Sunday, October 19, 2014

 

Barriers


On Friday I attended a statewide meeting of public colleges and universities dealing with transfer issues.  The meeting consisted primarily of faculty from two-year and four-year public colleges, although a few stray administrators (hi!) managed to sneak past security.  The goal of the meeting was to have the two-year folk and the four-year folk come to agreement on what the first two years of each of several different majors should look like, so students could choose courses at community colleges with confidence that the courses will count towards their eventual major.  The purpose of the meeting was to identify, and knock down, arbitrary barriers to successful student transfer.

It was one of those “why haven’t we done this before?” ideas that brought to the surface a host of issues that nobody really anticipated.

I sat in on the poli sci discussion, since that’s my academic background.  (The poli sci professor from my campus was also there.)  It quickly became clear that everybody teaches Intro to American Government, everybody takes it as a transfer course, and that was all we needed to say about that.  It was ubiquitous and uncontroversial, so that was easy.

After that, though, things got more complicated.

The most basic issue was that the four-year schools didn’t agree with each other.  To the extent that community colleges are supposed to mirror the first two years of four-year curricula, it would be nice if the four-year curricula matched.  I can’t say I was surprised, but it did strike me as a skipped step.

Some of the discussion reflected the quirks of the discipline.  Political science in America usually consists of four or five subfields -- American, International Relations, Comparative, Theory, and sometimes State/Local, Judicial,or Administrative/Policy -- that don’t talk to each other very much.  (Even “theory” is divided into “formal” and “normative.”)  Each subfield typically gets its own introductory course. That means there’s no consensus on what a generic “Intro to Political Science” would look like.  Would it be a theoretical overview?  A sampler platter?  A “topics” course in which each instructor would choose a substantive emphasis?  In the absence of consensus about content, many of the four-year schools wouldn’t take the Intro course in transfer.  I can’t blame them.  It would be like an “Intro to Languages” class.  Would it be three weeks each of Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and Farsi?  Or would it be a linguistics class?  The former makes no sense, and the latter really needs its own name.  “Spanish 101” makes a lot more sense than “Languages 101” would.

But the more embarrassing part was the courses the four-year schools expected community colleges to teach, that most just don’t.  Several of the cc faculty let it be known, with varying degrees of exasperation, that they were one-person shows.  In several cases, even that one person has divided loyalties, typically splitting time between poli sci and history.  No one person can cover everything.  Sometimes adjuncts can fill in gaps, but if the enrollments aren’t there, even that won’t save you.  So being told that, say, “Intro to Comparative Politics” would transfer successfully isn’t all that useful if the class rarely runs.

The upside, in a sense, was seeing that so many colleges are in the same boat.  What started out as a discussion of curricular matching quickly became a discussion of resources.  Without the resources to staff, and run, a wider range of classes, it simply won’t happen.  That will leave transfer students with relatively little to bring with them.  What manifests as a curricular issue is really, at its base, a resource issue.  If we’re serious about mirroring curriculum, we need parity of resources.  Unsurprisingly, much of the large-group discussion at the end of the day consisted of community college people talking about budgets.  

If this becomes the unintended avenue through which we finally start talking seriously about per-student funding parity, I’m all for it.  That wasn’t the stated goal of the meeting, but we won’t meet the stated goal until we acknowledge that classes aren’t either free or infinitely fungible.  

The other option is to drop courses entirely and go entirely with competencies.  That’s another discussion altogether, and one that did not come up in this context.

Yes, by all means, let’s knock down arbitrary barriers to successful student transfer.  We just need to be willing to acknowledge barriers beyond what the meeting initially had in mind.

Comments:
In 2005, the Arkansas legislature mandated that a course transfer matrix be established to show all courses that transfer between public colleges and universities. All transfer directions (2 to 4, 2 to 2, 4 to 2, and 4 to 4) are accomodated within the matrix. The private schools were also allowed to jump into the system.

The interactive matrix, FAQ, and historical information can be accessed here: http://acts.adhe.edu

The system requires a lot of work for colleges. Determining acceptable transfer opportunities and maintaining the system is hard, but definitely worth it for student advising and success.
 
We seem to have a section of comparative politics during Fall and Spring. I think that is because there is some sort of international business concentration in the large business college that wants students to have it (rather than poli-sci demand).

My state has been trying to maintain some semblence of order in the pre-reqs for each major (across the state colleges and universities) for a long time, but the universities want to each go their own way if they can. Where it affects them now is if they are held responsible for time-to-degree for transfer students who get delayed by unnecessarily diverse requirements.

It is much better in the sciences and engineering, where the non-major pre-reqs have been the same across the nation (not just within a state) for many decades. Only elite schools tend to go their own way, like the ones where two years each of AP calculus and physics is a minimum requirement for new freshmen.
 
The biggest barrier I see for transfer students in engineering is what is known in California as the IGETC mistake. The students take all their general ed in community college, which is guaranteed to transfer (the IGETC curriculum), then end up at the 4 year school with 3 solid years of pure tech courses, resulting in burnout and a 5-year degree.

Students in engineering should be loading up with calculus, physics, computer programming and other freshman and sophomore technical courses at community college, and
saving the general ed to lighten the load in their junior and senior years.
 
Washington was mandated to create "major ready pathways", which is sort of a compromise between anything goes and rigid transfer requirements. Students still earn a regular Associates degree, but a checklist is provided for each major, detailing the courses needed to transfer as a "major-ready Junior".

Of course, as DD notes, the 4-years can't agree on what that means, so each list is festooned with asterisks and provisos (e.g. "WSU requires Java programming, while UW requires C+", or, "This course is accepted by all WA State universities, EXCEPT UW").

While students typically complete all their Gen Ed requirements at a Community College, sometimes it benefits students to complete an, 'upside down' degree, where most of the CC courses are in the major discipline, leaving the Gen Ed classes to the transfer university.

Also, as DD notes, there are some courses that we are just never going to offer, such as 'Modern Physics', a Sophomore-level course at most universities, but we would only garner single-digit enrollment if we offered it.
 
Speaking as a political science faculty member at a four-year institution (but one that doesn't offer a four-year political science degree), we'd love to offer the full complement of introductory courses but the reality is that many of them don't "make" even with an associate's degree in political science on the books and with guaranteed transfer to other system institutions.

The only ones that do well fulfill internal requirements (intro to comparative and intro to IR fulfill a "global perspectives" requirement in our college core) or are recommended/required in a non-transfer certificate or degree (state & local and intro to public administration are pushed for students in our social work and public service programs). But our intro to political science and domestic issues (=policy) classes don't draw flies when offered, so we no longer bother.
 
GSwoP @9:56pm

Unfortunately, a combination of articulation agreements and state law and accreditation mandates that we require a gen-ed core for the AA degree they need to transfer. Students can transfer early, but then the articulation is out the window and they waste as many (or more) credits meeting whatever combo of gen-ed classes that university requires of its freshmen. All we can do is advise our students to avoid taking any "side" classes required for their major (even if offered at our CC) to save some soft stuff for after transfer for the reason you mention.

However, this is rarely a problem. Everyone has about 2.5 years of major classes in engineering. Some just get into them earlier. With the exception of HS dual enrolled students, most engineering majors starting at a CC are way behind in math. They would not get to engineering classes by the middle of their sophomore year no matter where they started.

What you describe also happens to HS students who take a ton of AP classes that end up being largely irrelevant to the student's desired major if the HS advising process is flawed. (I saw one wannabe engineer with 21 credits in a variety of humanities classes, but none in math or science. It bordered on counseling malpractice.) And many take the regular AP physics sequence that does not count for engineering. They are well prepared, but they still have to take a year of physics.

Anonymous @7:00am

In my neighborhood, Modern Physics is taken by sophomores majoring in physics, but is defined to be an upper division class so it can count towards a major or a minor. As such, it cannot be taught at a CC, regardless of the qualifications of the faculty. (All of our physics faculty have a PhD.)

Personally, I don't see that class as a problem because a student should be out of here by the time they are ready to take that class. Ditto for classes like linear algebra that are also taken by sophomores but classified as upper division courses.
 
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