Tuesday, November 11, 2014


200 or 300?

Is there a national standard on what makes a course 200 level, as opposed to 300 level?

I haven’t found one, and it’s starting to matter.

A few weeks ago, I attended a statewide conference on streamlining transfer pathways between two-year and four-year public colleges and universities.  The idea was to ensure that students who start at community colleges and then move to four-year institutions don’t lose credits when they transfer.  The DHE was smart enough to specify that the credits should actually count towards majors, rather than just vanishing into the “free elective” black hole.  Too many colleges use “free elective” status as a way to say that they “accept” credits without actually letting them count for anything.  It’s an elegant political dodge, but a dodge nonetheless.  The state has figured that out, and is isolating the actual problem.  

When moving from institutions to majors, though, the discussion has to move to the level of specific courses.  At that point, several things quickly became clear:

First, many community colleges have departments of one person in certain disciplines.  When you only have one full-timer, there will be courses you can’t cover.  If we want seamless transfer, we need parity of resources.  

Second, many of the four-year schools disagree with each other.  The premise that there are two internally consistent blocs of institutions is false; each bloc is heterogeneous.  In the absence of a consistent set of rules at the four-year level, asking the two-year schools to mirror the first two years of the four-year level doesn’t make sense.  Which ones should they mirror?

Third, and the point of today’s piece, is that there is no industry-wide standard in many fields for which courses should fall at the 200 level and which should fall at the 300 level.  In states in which community colleges are limited to the first two years, such as Massachusetts, the distinction matters.  If we teach a class that a receiving school counts as 300 level, the receiving school may decline to take it.  If they move too many classes to the 300 level, they can effectively force students to retake multiple courses.  (From their perspective, if we redesignate too many 300 level classes as 200, we’re poaching.)  

The annoying truth is that mandating streamlined transfer will require putting stricter limits on the curricular decision-making authority of individual campuses.  It can’t not.  From the perspective of an enterprising faculty member at a community college, that can amount to a cap on scholarly ambition.  “Topics in…” classes don’t lend themselves to seamless transfer in the same way that “Intro to…” classes do.  If an entire state decides that, say, these five psychology classes are what the four-years will take, then the two-year curricula are basically capped.  I’d expect some pushback from the most academically ambitious faculty who would protest, rightly, that they’re being put in their place.  But I don’t see how to get mandated transfer without some level of standardization.  From the four-year perspective, they’d be facing a mandate to take a black box of credits, and count them towards a given major.  Either way, someone has to be willing to give up some authority to make the system work.

I’ve seen the downside of too much local control.  At my last college, a branch of the state flagship only took 30 out of 60 credits towards a criminal justice degree, and most of those credits were gen eds.  Forcing students to retake a year’s worth of credits struck me as insane.  It’s probably no coincidence that the legislature stepped in shortly thereafter and mandated acceptance of transfer credits.  That could happen here, too.  

Legislation wouldn’t be an issue if it were based on a broadly-shared understanding of where the boundaries are.  Which brings me back to my first question.

In humanities and social science fields especially, is there a national authority or something similar that delineates the boundaries between 200 and 300 level in a generally accepted way?

National standards? No. Having browsed the curriculum at Harvey Mudd, I know there are freshman physics and calculus classes that have AP classes as their prerequisites.

State standards? Yes. Set by human beings serving on an articulation committee, not truly hard and fast rules, but binding on all CCs and state universities. I've only observed rather than participated in that process, but it pretty much ran along the lines I expected. (The fight was over organic chemistry. A fight before my time was over differential equations, but what I was told matches the former case. A fight that might not be winnable would be over a course your CC teaches: linear algebra.) Upside: no ambiguity about what is a lower division or upper division class. Downside: no ambiguity. Ambiguity might be what allows your math department to teach linear algebra.

That standard reflects upon whether that course is required as part of the the credits that normally fit into the max allowed at the upper division level (less than 60) for majors in the department teaching the class and/or if it is used to decide if a student can enter a major. Chemistry majors must take organic as sophomores according to the standard progression used everywhere (AFAIK) and it is a prereq for classes normally taken as a junior if you are to get out in 4 years. And that is what puts linear algebra in the upper division category. It is widely used as a major requirement for a low-level math major (e.g. major in math with minor in secondary ed) and can also be used toward earning a minor in mathematics. I know this distinction applies both in my current state and in the one where I went to grad school.

Not sure if that helps (its not exactly in the wheelhouse you asked for), but maybe you know enough about instances like I described to see an analogy in other fields. Problem there might be that the state universities themselves don't agree.

Finally, none of what I wrote constrains private universities (although some play along), and they must be at least half of your problem.
I'll add a different context: gen-eds to fulfill content knowledge for elementary education students. Some universities or states are requiring more than the minimum gen-ed courses for elementary education (or all education) students, on the theory that since elementary teachers are responsible for the whole curriculum, their second-to-last science course shouldn't have been as high school sophomores.

Say, for example, that either the state or a dominant public universities requires 45 content-specific courses before entering an education major. One issue is the late-decider: what happens when you realize after 50 credits that you really want to be a teacher? You're still lower-division, but you're still behind.

But the other is the relationship between 2-years and 4-years, especially if the extra requirements requires curricular Tetris. My conclusion: the 200- vs. 300-level query is just the tip of the iceberg.
Oregon seems to have solved this problem by having all state institutions use the same numbering system. So Math 123 at the local CC is the same as at UO. Seems like an interesting model...
Partially @CCPhysicist, my state (east coast) seems to have a different situation with Linear Algebra. It is a 200-level course, and I've seen my engineering advisees transfer it in from other schools. I don't recall if they took it at a cc or a different 4-year school.

Another question could be engineering thermodynamics. Even within our school, some Engr departments have it in the sophomore year and others in the junior year. I have seen it listed as a course at the local CC. I don't recall if I've seen it transferred in.
There aren't agreements within a single 4-year campus about whether a given course is upper or lower division. I've seen similar courses taught in different departments as first-year or fourth-year courses (and the first-year courses often the more difficult of the two).

Some courses are standardized enough to be accepted fairly universally (physics, calculus, linear algebra, ordinary differential equations, all of which are lower-division). Others vary on the level they are assigned (like introductory circuits in electronics, which may be upper- or lower-division, and often more rigorous in the colleges that think of it as lower-division).

In the humanities, I doubt that you could get two faculty within a college to agree on the appropriate level for each others courses, much less between colleges in different systems.

California transfers work by pairwise articulation agreements—a rather cumbersome process when there are 112 community colleges, 23 Cal State campuses, and 10 UC campuses. (145 choose 2 is 10440 pairs.)

But having seen the enormous variation between similarly named and described courses, I don't see that there is much hope for uniform transfer without overly rigid restrictions on what colleges are allowed to teach.
I've run in to this problem from the other end - what do we accept as a 4 year state institution? I try to be as generous as possible, but it's difficult to tell sometimes just from the title of a course, particularly with a lack of standards about what sort of work is appropriate for what level. For instance, many community colleges teach a "State and Local Politics" course at the 200 level. But I teach a "State Politics" course at the 300 level. There's some overlap, but it's not complete. And absent seeing the syllabus for the 200 level course, it's hard to know whether it should count. Given that "State Politics" is not a required course for our major, I generally speaking accept the course as a 200 level elective in the major (which does help fulfill major requirements), but then said student can still take the 300 level class which seems redundant. It's hard to know what the right thing to do is in these situations. While standards would constrain some of us, they would also help a lot
There isn't even agreement on the 100, 200, 300, 400 scheme.

Within my department (chemistry), we take the view that a the numbers indicate what year a BS chemistry major should be taking the class, based on what it has as prereqs and what has it as prereqs. We give our students a sample schedule that agrees with this pretty well. There's only one out-of-place course, but that's due to a recent change in the order we teach two classes. It works pretty well for a hierarchical major like chemistry, which has lots of prereqs, but I imagine that doesn't help much with some majors. I was also an English major as an undergraduate and I remember often having sophomores and juniors in the same class.
Sorry, finishing my thoughts...
At my undergraduate school, we had courses numbered between 1 and 199 for undergraduates, and I've seen schools with numbers in the thousands, so the 100, 200, 300, 400-level scheme isn't even used everywhere.

I described the model we use in Chemistry here, but it seems like other departments use a different model. Both Biology and Physics seem to take the approach that 100-level classes are for non-majors. Physics has their non-calculus intro course and their "physics for future presidents"-like courses at the 100 level, but their first course that a physics major would take (calculus-based intro) is 201. Biology is similar.

If I'm not mistaken, some of the structure that exists around chemistry stems from efforts on behalf of the American Chemical Society (http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/about/governance/committees/training/acsapproved.html). Even programs that aren't accredited by the society tend to follow the structure. Maybe there is a role for other disciplinary societies to define this kind of thing?
Florida is another state where course numbers are assigned state-wide so that all institutions use the same set of classes. In theory, at least, CHM 2045 is the same class no matter where it's taken in the state.
My former institution--Indiana University Northwest--actually ran into this problem when IVTC (formerly largely a technical school) became Indiana's only public community college (Ivy Tech). They began offering some business courses (e.g., intro to marketing) with no prerequisites and available to students with as little as no prior college course work. IUN did not change its prerequisites for its intro to marketing course (the intro econ sequence, intro to business, the intro accounting sequence, business law, and, as I recall, a minimum of 48 credit hours completed), which was a third year course. (Incidentally, this was an issue for all of IU's campuses in their dealings with Ivy Tech.) (I don't know how all that has played out; I retired as the discussion was on-going.)

My point is that sometimes it's not the 4-year school doing something, it can be the CC doing something it has to know will not be acceptable to the main institution to which its students are likely to transfer.
Interesting comment from HSLabPartner about linear algebra. I wonder if that course exists as a service course (i.e. not taken by math majors, who take a different one) and is deemed sufficiently rigorous to meet the needs of engineers and others but not abstract enough to be a majors class. That is the only distinction I know of: a minimum number of credits toward the major must be at the upper division level (numbers from 300 on up).

I know what the previous comment is talking about with respect to a class like the intro to marketing we offer for an AS major. It would never transfer into a real business school.
@CCPhysicist, I just checked our catalog. The 200-level Linear Algebra does seem to be for majors as well as for engineering students. There is a separate 400-level matrix analysis class that is presumably for majors, and it lists this course as a prerequisite. The majors also take calculus 1, 2, 3 with the engineering students. Those are 100/100/200 level, and I've definitely seen them transferred in from a CC.
@CCPhysicist: LinAlg has been a lower division course in every math department I've been in (two state schools [one flagship, one not], a lame private school, a fancy second-tier private, and two Ivy League institutions). Roughly on the same level as DiffEq.
Thanks for the feedback. Maybe it is worth the fight, which means research into what other states do about it and finding out what politics might be encountered at the state level.

We have plenty of algebrists on our math faculty who are eminently qualified to teach that class and could use a change of pace from calculus and college algebra.
For what it's worth, the Oregon statewide public course-numbering system calls Linear Algebra a 200-level course (261, to be exact) and it's taught at community colleges there. The private school I went to in Oregon also considered it 200-level. (I have no idea how well the course numbering thing works outside of math, but it seems to work well for transfer-friendly math, at least.)

The ACS certification certainly contributes to the structure of chemistry programs. There's still variability between departments on certain courses, though. I took Inorganic Chemistry as the equivalent of a 100-level course*, taught at a level appropriate for freshman with only General Chemistry as a prerequisite. The same college now teaches it as a 200-level course, with the first Organic Chemistry course as a prerequisite. I'd guess it's intended to be taken sophomore year, and I'd guess it's taught at a more advanced level than when I took it. Where I teach now, we teach Inorganic Chemistry as a 400-level course with prerequisites that mean most students taking it are seniors, and it's definitely taught at a more advanced level than my Inorganic course was.
I forgot my footnote...
* We had an odd numbering system at the time, ad Inorganic chemistry was 16. The two general chemistry courses were 10 & 12 (or 13 for an accelerated combined course). In the chemistry department, and most others, courses in the teens were generally introductory courses meant to be taken in the Freshman year if that was your major.
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