Monday, April 28, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Transferring

A new correspondent writes:

I read your blog everyday. I go to a suny cc (I
graduate in June) and our advisement staff is beyond
dismal, so I thought I'd ask you this. How do
transfer agreements between a cc and a 4-year school
work exactly? Obviously assuming that you already met
a colleges transfer admission requirements (and the
transfer agreement requirements, in terms of what type
of cc degrees the agreement includes), where does a
student coming from a cc w/ a transfer agreement stand
exactly? Are you ahead of the rest of the "transfer
cattle"? Are you automatically accepted? I ask you
this because 2 of the suny universities I want to go
to have transfer agreements with my cc.

It's a great question, and a topic I really should have addressed sooner.

Theoretically, anybody coming from a regionally-accredited institution should have no trouble transferring credits for relevant courses, assuming grades of C or better and initial acceptance into the receiving institution. Of course, theoretically, the sun could turn into a bran muffin tomorrow. (I think it's called Brownian motion, though the physicists out there are invited to correct me.) Doesn't mean it's gonna happen.

Transfer is a sticky area, since it involves multiple decision points, each with different interests. Say that you've majored in math at your cc, and you're transferring to Obscure State College to get a four-year degree. The decision to admit you to the institution will be made by the Admissions office, which has numbers it has to hit. Its incentive is to be generous.

But transfer-of-credit decisions are frequently made by the receiving department, rather than the college as a whole. And the receiving department has every incentive to be picky, since it would rather get paid to re-teach as many courses as possible. So it probably won't contest your English Comp classes, since it doesn't teach those anyway, but I'd expect some pushback on the math classes. They'll ask for syllabi, they'll object to the smallest differences, and they'll insist on you re-taking as many courses as they think they can get away with. I've actually seen cases in which a nearby state college tried to reject a course taught by the same adjunct who teaches ours, with the same textbook and the same syllabus. When money is on the line, shame evaporates.

Some of the savvier cc departments have reacted to this by going directly to the departments at four-year colleges and negotiating “articulation agreements,” which are basically contracts between colleges spelling out the conditions and rules for transfer. The incentive for the cc comes on the recruitment end; if we can truthfully assure prospective students (and their parents) that credits will transfer, we're likelier to get them to enroll. The incentive for the four-year college is in competing with other four-year colleges. If a student asks us where he can transfer, and one college has committed to giving full credit for our classes while another usually gets unreasonably picky, which one do you think we'll recommend? A couple of years ago, when the state budget ax fell particularly hard on a couple of our local destination schools, I noticed their attitude towards transfers changed, post-haste. All of a sudden, the courses that “just weren't the same” abruptly were. Color me shocked.

As far as automatic acceptance goes, that's rare. Usually if they have that, the cc will tell you upfront.

In some states, the legislatures have decided – correctly -- that subsidizing the same course for the same student twice is a waste of taxpayer money, so they've stepped in and actually mandated transfers of credit. Of course, mandates often have loopholes, and some schools have become adept at navigating those loopholes. The two big ones are:

  1. Graduation. Many articulation agreements, and even some state compacts or mandates, only take effect if you actually graduate from the cc with an Associate's degree. If you transfer prior to graduation – say, do one year and then jump – the destination school can cherry-pick to its heart's content. A degree often has to be accepted as a 'block,' but credits without a degree are vulnerable.

  1. “Free elective” status. This is probably the more annoying of the two. Frequently, destination schools will give 'credit' for every course you've taken, but declare that some of those courses aren't part of the major into which you're transferring. So they declare the courses “free electives,” which is shorthand for “we don't want to own up to the fact that we're turning these down, but good luck getting them to count for anything.” It's a sort of purgatory for unwanted courses. As with so many things, there are times when this is appropriate – say, if you change majors – but the legitimate uses create an opening for illegitimate ones. Keep a close eye on this one.

My first recommendation would be to do some comparison shopping. Talk to the Admissions people at a few possible destination schools, and ask specifically about credits counting toward your intended major. If you can, get it in writing. And don't be shy about telling them you're comparison shopping. At this point, you're in the driver's seat. That changes once you commit, so don't commit until you know you're getting a reasonable deal.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.