Tuesday, June 02, 2015


Unbundling the Organization

No, college tuition bills are not just like cable bills.

Jeff Selingo argues that they are.  In a piece in the Washington Post this week, he focuses on “bundling” as the common denominator.  He notes that on most four-year campuses, students are billed by the semester, rather than by the course or the credit.  Therefore, students either take too few credits per semester, or too many credits per degree.  (To his credit, Selingo notes the apparent contradiction.)  Consumers routinely complain about paying for cable channels they don’t watch in order to have access to the ones they do; Selingo argues that students have the same issue.

I don’t know if Selingo is right about most four-year colleges, but I’m pretty sure the observation doesn’t apply to most community colleges.  Most of the community colleges I’ve seen have one of two pricing structures: either a basic per-credit rate (the pure a la carte model), or a per-credit rate up to a certain plateau.  Given that the majority of community college students attend part-time -- even though most performance measures assume otherwise -- a per-credit rate offers the proportionality Selingo advocates.

It’s a mixed blessing.

Making part-time attendance easier makes on-time completion harder.  That’s why so many community colleges are adopting versions of “15 to finish,” encouraging students to move quickly enough to graduate in two years.  Some variation on plateau pricing -- or limited bundling, or “buy five, get one free” -- can nudge students towards taking more credits.  Many students won’t because they can’t, but some may move from 12 per semester to 15.  

Selingo is on weaker ground when he addresses transfer.  He argues:

The credit transfer business is arbitrary at best. Credits earned at a community college might be accepted at a public university across the state, but not one in the same town. Colleges say they reject credits they don’t deem worthy, but what they are really doing is trying to protect their bottom lines, just like the cable companies. Each credit a college accepts from somewhere else is revenue they forgo.

Be careful here.  That’s not exactly how it works.

Typically, when students transfer with a non-trivial number of credits, they’re transferring into a given major.  The receiving college will split the transfer credits into two groups: those that apply directly to the major, and “gen eds.”  Gen Ed credit transfer decisions are usually made centrally, and apply across the board.  A prospective poli sci major, for instance, is likely to be able to transfer English Composition without much trouble.

But courses within the major are typically referred to the academic department at the receiving institution.  The prospective poli sci major might have no trouble with U.S. History, but could easily run into issues with, say, Constitutional Law.  That’s because the receiving department doesn’t teach U.S. History anyway, so it suffers no loss by “giving away” credits.  But it does teach Con Law, and it isn’t psyched about losing those credits.

Four-year colleges often fudge the issue by assigning the denied credits “free elective” status.  That way they can claim publicly that they’re good transfer partners, even while actually making students pay to repeat courses they’ve already taken elsewhere because gee, it’s not their fault that none of their programs actually have “free elective” slots in them.  Darn the luck.

All of which is to say that if you want to look at the economic basis of transfer credit acceptance decisions, you have to unbundle the university.  There’s the university as a whole, embodied in action by the dreaded Administration, and then there are the various departments.  The incentives of the two often conflict.

Selingo is right that over the last few years, as enrollments have dropped sharply in much of the country, many four-year institutions have become more accepting of transfer credits.  That largely reflects an economically-driven power shift from departments to central administrations at four-year schools.  I’d argue that it’s mostly a good thing, in this context, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see a back-and-forth between the power centers over time as enrollments fluctuate.

Yes, by all means, let’s unbundle cable bills.  But if we want better credit transfer policies, a certain kind of tighter bundling may actually be the answer.

I think you missed a chance to point out that the author thinks every university is the same as the private ones he is familiar with. In my experience, all tuition is charged per credit until you hit some plateau point (as you put it) that was well over 15 per term.

Now it could be that this is true for "most colleges", but not the colleges that most students attend. I think the large ones are per credit although I have seen some large public universities that are switching to a flat rate to push the completion agenda.

And I would doubt the expertise of an "expert" who doesn't explain that credit transfer can be and is enforced at a state-wide level in some places that are not where he lives.
I'm on a committee that hears occasional requests to accept transfer credits to fulfill requirements for the English major at my four-year, public research university. I take a bit of umbrage at Selingo's suggestion that colleges might reject transfer credits out of concern for the lost tuition money. As Dean Dad notes, such decisions are generally made at the department level. And in my department, at least, we're woefully short-staffed and have trouble offering enough 2000- and 3000-level courses to meet demand. So we're actually happy to "offshore" some of those credit hours to other institutions in the state where we can, and to recognize the past work done by transfer students in the process.

If there are obstacles to courses articulating, it might have to do with doubts about the rigor of the courses being brought in from a prior institution. More likely, though, it's about course content: coverage and skills. I imagine Physics 101 covers pretty much the same material everywhere, but the 2000-level English course called Literary Analysis gets taught a lot of different ways: some teach it as a boot camp in formal analysis, others as an introduction to literary theory, still others as a research methods course. (We're required to accept Literary Analysis credits from other institutions in the state due to articulation agreements, which Selingo apparently omits to discuss.) Other courses get even trickier: if student has taken a "British Literature to 1800" survey at a community college, but we break down coverage of British literature into five shorter periods from which students choose two or three, how do we count the transfer credits? Generally we work to accommodate students, but where such accommodations don't work out, it's a lot more complicated than "you have to take this course again because we want your money."
Like Shane, I've been responsible for recommending transfer credits to fulfill requirements for our English major, and my experience sounds like his. We would sometimes get requests from students to transfer courses from a community college at the sophomore level to count as courses taught at the upper level or as senior seminars. If course levels mean anything (and our curriculum is designed so that they do), then the community college courses should be building skills at the first and second year levels, while a senior seminar should be using those skills and building higher level skills. Like Shane's program, we sometimes have difficulty transferring between our curriculum and others, especially, for us, very traditional "coverage" based curricula.

I've never heard faculty discuss protecting our credits or money in these discussions, not even in very coded ways. We discuss rigor and skills, and perhaps we think we teach those better than other places at times.
Two thoughts on paying for credits:

1. Almost all of the colleges and universities that I'm familiar with have students pay by the credit for part-time students (under 12 credits), and then have a flat-rate fee for full-time students (12-18 credits) that is mathematically the equivalent of paying for 12 credits (per credit rate x 12). I would assume the idea here is that full-time students get a discount because they can essentially take up to 6 credits for free. (If a student pays the full-time fee that is equivalent to paying for 12 credits and takes 15 credits, they are getting more credits per tuition dollar than a part-time student who takes 6 credits and pays for all 6.)

2. My CC has a unique variation of the "buy five, get one free deal". Students who are full-time in the fall semester get to attend the winter session for free. Likewise, students who are full-time in the spring semester get to attend the summer sessions for free. I believe that they can also use the combination to reach full-time status (e.g., someone who takes 9 credits in the fall and 6 in the winter can just pay the full-time student fee instead of two part-time per credit fees). In order for this to work, we bill students a combined fall/winter tuition and a combined spring/summer tuition; this had the added bonus of letting students use financial aid year-round because the aid the covers the spring tuition bill is actually really covering the tuition for both spring and summer.
Off topic memo to Dean Reed:

If you haven't done so already, you might want to look at this article in IHE. This is about an instance of a "nothing special" regional university re-branding itself to stand out and survive, and it is getting some pushback internally, as you and I would both expect. Might be worth following to see how it turns out.

On topic:

Shane's comment and Bardiac's followup reminded me that I've ALSO been responsible for recommending transfer credit at my CC. I'm mentioning it because more than once it has raised issues that Dean Reed might encounter. Sometimes we will get students whose Physics 101 class isn't the full equivalent of ours, but has covered the parts of 101 that are essential and used in 102. (There are various reasons for this, one of which is they come from a quarter term rather than semester system school.) In that case I will recommend an override of the pre-req so they can take our Physics 102, but only give them generic physical science credit for their course (so they don't lose the credit towards an AA). This isn't always popular, because they somehow think we are in the business of Credit Laundering. They don't understand that the next place they attend will NOT take our evaluation of that course as gospel. Every down the line looks at each source institution's classes separately.

And I know that Credit Laundering is what they think is going on, because we twice had someone ask us to approve a set of classes as Physics 101 and 102 credit. We gave them credit towards graduation (meeting the science requirement), but they were quite upset that we didn't launder them for the next school they wanted to attend. Sorry, but they wouldn't buy it even if we did.
Echoing the sentiments above. We don't really want to teach multi-variable calculus when we could be teaching real analysis.

But if your community college multi-variable calculus class doesn't cover line integrals, Green's Theorem, Stoke Theorem, the Divergence Theorem etc.? Not gonna fly. Sorry. You'll need to re-take that here and learn those topics.
My one experience with trying to get courses recognized at a different institution wasn't terribly positive.

I needed a certain number of credits in a major to take an AQ course, but the Registrar wouldn't accept that a course in Microprocessor Design had anything to do with computers, because it didn't have the word "computer" in the course description.

The Dean of the university I took my degree at offered to talk to her, but the Registrar wouldn't speak to him. The professors of the course I wanted to take offered to talk to her, and wrote me a letter stating that in their opinion my course was more than adequate, but she ignored them. The Acting Chairman of the faculty I was trying to take a course in tried to talk to her, but somehow she was never available. I tried to talk to her, but she wouldn't see me. Instead, I talked to a clerk, who stepped five feet into her office and repeated what I'd told her, then stepped five feet back to the counter and told me what I'd heard the Registrar tell him.

There's no way this was about the knowledge I had or didn't have, because I'd taught some courses at college that, if I'd taken them, would have been recognized as accepted prerequisites. But because I was only the instructor they didn't count. (And a letter from the Dean of the college where I taught wouldn't be accepted, and no she wouldn't talk to him either…)

So I had to take (and pay for) an extra course to get my qualification — a summer session of two full-time courses taken simultaneously.

Was this about money? I suspect it was more about control and petty authority, as I discovered that several of my classmates were in the same situation.

Could I have appealed? Yes, but appeals (during the summer) were judged by — oddly — the Registrar. Were there agreements between my old university and the the one I was taking the course at? Yes, but apparently this sort of thing wasn't that unusual. (In fact, my father remembered hearing about trouble years before, which makes me wonder if it was really just a petty official or an institutional mindset.)

This was at the largest university in Canada, so not some little place that wasn't used to students coming from other institutions…
Dont forget that many schools also require a certain number of credits completed at their school before allowing graduation. Hence the 163 semester hours i carry and still cant seem to ever "graduate" from any school. There are a lot of people who work jobs that require travel and the notion of a stabil 9to5 work schedule is laughable to most studentst, but good luck finding a rigorus math or science course, heck any upper level course work that offers flexible schedueling. While online courses help, in math and physics they are mostly only useful for autodidacs.

by the way fascinating blog, been lurking here for a while. oh one other thing, if you have any influence please offer ideas on how to fix all the broken school websites out there. very few of them are usable see http://xkcd.com/773/

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