Wednesday, December 03, 2014


Two-Year Majors

Should community colleges have psychology majors?  English majors?  Poli sci majors?

The trend nationally is against it.  The “guided pathways” movement is all about “streamlining,” which means reducing the number of available options to the bare minimum.  The theory, and there is some empirical support for it, is that students are easily overwhelmed by too many options.  Keep things simple, and there will be fewer places for something to go wrong.  This is the argument for the plain vanilla “gen ed” major, which lumps together most pre-transfer liberal arts students into a single category.  Let them be generalists early; they can specialize after they transfer.

There’s truth to that.  The differences in the first two years of, say, a history major as opposed to a poli sci major are often subtle enough that they could easily both be contained within a single structure that includes a few electives.  I’ll even admit that the bureaucratic overhead of many majors is greater than for just a handful.

But I’m starting to wonder about the value to both the student and the college of making a more specific identification relatively early.

The value to the institution is easy.  Knowing that a given student wants to transfer on for psychology, as opposed to political science, makes it easier to assign an appropriate academic advisor.  I’d rather send a student to a professor in her chosen field for guidance than to one who just happens to inhabit the same large bucket of vaguely-related disciplines.  

The value to the student is more subtle, but more important.  Many community colleges have some version of a generic transfer major.  That major typically has one of the lowest completion rates on campus.  Some of that is due to planned early transfer, such as when a student only ever intended to spend one year at the cc before moving to the four-year school.  Although that technically counts as attrition, I’d argue that it’s measurement error; the student got what she wanted and went on to finish.  But some of the lower graduation rates of generic transfer majors, I suspect, comes from the fact that they’re generic.  They become dumping grounds for undecided students, by default.  But those are the students who most need direction.

Forcing students to pick something -- knowing full well that they have the option of changing it later -- can nudge them towards acknowledging some sort of substantive interest.  I’m thinking here that it may be akin to party identification and voting rates: people who register as Democrats or Republicans tend to vote at higher rates than people who declare themselves independents.  Much of that is probably a reflection of previous underlying interest, but some of it may be self-reinforcing.  It may not be a coincidence that voting rates have declined along with party identification.  Asking the students to declare the academic equivalent of a party may induce a greater sense of academic belonging.  They’ll know who their peers are.

A few well-developed tracks within majors (‘options’ within a single major) can accomplish much of what I’m suggesting.  At Holyoke, for example, the psychology major is an option within the liberal arts major.  That’s probably enough, since it still allows us to know who to send to the psych department for advising, and it allows students to declare a substantive interest.  It even allows us to generate critical mass to run some solid 200-level psych courses, instead of consigning the faculty to teaching nothing but Intro for the rest of their careers.  That matters in its own right.

Wise and worldly readers at community colleges, have you seen or found ways to differentiate usefully among the students in the generic transfer major?

For us, differentiation mostly depends on the requirements of the transfer institution and major. So, we have a transfer major in Social Science, for example--students major in this and unofficially pick from a number of transfer institutions and majors. Once they're on an unofficial track (say, "Social Science major transferring to X University for Anthropology"), then they work with their advisor to pick courses based on that particular articulation agreement.

As a faculty member, if your field falls within Social Science, or Humanities, or another generic transfer major, you advise students in these majors regardless of whether or not their future goal relates to your field. A professor of mythology and folklore, for example, might advise a Humanities major who is transferring to get a BA in Spanish, and a History professor might advise a Social Science major whose ultimate goal is a Bachelors in Social Work.
Absolutely, mostly because of your "students don't do optional" mantra, but within limits, because of the need to keep things simple for advisors. Generic majors/tracks (like is described in the comment above) cover what is most important, and that is not making mistakes. Many faculty advisors, but even professional advisors, make mistakes when there isn't a clear track defined in the CCs system.

An example of an error would be giving generic advice to a first semester freshman about taking a basic computer course that is perfect for a history major but is redundant for an education major (specific required course) or a business major (different specific course), and none of those are right for a future science or computer science major. Poof. There goes 3 credits that will cost money to duplicate.

We only have a single AA "General Transfer" major, but we have a number of well-defined generic tracks within that major that basically define electives that are requirements. Students must pick one of these and identify the transfer school and major. Those choices are clearly present in our computer system.

We once had things like AA "Pre engineering", but got rid of it because the admin folks simply didn't want to do the extra accreditation work. They had their hands full with all of the AS majors plus huge difficulties trying to make it match some small but non-trivial differences between different transfer schools.

You can't really have an English major or an Engineering major because you don't grant degrees in those fields, and if you try to get too specific you will be OK transferring to school Z but not to school Q. What you really need to do is match what is required by most schools that will ultimately grant those degrees, particularly in the first semester or two, and have a few technical elective choices to get it right during the last semester. This is more about defining tracks and getting students on them as early as possible than it is about actually having majors.
Not at a community college, but as undergrad director for bioengineering at a 4-year college, I have to define the transfer requirements for incoming transfer students.

The generic community college degree is pretty worthless for engineering transfer students. They don't need all their gen-ed taken care of before they transfer. What they need is solid education in math, physics, chemistry, computer science, and biology—the things that the engineering students at the 4-year colleges take in their first two years.

In California, we refer to the usual community college advising as the IGETC mistake. (IGETC stands for something like Intersegmental General Education Transfer Curriculum.) Students who make the IGETC mistake are a year or more behind on technical subjects when they transfer, and have to take a purely technical load after transferring, with no lighter-weight general education courses to ease their workload.

Recommend to students planning to transfer into science or engineering programs to load up on math and science courses (plus some writing courses) and leave the rest of their general education until after they've transferred.
@gasstationwithoutpumps -- thank you. I'm in the life sciences, so our curriculum isn't quite as prescribed (and I've been surprised at how variable it is among schools) but one thing that does not vary is that what you do not want is a full load of major-only courses for the last two years. In part because it's unlikely you'll get them all and in part because the workload would blow anyone's mind. Students need a little variety lest they burn out.
Thanks for the insight from both of the comments above. I am well aware of the problem of not having any "easy" classes left after the Sophomore year, so I specifically advise students to leave anything not required for the AA degree until after transfer, and encourage a few to transfer early (without the AA, provided they have finished all of calculus and physics) even though it hurts our federal grad stats. Everyone needs to know the risks they face after transfer.

Our problem is that most of our pre-engineering students are not prepared to start in calc 1, let alone calc 2, as freshmen as the university's schedules assume. They often have a semester or even two before they are ready for calculus, particularly if they are veterans returning from 4 years of service and several tours overseas. They will complete all of the gen ed classes, and even the AA, before they are prepared to transfer. Most finish calculus and physics after the AA but before transferring. (Even if they transfer, they still have to pass those classes before they can take courses in their major.) I do my best to make sure they know what they face and to manage the load after they transfer. Forwarned is forearmed.

It isn't the gen ed curriculum that is the problem. That said, most other students also take little but engineering classes in their last two years. Sort of goes with the territory.
While most transfer students earn a generic Associate in Arts & Sciences degree, we have Curriculum Guides for every major. Each guide includes a checklist of suggested classes that will not only meet the requirements for the AAS degree, but will prepare students to transfer as fully-fledged rising Juniors in their major.
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