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.

In a previous life I tought at a CC in Iowa.

There was a 'Regents' policy' there which said that if our syllabus/course looked like the equivalent course from 2 out of 3 of the Regents' Univeristies then it had to be accepted in transfer as equivalent to that course.

As a result, we were pretty careful about lining our curriculum up. Not that we ever got any recognition of this work from ISU, UI or UNI, but hey, what do you expect?

As a result, our courses always transfered in, and there was an actual rule stating the number of additional credits that the 4-years could require of any of our students with AA's.
NJ is a bit late to this idea, but better late than never.

BTW: When I was a doc student at Big 10 U, the scuttlebutt was the U supressed an internal report that found undergrads who started at a branch campus were MORE LIKELY to graduate in 4 years than those who began their undergraduate careers at the main campus. Since the main campus was considered more elite.....OUCH!

Dean Dad's point about CC's specializing is spot on. The R1's really could not be bothered with focusing on Freshmen and Sophomores, and consequently, they get a raw deal (in my view).

Then, there is the cost differential. CC's are a great "buy," since you're MORE Likely to get highly qualified faculty teaching. Some TA's are terrific (and Ed schools are blessed with strong pedagogues--students are older and tend to have 5-7 years worth of relevant experience), but in the Arts & Sciences model, TAs are just thrown into teaching headlong. Some figure it out, many do not. If I were a parent dropping 10-20K per year on a R1, I'd be sore as hell about my 18-19 year old kid being taught by a 23-year old.
Florida is much like tfc's description of Iowa, except Florida is more bureaucratic. Florida has a statewide course numbering system, including disciplinary prefixes, so that courses transfer within state with relatively minimal fuss. (That also holds for students who transfer between universities, so that someone who takes a social foundations of education course at FSU or UF get credit for the course at my institution and satisfy the social foundations requirement.)

Yes, we're aware of a few cases where courses at another institution really aren't social foundations, but there is no perfect solution, and at least within a state's public sphere, it reduces the pain of syllabus evaluation.
To require that they get credit for courses taken is a good thing. But to mandate that they must be able to finish in only two years more is to gloss over some very important classes. It's true that "most of" what one takes in the first two years is general requirements. The rest of the first two years, though, are not just general requirements. For for most degrees, there are also other courses one has to take, in a particular sequence, starting freshman or sophomore year. In my major, there was a three course sequence for my freshman and first half of sophomore year. Then, during my junior year I needed to take two sets of two sequenced courses,and then same thing senior year. You can't take those courses simultaneously. They aren't even offered simultaneously, and for good reason - unless you have already finished the earlier course, the later one will be over your head. There is an accumulation of technique and material in many majors that makes it impossible for anyone to finish all the courses satisfying that degree in only two years.
At my CC we teach to standardized syllabi. I'm not sure if it's a state requirement or just state-encouraged (Illinois; I don't know because I don't deal with that end, I just teach), but if the class is taught to that syllabus, the state Us take it as a transfer.

These have very basic objectives and knowledge bases, and within that structure I can teach any darn thing I want. My intro class looks nothing whatever like my department chair's version of the same intro class, but they both meet the state syllabus requirement. I've not found it restrictive at all, and particularly when I was starting out it was quite helpful to see, "These are the major pedagogical goals of this intro course" so I could think about how best for ME to meet them using MY teaching strengths and MY intellectual interests.
A standardized course outline is not required in Illinois, but the Illinois Articulation Initiative requires both the community colleges and the state universities to identify those courses that will transfer from the community colleges to the universities. The Northern Illinois website includes some specific articulation information.

And yes, there has been some internal research at Northern Illinois (BCS Top Ten to Bottom Ten in less than five years) suggesting that transfer students do as well as and sometimes better than those who begin as freshmen.
Sylvie, I didn't see any indication in that IHE article that the transfer students would be REQUIRED to finish the four-year program in only two years. Unless I misread the article or you are privy to additional information, that's not what is happening at all. Comments, anyone?

Frankly, I don't understand all of the foofooraw in the article about one-by-one articulation agreements. Don't these schools have a comprehensive articulation agreement between two-year and four-year schools? I mean, that would be a sensible plan to have, I should think. We do it where I live, and it seems to work quite well. From what I read, the one-by-one system seems to be predicated on agreements between CC students and uni profs. That does not seem to be a coherent system to me. But perhaps I've got it wrong.

My main concerns are twofold. First, it might be possible for CC students to earn a 2-year degree by choosing the least challenging course of study possible, then find themselves without any of the core courses that the four-year school considers essential for a basic education. For example, if a CC and the R1 state school in my city adopted this transfer arrangement, students could come to university without having taken any biology, chemistry, physics, calculus, or comprehensive Western Civ classes--all of which are GE requirements at the four-year college. (For example, students can take three courses in ASL at the CC, and these courses would apparently substitute for three courses in Western Civ at the uni.) But these students will have taken a health class, physical ed, writing/composition, social sciences, and some coursework for multicultural breadth. Perhaps the NJ CCs are a bit more rigorous, or their unis are a bit less so. If that's the case, the new system would likely work fine. But I think it all boils down to a question of what GE is good GE--does it really matter? Should four-year schools be able to dictate that certain types of GE are better or more necessary than others?

My second concern is that transfer students who plan to major in math, science, or technology can transfer to the four-year school with the same kinds of deficiencies noted above, at which point they would need to spend a good year catching up on courses that they should have taken as GE anyway. This isn't good for anybody.

Again, I know that I'm being presumptuous by applying the NJ system to schools in my area, but it's not a completely useless exercise. I think I've brought up a few valid questions that have nothing to do with the relative quality of the teaching of one course at CC and the very same course at a uni--an issue that seems to be a central preoccupation in many of the IHE comments. And for me, the big question is partly what GE is good GE but also whether four-year schools have the right or duty to insist that CC transfer students meet specific uni GE requirements that were adopted for presumably good reasons.

Coherent articulation agreements between CC and uni would solve these problems to MY satisfaction and have done so in my area. Whether my concerns are truly valid and pedagogically relevant is a different story entirely.
Out here in California, we have articulation agreements between cc's and the California State University system and the University of California system.

We also have lots of data. Students transfering from CA cc's generally have a slump in their first semester, but they go on to get GPA's higher (but not to a degree that is statistically significant) than "native" CSU or UC students. They also finish their bachelors degrees more quickly than "native" students (again, not to a degree that's statistically significant).
As an adjunct I have taught at both CCs and 4-year state schools and I teach to the same standard.
First, I agree 100% with DD's experience "you'll be just fine". I was an undergrad TA, and we had a decent training program over several days before classes started. Later, as a grad student TA, we had zero training. None. And essentially zero guidance on performance expectations in the lab classes we taught. If not for my undergrad training, it would have been a disaster. But I was taught quite a bit by my colleagues.

Sylvie raises a valid concern about majors in what some of us here call "content" majors. (The ones like engineering or science where you are supposed to remember much of what you learned in semester 1 to have a prayer in semester 2, not to mention the next year.) It requires good advising to get those kids on track to complete their major pre-req classes while also doing the gen-ed classes, but that is also true at any uni that requires a broad liberal arts education along with, say, pre-engineering classes. Michigan is not Harvey Mudd.

Ambsace, your R1 state school is certainly not Rutgers. Rutgers does not require calculus and physics to be a nursing or criminal justice major. (I just checked.) Most universities, R1 or not, do not require physics and calculus to be a creative writing major. The ones that do require physics and calculus are unlikely to have any colleges that will admit a transfer student without those classes, so it is a moot point that is easily addressed by state-wide articulation agreements.

And the foofraw would appear to be because the "system" in NJ had been totally insane until recently, with turf protection on the academic side having a Soprano's feel to it.
I'm writing to agree with Sylvie that there are some majors for which CC transfer students should be prepared to expect another 2+ or 3 years after transferring. My engineering field has a situation similar to Sylive's: fall year 2 course is a prereq for spring in year 2, which is a prereq for fall 3, which is a prereq for spring 3, etc. Some students try to combine aspects of years 2 and 3, but they tend to do poorly.

The year 2 engineering courses aren't at the local CCs since they're too focused in the 4-year (field of) engr major.

For the prereq classes (chem, phys, calculus), transferring the credits sounds fine. We don't actually coordinate our classes with these fellow depts at the R1. Instead we assume that they are teaching what they consider important for the intro class. If the CC is doing the same, that's fine with me.
CCPhysicist, it's interesting that you should mention physics, calculus, and a creative writing major all in one breath. That was one of my majors, and my college did indeed require physics and calculus as GE courses--no matter what the major. Funny!!!
My training for teaching undergrad classes at a major university consisted of "here's the title of the course and your class room is X."

Still cracks me up.
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