Monday, September 15, 2008


It's Not 'Career or Transfer'

I had a conversation last week with the chair of the Human Services program (think Social Work), in which she made the point that she didn't know how her program should be categorized. As she explained her dilemma, I realized I didn't know, either.

Classically, cc programs are grouped into either 'career' or 'transfer' tracks. The idea is that students who matriculate typically have one of two desired outcomes when they graduate: either step right into a full-time job, or transfer to a four-year school. Perkins funding assumes a relatively clear distinction, as does much of the public discourse around cc's. (Even this satirical piece in last week's IHE seems to assume that the distinction is both natural and self-evident.) Politicians love the 'career' aspect of cc's, and are curiously silent on the transfer aspect. (They're similarly reticent on the subject of remediation.) Faculty, supposedly, favor the transfer side of things, though in practice I've found the stereotype to be pretty unreliable.

What we're discovering, though, is that the world is blurring the distinction between career and transfer, and we have to, too.

Fields that once hired people with two-year degrees are increasingly insisting on four-year degrees. (Locally, at least, that's proving to be the case with social work, engineering, and, surprisingly, nursing.) As the fields professionalize, they expect a higher level of academic qualification. In the late 90's, the way to handle that was to get a two-year degree at a cc, get an entry-level job in the field, and have the employer pay for the completion of the bachelor's degree, usually at night. But employer-paid tuition is much less common than it once was. In the late 90's at PU, most of the evening students were employer-paid. In the early 00's, that funding source dried up, and the program shrunk dramatically. Since then, they haven't bounced back much; employers seem increasingly to take the position that finishing your degree is your problem, to be solved on your dime.

That's not to say, though, that the two-year programs have lost their relevance; it's just that they aren't enough by themselves anymore. A student who really wants to break into those fields can (and probably should) complete our program and then transfer. So is it a transfer program or a career program?

The wisdom of the various fields 'professionalizing' is, of course, open to debate. But whether the shift is good or bad, it's out of our hands.

One strange side effect of the shift, at least in my observation, has been that the generic 'transfer' major – all gen eds, all the time – is thriving. Between the sticker shock of four-year college tuition and the increased relevance of transfer for career fields, the enrollments in the classic liberal arts courses are as healthy as they've been in decades. The liberal arts fields may be increasingly marginalized at many colleges and universities, but they're healthy – if not thriving – at cc's. I'm not entirely sure what to make of that – on the one hand, I'm happy to see the classic academic fields well-enrolled, but on the other, I'm a little wary of them becoming too closely identified with the least prestigious tier of higher education. Since prestige and funding tend to go together, this isn't just a theoretical point.

Although the facts on the ground are shifting, our ways of talking about them haven't. We still talk about career and transfer as if it were as clear as 'HVAC technician' and 'philosophy major.' And there are still enough clear cases that the discourse can survive. But that area in between is where the real growth is, and we haven't quite figured out how to handle that yet.

Two students go into an interview. One of them has, say, an AS degree in Widget Technology Systems. The other has an AAS in Widget Technology systems. I know what that means in terms of the classes they've taken to get the degree, but does the employer? (More importantly, which one interviews better?)

It seems to me that the notion that all fields are requiring more education at the entry level is widely taken for granted. And, with the above said, I wonder if it's just getting less risky to hedge your bets on a transfer degree in hopes that you'll make it through four years, somehow.
I teach in Human Services (which is Social Work at the Bachelor's level and above -- I'm sure the two terms are linked to the professionalization of the field) at a CC. I do think the two-year degree used to be intended to prepare students for what was called "paraprofessional" work in the field of human services.

But you're right, fewer students are able to find those entry-level jobs with an AS. A bachelor's is the minimum in most cases. And even then, I'm beginning to see jobs around here that require a BSW and an LBSW license.

I try to teach my students in a way that will equip them well for either the field or transfer, but it's a challenge, and I tend to lean toward teaching them as though they will go on for their BSW fairly soon after their AS. And I think that most of our students do come into the program fully expecting to transfer to a BSW program.
Choose the classification that gets you the most funding. This is sort of a semantic issue as some level.
Although they cover a fairly wide spectrum, it looks to me like there are AS degrees that consist almost entirely of technical courses (land surveying comes to mind) with maybe some basic english thrown in, and others that look a lot like the prerequisites for a regular 4-year degree in something like business or corrections but with only half of the gen-ed classes and more technical classes. The latter can be turned into an AA with about one year of "evergreen" classes while (possibly) working in an entry level position.

Something similar applies to a kid picking up AutoCAD certification along the way to going into engineering, or Micro$oft cert going into computer science. A few classes actually transfer, while others help you get work close to your future career while still in school.

Then there is nursing, where the treatment of an AS RN compared to a BS RN depends on local conditions. YMMV. Ours get hired fairly easily, but will have to follow a bridge program to a BS RN if they want to specialize in surgery or anesthesiology later on.
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