Tuesday, April 15, 2014

 

Policy Levers



Most college faculty don’t consider themselves policy levers.  

Until you understand that, you’ll have a hard time understanding why so many policy proposals come to grief, or angst and unintended consequences, on the ground.

For example, take the following proposal: “Four-year public colleges and universities should accept community college graduates as transfer students with full junior standing.”  It’s a popular view, and it it has much to be said for it from a state’s perspective.  It offers the prospect of steering students to lower-cost providers for the first two years, of no longer paying to subsidize the same course twice, and of increasing graduation rates without increasing -- indeed, possibly while decreasing -- spending.  And the community colleges tend to like the idea, since it’s a vindication of their work.

To the extent that states pick up the tab for their public colleges -- a decreasing extent, in most places, but still -- it makes sense that states would want some say in how the money is spent.   Anyone who cares to look can easily find horror stories of students forced to repeat a majority of their classes, at significant cost of both money and time.  And it’s easy to spot the discrediting self-interest in a department at a four-year college refusing credit for a transfer course that it prefers to teach itself.

If you read the previous sentence closely, you’ll see where the issues arise.  The unit of analysis went from “college” to “department.”  Those are not the same thing, and they do not necessarily have the same goals or interests.

Public colleges are caught between imperatives.  “Shared governance,” as usually understood, places academic judgments in the faculty.  Judgments of transfer equivalence are usually rooted in decisions made by departments.  (Actual transcript evaluations are often done in Admissions or the Registrar’s office, but they typically follow the guidance of academic departments, and they call departments to settle unclear cases.)  

But “judgment” is a big word.  When the people with the power to determine whether a credit is equivalent stand to benefit materially from saying “no,” since “giving away too many credits” would imperil their FTE’s, it’s not surprising that borderline calls tend to fall always in the same direction.  Then, when the public college is shamed for being unrealistically exclusionary about credits, it throws up its hands and pleads shared governance.

The disjuncture between an institutional-level view and a department-level view explains a lot about how transfer credits are treated.  Typically, “general education” credits outside of the major are accepted without serious pushback, since they don’t affect the receiving department.  The Psych department at Wherever State is often quite willing to accept a cc’s Intro to Composition, since it doesn’t teach that itself.  But it’s likelier to balk at the 200-level Psych courses.  And receiving colleges will often “take” the orphaned credits by labelling them as “free electives.”  “Free elective” status is where credits go to die.  It’s a polite fiction that allows the college as a whole to claim that it’s welcoming, while still allowing departments to shoot down anything they find threatening.  “We gave you free elective credits.  It’s not our fault the curriculum doesn’t have any free elective slots in it…”  

The situation is easy to outline, but hard to fix.  In order to force the four-years to accept every credit towards every major, you would need some sort of override mechanism.  In other words, academic judgments of equivalency would have to be removed from the faculty at the receiving institution.  That could be done by fiat, or it could be done by constructing standardized statewide curricula across the sectors.  Either way, local departments would have to be stripped of the power to say ‘no.’  I would expect the pushback to be vigorous and extended, with the craftier ones immediately setting to work carving out loopholes and exceptions.  

From a state’s standpoint, that may look like simple intransigence or a mere conflict of interest.  And those both play parts.  But it’s also a reflection of a serious and longstanding concept of the faculty role.  

Most college faculty don’t see themselves as line workers, stamping students as they move along an assembly line.  They see themselves as craftspeople, using personal (if informed) judgment rooted in their guilds/disciplines.  The entire discourse of meritocracy within academia is based on the idea that some people are better practitioners of craft than others.  If you replace craft judgment with mass-produced stamps of approval, you can expect vigorous howls from the craftspeople whose judgment -- and therefore, indirectly, merit -- has just been devalued.  Even allowing for the inevitable corruptions that stem from self-interest, it’s still true that locally designed curricula don’t always align cleanly with each other, and that subject-matter experts will be the likeliest folks to notice.

The best local solution is usually the “articulation agreement,” which is a sort of contract between colleges listing specifically the credits that will be taken in transfer towards a given degree.  Departments are typically involved in negotiating those, and they offer students pathways from one college to another with some security in knowing what will count.  They manage to square the circle of respecting local craft and still wanting smooth transfer.  But they’re necessarily piecemeal, and from a system perspective, they can look redundant.  Policy types tend to disparage them, on the grounds that they’re messy.  Which, in fact, they are.  But done right, they work.

I’m thinking that the low-hanging fruit here may be the system-level encouragement -- with funding -- of fairly robust articulation agreements.  Address the issue of departmental self-interest with incentives, issue a standard reporting form, and call it good.  Otherwise, I see levels of open warfare the costs of which would overwhelm any savings.

Comments:
I've actually seen the opposite problem in the University of California system, at least in engineering. There's mandatory transfer from CCs to UCs, but they don't seem to trust the CCs of being able to teach engineering courses, so the UCs try to compress what other schools teach in 3-4 years into just two years. This causes an obvious lack of depth, but also delays when students actually get into the field they're majoring in, which can be disastrous if they discover they don't like it.
 
The best solution is a statewide articulation agreement, although it can still run up against private colleges unless it is so robust that the private schools find themselves at a disadvantage if they don't play along. However, even there you can find colleges that try to dodge both the spirit and letter of the system-wide agreements. (I might send you some examples by e-mail. It is rather easy to do.)

I don't like your example of a 200-level psych class typically taught to freshmen, because rejecting that means you are not accepting the student at "junior-level" standing. To me, "junior" means admitted to upper division in a specific major. They should be limited to, at most, requiring one or two special classes that can be taken in the same semester as a probationary admit to the major just as they would their own student who changed majors late in the sophomore year.

The engineering example in the comment above is one of the sticky ones. Many STEM majors have similar issues. Our fully-prepared students transfer with about 2.5 years of work left, but it might take 3 because of course scheduling. (And it usually took 2.5 to 3 years to reach that level of preparation. Those who don't stick around to reach that level usually end up with an extra year of higher-tuition taking CC-level classes.) A well-prepared freshman entering the university CAN reach that same point after three semesters, but they don't seem to be the majority from what my students tell me.

I see enough reverse transfers to know that plenty of their freshmen don't get fully into the major until their junior year and often change majors because they are so far behind. Sadly, no one suggests that they take a semester or two "off" between their 2nd and 3rd year to get caught up at a CC. We only get the ones that have actually flunked out and need an AA degree to restart the clock somewhere else.
 
Four-year schools also reject transfer credits for reasons other than pride or financial self-interest. In some fields (especially tech fields), the field itself is so new that its practitioners haven't settled on what subject matter belongs in a college degree, or what sequence is most appropriate. So a course called "Intro to Basketweaving Technology" at one school might have virtually no overlapping subject matter with a course called "Intro to Basketweaving Technology" at another school.

Articulation agreements have to dig into the details of comparing syllabi. And it has to be faculty doing the comparing, because only faculty will know that a student with experience in Basketweaving Technique A is most likely not ready for a 200-level course in Basketweaving Technique B - at the institutional level, basketweaving just looks like basketweaving.
 
Oregon seems to have "solved" the problem by enforcing uniform course numbering across all state institutions.

From my perspective as math faculty at a local SLAC, it is great -- I know exactly what is covered in Math 123, regardless of which CC or 4-year school it was taught at.

I'm not sure how the system deals with one-off courses, or variations on "Anthro 100".

I'd be curious to know what went in to the creation of the system, and how it works outside math and the sciences.
 
The state of Ohio has created legislation specifically to address this issue. Now we have "TAG" courses - transfer accordance guides. They had faculty from around the state look at syllibi, course outcomes, and mandated that courses have 80% (or so) agreement. Now every state institution is required to give full transfer credit for these TAG courses. It's been in place for a few years, and faculty have a lot of opinions about how well it works.
 
We don't have much issue with this at my current institution, but when I was a grad student, I recall my advisors discussing that students who took introductory class X at community college A did fine, but at CC B did not; either way their articulation agreement meant they had to accept the credits, knowing the kids were less likely to succeed. This seemed to be widely agreed upon. It's very obviously an anecdotal example, but I wonder how common this is, and if there is any way to keep that in the reporting to potentially -- ahem -- adjust in some way.

And how might we adjust?
 
Last Anonymous@7:19AM

I have had a similar experience to yours with students from a nearby R1 university that take classes at my CC. I have to assume that they met the original admission standards of that school, but otherwise there is no way to know if they were passed along by a marginal adjunct keeping high "success" numbers or a new Asst Prof more interested in doing research and getting good evaluations than student learning, or if all intro classes there are now really easy to pass.

Going the other way, I have confidence in my own students but have no control over what rates a pass in someone else's class, but I also know that some very good students of mine will not do well in an anonymous 200 student lecture.

I know one university (not part of our state-wide articulation agreement) that accepts some classes from our CC but not others. [I happen to agree with their assessment.] I am also told that they don't accept any from some other schools and are similarly selective about classes at some universities. This is based on the track record of students, not just syllabi, so it can be done. The challenge is how to decide if a student who appears ignorant is one who was actually really good but drank and partied every day after leaving home, is an anomaly because one section out of four was taught by an instructor who was later fired, or reflects a pattern at that school.
 
I have a lot more sympathy for faculty in the receiving university in math, sciences, and foreign languages, because there can be significant differences in the speed and scope of CC and university courses. On the other hand, isn't that what placement tests are for? Plus, I know more than a few students at my R1 who chose to do physics or chemistry at the local CC because the equivalent courses at the R1 are highly punitive, designed to scare away anyone who isn't a potential grad student in the field. Students get a better experience, more attention, and fewer ginormous lectures on valence equations at a CC than an R1.

On the other hand, if the course is something like Intro to Anthropology well, really, who cares? Speaking as someone with a PhD in a related field, Intro to Anthro is very close to a content-free course, for the most part, designed to stimulate student interest but hardly anything unique to a given program. I have taught such courses, and I can certify that student retention of information is close to nil once the course is over. I am sure the same is true for lower-level history, English, etc. Such courses could be different, but basically they aren't.
 
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