges, it seems to me they have a reasonable objection to paying twice for the same courses.

There's some predictable huffing and puffing in the comments to the IHE piece, essentially taking the line that cc's are of lower quality – no evidence for this is offered – so the governor has sold out academic virtue. If this were the case, of course, I'd imagine it would be easy for the four-year colleges to demonstrate. All they'd have to do is produce the records of transfer students and show that they have a higher attrition rate than 'native' students. That's all it would take.

They haven't done that. Because – ahem – it isn't true.

Cc's specialize. By dint of focusing exclusively on the first two years, we get pretty good at them. That's all we do. We don't do the upper-level undergrad courses, or the graduate courses, or the research fellows, or any of that. We only do one thing. Our tenured faculty can't farm out their intro classes to adjuncts; without intro classes, they wouldn't have jobs. I simply don't understand why we should automatically assume that a 23-year-old grad student whose entire training consists of “you'll be fine” would produce better educational outcomes than would, say, somebody who has been teaching the intro course for decades, at a college that actually values and supports teaching. I just don't get it.

There's also an objection from 'fit.' Simply put, my crystal ball tells me that some schools will come up with bizarre major requirements to relegate credits they don't want to the dreaded “free elective” status. (“Free elective” status is where credits go to die.) So they wind up telling students that the cc courses 'count,' just not toward any actual major. Depending on how the legislation is written, this may or may not become a problem; if it does, though, I'd expect to see the screws tighten over time. Since any tightening of the screws threatens to impact other areas, too, I'd advise the four-year schools not to push this angle too far. They could win the battle, but lose the war.

The more intelligent objection is that mandatory recognition will lead to course standardization, with all that standardization implies. But if it's handled reasonably intelligently – set common course objectives, but allow freedom in how to meet those objectives – this doesn't strike me as a fatal objection. If anything, it may bring enough focus to a suddenly-common set of issues that 'best practices' will finally become transferable between institutions, which is all to the good. A statewide conversation about the best ways to help students succeed in, say, first-year writing courses might be kind of refreshing. It's certainly worth a try.

Kudos to New Jersey for recognizing both fiscal and academic reality. The devil is in the details, to be sure, but this strikes me as an obvious and long-overdue step in the right direction.