Sunday, September 29, 2013


Early Transfers -- Dropouts or Successes?

You know that awkward moment when your sense of what goes without saying clashes directly with somebody else’s, and you’re too surprised in the moment to do a really good job of analyzing it?

I had one of those on Saturday.  I was on a panel at the Education Writers Association’s higher ed conference in Boston, along with Zakiya Smith, from the Lumina Foundation, and Terry Hartle, from ACE.  Scott Jaschik, from InsideHigherEd, was the moderator, and the focus of the panel was President Obama’s proposals for tying financial aid to as-yet-unspecified measures of institutional performance.

The panel was great fun, once I got over the spectacle of nearly everyone in the audience having an open laptop in front of them and typing away.  (That’s what happens when the audience is almost entirely writers.)  In discussing how poorly several popular measures of performance fit community colleges, I mentioned, among other things, that we get penalized when students do a year at the community college and then transfer to a four-year school.  Even if they go on to complete the bachelor’s successfully, that student still shows up in our numbers as a dropout.  I think I used the word “preposterous” to describe that, given the number of students who plan, from day one, to do a year and then move on.

Zakiya Smith, to my surprise, argued that it makes sense to count early transfers as dropouts.  As she put it, “churn” among institutions typically indicates some level of dissatisfaction.  The fact that a dissatisfied student was later able to complete elsewhere doesn’t absolve the initial institution of culpability for its failings.

I was caught off-guard.  The silliness of the current system struck me as obvious; to me, the only relevant question is how to fix it.  I wasn’t prepared for a confident assertion that it’s essentially correct as it is, any more than I would have been to rebut a confident assertion that water fluoridation is a communist plot.

After the panel, she and I continued the discussion in the hallway, trying to see if we were describing the same reality.  As it happened, the disagreement was somewhat less dramatic than it had first appeared, but it pointed to a larger issue.

She conceded that in the case of a student who only transfers once, and from a two-year school to a four-year school, and who completes the bachelor’s, there’s a good case to be made to assume that the student had that as a plan all along.  But she held her ground on “churn” among more than two institutions, or between two-year colleges.  She didn’t see any reason that a student transferring from one community college to another shouldn’t be read as a failure on the part of the first one.  When I mentioned the articulation agreement that my college recently signed with a nearby technical community college for medical billing and coding, she didn’t seem to get the point.

Ordinarily, none of this would matter.  Two people have different ideas about whether early transfers should “count” as dropouts or successes: so what?  But in this political moment, it matters a great deal.  

“Performance funding” has become popular as a way to get colleges to toe some sort of line.  My own state has already started using a performance formula, and now the Feds are looking at it in the context of Title IV financial aid.  When institutional funding is tied to “performance,” getting the definition of “performance” right matters tremendously.  If the Feds fail to understand the realities of how people navigate institutions, they’ll wind up creating a host of perverse incentives.  Smith is a former Obama administration official, and a serious player at Lumina, which has a place at the table.  To the extent that she reflected official thinking, I was alarmed.

Where she and I agreed -- and where I find some hope -- is that some of these questions could be settled empirically.  What happens to students who transfer early?  With a good unit record system, we could figure that out.  If they wind up graduating in large numbers, then my view is vindicated; if most wind up dropping out with nothing to show for it, then hers is.  Presumably, the same would be true of intra-sector transfers as well.  (It was also help settle the question of whether a student who only ever plans to spend a year at a cc before transferring to a four-year college should be described as “degree-seeking” for financial aid purposes.)  

In the meantime, I have to give Smith credit for forcing me to re-examine my own position, even if I remain unmoved.  Wise and worldly readers, I’ll turn it over to you: should we consider students who transfer early dropouts or successes?

On Thursday, you made a cogent argument that the context of geography (among other things) made the idea of college rankings problematic. "Most community college students don’t choose from among colleges across the country; most choose locally. In many areas, that only means one place to go; in most, no more than two or three."

In my area, student have the choice of between five and ten community and technical colleges within a half an hour's drive. There are several universities available in the same area. "Churn" is the norm for my students. Most take classes at multiple colleges, building a schedule that suits them as they complete their prerequisites in preparation to transfer to programs in nursing and other allied health professions.

When they take and pass my classes, I am helping them reach their goals. It strikes me as ridiculous that someone would consider it a failure simply because these students did not complete a degree here.
I took classes at four or five community colleges before eventually getting a degree... while I was in the Army. Switching colleges had nothing to do with dissatisfaction, just proximity.
I teach at a CC where there are multiple schools of all stripes within a 30 minute drive and I'm thinking that having a student attend more than one is more a function of the logistics of their lives than any inherent dissatisfaction with a particular school. Sure, dissatisfaction might be true in some cases and I could be biased, but I've been teaching long enough to know our demographic, and I don't really think much of this churn.
You are right to be concerned. You were probably hearing what those currently in a position to write policy are thinking about "success" via a former colleague.

Before answering your question, I will point out that financial aid policy distorts the data. Students who enter my CC with the stated intent of achieving a specific benchmark and transferring after one semester MUST say that they plan to earn an AA in order to qualify for aid. So they lie about their intent and we could only track them if we add a new field to our data base and can identify them at time of entry. We also get students who enter an AS program and lie about why they did so: the one they pick happens to require the same classes they need to fill the gap between a minimal AA and entry into a specific university program. They have no intent of completing it.

Further, I consider it highly unlikely that a suitable unit record system will be in place in time to GUIDE policy, since it takes 6 to 8 years to get good statistics on a several cohorts unless you want to rely on a few states that already have a system capable of analyzing longitudinal data, but even they probably don't track students out of state.

Now my answers:

1) Any student who transfers from a CC to a university should be considered a success for the CC, regardless of when they do it. If the university accepts them it is a success whether they graduate or not.

2) Even lateral transfers can be for a good reason. We see a lot of students who choose to finish their last 15 hours at a CC that is closer to where they plan to transfer during the next semester. (The odds of this increase with quality articulation agreements.) The criteria should be whether they transfer in "good standing" or not. Even so, we need to take shared responsibility for them. Shared, because I have seen plenty of examples where kids passed some class at another college when they knew full well that they didn't know the subject very well.

3) Any student that a university accepts as a transfer should count for or against them if they don't graduate. They are the ones that do or do not support them in that transition. That stat should be kept separately, but not ignored. After all, they get money from the State for transfers just like any other student, and some universities make up their loss of native students with transfers.

4) Success after transfer should be a separate category (like success of transfer students in 3), but it can be measured in different ways. Points above 2.0 after 24 hours of upper division classes might be suitable, for example. After that they should definitely be the university's responsibility if the students don't learn what they should have in their first year in a major.

It's interesting that Smith (and presumably other policy wonks) considers "churn" to be entirely the community college's fault. What a bizarre thought. There is certainly plenty that a CC (or a 4-year, or a technical college) can do that drives students away, but there are also factors within the students that have the same result. I don't see how you could have a clear picture of what is going on when students don't continue at a college, without looking at individual students or groups of students. Two examples: upper-income parents and the guidance counselors at their high schools pretty much force high school seniors to enroll in college regardless of the students' preferences; once they figure out something else to do, they're gone. And, in many regions, if you move you then have to pay out-of-district tuition at your old CC, so you transfer.
Why isn't the CC > 4-year churn blamed on the 4-year school? After all, they're the ones pricing their first two years high enough to convince the students to start at the CC
Also a problem for regional campuses in a multi-campus system, such as the one I retired from. Also a problem for CCs and regional campuses when people transfer *because they move* for job or family related reasons.

Personal experience: My step-daughter (very bright) who did not do well (did so poorly she couldn't get admitted to a 4-year instate public institution) in HS because she didn't care, did one year at IVY Tech in Indiana (where she completed 30 hours with a 3.5 GPA, transferred to an in-state public, graduated in three more years with a 3.3 there. For IVY Tech, she's a drop-out. But we all consider her year there a success--she proved to herself, and to the 4-year school, that she could do college-level work.
With few exceptions, the majority of the students I've had who transfer out after 1 year did so because yes, they always planned to transfer, but were so disappointed with the CC they were at that they did it a year early. So yes, that's a failure on the CC's part. This is even more the case with students who already know their major as opposed to students who are general studies or undecided.
As a former early transfer, I'd say there were two main factors:

1) not being able to complete the first two years of my degree at my CC. My CC did not offer organic chemistry or transferable sophomore level specialized classes (either in biochemistry or microbiology, I'd have happily taken either at the time)
2) just wanting to get the heck out of my parents house and be on my own.

Blaming the CC for the first one is understandable, though it seems to be asking a lot to offer O-chem when they regularly had 7 students in a section of gen chem II. I might have saved more money if I could have stayed at the CC longer, and the lack of O-chem annoyed me at the time since it was required for some of the AS degrees the CC offered (they did have an arrangement with another somewhat nearby CC to allow you to take it at in-district rates, but the commute was too much).

Blaming the CC for the second one, however, is like rating kid's shoe companies by "length of time before next pair of shoes is purchased" and comparing them to adult shoe companies. Sometimes you just grow out of something.
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