Sunday, December 13, 2015


The Uncounted Cost of Spurned Transfer

I was heartened to see on Friday that the CCRC, the Aspen Institute, and Public Agenda are teaming up to work on the issues around community college students losing credits when they transfer to four-year schools.  I was even happier to see that much of the focus will apparently be on the receiving schools, where it should be; community colleges don’t control the decisions to accept or not.  When students have significant numbers of credits refused at the receiving institution, it puts them in a tough spot: they have to pay again for classes they’ve already taken, they take longer, and they smart from what amounts to a slap in the face.  I was so pleased to see the topic addressed that I even forgave the use of a “pipeline” metaphor.

All of those costs are relatively easy to calculate.  We know the tuition rates at receiving schools, how many students attend them, and the impact on graduation rates of refused credits.  (Hint: it’s bad.)  We can figure out some potential savings for students accordingly.

From where I sit, though, there’s another cost of refused transfers that often goes uncounted.  It’s the exciting experimental course that gets shot down during the planning phase because we aren’t sure that it would transfer.

Ten years ago (!), I did a piece called “Freshman Seminars and the Tyranny of Transfer.”  A decade and two colleges later, the same issue keeps popping up.  Interdisciplinary courses -- courses that don’t fit cleanly in the checklist in the Admissions office -- tend to get relegated to “free elective” status.  Most majors have few or no free electives, so the credits are put in a sort of academic limbo.  They aren’t “denied,” in a straightforward way, but they aren’t counted towards the degree, either.  

With an acute awareness of student costs, in both money and time, we’re increasingly reluctant to give students credits that won’t transfer, or that won’t transfer effectively.  That means that courses that would make terrific educational sense, but that don’t have obvious currency in transfer, usually die at the proposal stage.  They won’t show up in the statistics about “denied” transfers, because they weren’t attempted in the first place.  

If the transfer rules were cleaner, and written more to serve students than to avoid “giving away too many credits,” community colleges would be much more able to innovate.  In a climate in which institutional performance is under new scrutiny, I’d like to be able to support exciting new ways to help students succeed.  

“Meta-majors” are probably the most salient current example.  Would a three-credit interdisciplinary introduction to the social sciences transfer?  We don’t know.  I’d love to run it -- “Money, Sex, and Power: An Introduction to Social Inquiry” would make a hell of a course -- but at this point, it’s anybody’s guess.  So we have a choice: either cut down the future to the size of the present, or roll the dice.  I lean hard towards the latter, on the theory that in the long run, success is success.  But in the meantime, some help in reducing the risk would be most welcome.

I haven’t seen the CCRC/Aspen/Public Agenda report yet, obviously, but I hope it includes opportunity costs in its calculation of costs.  Yes, by all means, help students get credit for the existing classes they’ve taken.  But let’s also let community colleges experiment with ways to help students succeed.  Let’s finally break the tyranny of the checklist.

Wow, that linked article was a flash from the past, with some familiar commenters who were still around when I first started to follow you.

I think some of the more cogent comments are still applicable. In particular, it is all about accreditation and program requirements and, now, Learning Outcomes. It will only transfer as an elective if it is not a required course for the major chosen by the transfering student. (Calculus is an elective for an English Lit major if the minimum math requirement has been met, and I am not making up that example.) It will only transfer as a general education course if it meets a well-defined standard for same, either individually or as part of a block articulation agreement.

To go with your example, but link it into our system, you would need to have that freshman class be something like an intro to sociology course that has sufficient content to be accepted as a general education social sociology (or social science) class. Can your faculty figure out a way to fit a bit of political science or psychology into a sociology curriculum? Or use college as an example of a social system? I don't see why not. It cannot have an interdisciplinary title, however, and it must fit into a common niche at the schools your students attend.

And remember, even if it is ignored, it will be valuable if it is effective. If you can document that it achieves its desired outcome of producing college students who do well in their classes, your students will want to take it even if it is just an "elective" somewhere else. After all, they want to succeed.

Emphatic emphasis here: A "free elective" at the CC level is not necessrily "wasted". Your regular use of the term seems to reflect a fear that your classes are substandard in some fields. Most of the math classes and some of the science classes taken by my students are classified as an elective at my CC, but they transfer as required courses for their major. And, I might add, the terminology at the CC level frequently disturbs them. They are quite fearful that a class that shows up as an "elective" in our degree tracking system will not count as "science" or "math" after they transfer. They are afraid that any class that pushes them over the 60 credit "limit" will be ignored when they transfer. Both can lead to bad decisions being made and are not well addressed in our advising system.
To get around that issue we offer "interdisciplinary sections" instead of "interdisciplinary courses". Essentially students register for a set of 2-3 linked sections of courses in different departments. While each "interdisciplinary section" still covers the curriculum that non-interdisciplinary sections do, they do so through a lens that fits the linked theme. For example, a general bio section, poli sci section, and English section might all teach their curricula through an environmental lens. These tend to be very popular with our freshmen. It works because the students still get the thematic experience, but their transcripts show courses that will transfer.
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