Sunday, January 24, 2016


What Do You Advise Amy to Take?

The blizzard this weekend forced some serious “inside” time, so I was able to be slightly more attentive than usual to Twitter.  (I also learned firsthand that “slippery plus steep plus snowblower equals big fun,” but that’s another post.)  On Saturday, Lee Skallerup Bessette got a discussion going about some of the issues that get in the way of successful community college to four year transfer, and it became clear quickly that some of those issues are more complicated than 140 characters can convey.

“Transfer” is one of those things that many people think they understand, but few actually do.  To the extent that most people think about it, they imagine students at community colleges getting the associate’s degree in two years, and then getting the bachelor’s in two more.  And that does happen.  But the picture is much more complicated than that.

For example, lateral and reverse transfers are much more common than most people think.  Lateral means cc-to-cc or four-year-to-four-year; reverse refers to a student moving from a four-year to a two-year.  Many programs aren’t meant to transfer; they’re intended to be two-and-out, leading directly to jobs. Those aren’t what policymakers imagine when they refer to transfer, but they’re significant parts of the picture, and each part brings its own needs.

Within the realm of the more traditional vertical transfer, though, I get twitchy when I read about “leaky pipelines” and community colleges.  That language assumes that it’s essentially an engineering problem; it isn’t.  It’s largely a political problem.

Here’s a riddle we face every single day on my campus.  (I’ll change the names and details for the sake of decorum.)  Amy wants to get her degree at the community college and transfer on for a bachelor’s, but she isn’t sure yet where she wants to go.  Hypothetical State U wants her to have taken US History, Pre-calc, and a year of a foreign language.  St. Somebody wants her to have taken European History, Statistics, and a separate diversity course.  Meanwhile, Respected Private College wants her to have taken World Civ, Calc I, and a service learning course.

What do you advise Amy to take?

Multiply that dilemma by more receiving institutions, chains of prerequisites, student preferences, and majors, and you begin to get the idea.  

Although we try to work around it, this issue will not, and cannot, be solved only at the community college level.  We twist ourselves into pretzels to try to satisfy the idiosyncratic and frequently-changing preferences of four-year partners.  But when each four-year partner wants different things, it’s impossible to satisfy them all.  That’s especially true when entering students don’t have a single destination in mind.

(Last year I saw a presentation on the very successful “pipeline” from Maricopa community colleges to Arizona State.  It works because over 90 percent of the students who transfer from Maricopa go to one place.  When you have multiple destinations, it’s much harder.)

The internal politics of many four-year colleges make matters worse.  Admissions offices will frequently defer to receiving departments for decisions on the acceptance of transfer credit.  Receiving departments are frequently willing to accept gen eds, but unwilling to “give away too many credits” in the major.  They want those FTE’s for themselves.  They can do that and still comply with statewide transfer mandates by reclassifying classes as 300 level, rather than 200 level, and/or by awarding “free elective” credit for transfer classes, rather than credits in the major.  In the absence of some sort of master list of what belongs at what level, a 300 level class is whatever the receiving department says it is.

In most professions, such an obvious conflict of interest would have been blocked years ago.  But in higher ed, it’s so normal that most of us don’t even see it.  

In parts of the country with relatively robust private college sectors, there’s a limit to what legislative mandates can do.  But even on the public side, where mandates can exist, it’s easy to evade their intent while staying within the letter of the law.  Every exception becomes a new “leak.”  

The politics become obvious when you start trying to engineer a solution.  If every college agreed on what belongs at which level, and what the transfer requirements should be, then it would be far easier to ensure that students would transfer and get full credit.  But that would involve a central authority, outside of the four-year colleges, making academic decisions for them.  Departments would have to live with the decisions others made; they would lose their power to make those calls.  Experience tells me they’d fight that bitterly, invoking “academic integrity” to protect their own enrollments.

The metaphor of the “leaky pipeline” assumes that the system is basically well-designed, and just needs some fixes.  I’d argue that the system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.  If you want different results -- as I do -- the changes will be a lot more drastic than fixing leaks.  The issue isn’t Amy or her community college; the issue is that there’s no obvious answer to her question.  Until there is, we can expect the “leaks” to continue.

In my New Zealand newspaper we had a big picture on the front page of the World section in the newspaper of "Matt Reed shoveling snow at his in-laws house in Maryland". My impression is that "Matt" is an uncommon name/diminutive in the US that it might by you?
You didn't ask, but: (1) they make chains for snowblowers (2) they also make the sidewalk version of crampons that slip on like rubbers over your shoes or boots. Multiple vendors for each.

I would advise Amy to contact her state legislators. (This politics is local.) That said, a congressman might be able to sway some additional legislators or build in incentives for them to fix the state part of the equation. For example, the AA transfer part is relatively seamless in my state due to legislation and regulation of all state universities and community colleges. (A package of courses must be accepted in lieu of the package at each school and even course substitutions are mandated at the CC level.) In addition, the classification of pre-req courses as upper or lower division is out of the control of state universities.

That said, there are still challenges fitting the package together where you must have a target institution in mind for your specific major, particularly in the social sciences (IME). And private schools will only do what they must do, which isn't much unless forced by competition. The larger density of private colleges in the NE must make this ten times worse where you are. Hardly any of our CC students plan to transfer to a private college.

As for Amy:
She needs two maths at my college so start with pre-calc. If that goes OK, take calculus and then statistics as an elective. If not, take statistics next and change your plans. We also allow two histories, so take one of each. Then find a diversity course that includes service learning in its catalog description unless you have a way to do service via transcript annotation. We have lots of social science classes that meet a diversity requirement, and you probably do as well. Finally, take the foreign language.
Speaking as a historian, the history is usually easy to secure once you figure out which type you really need. There are usually some on offer regularly (if we're talking intro courses) so don't rush to cram those in at the very start. Your student might have a better idea of which institution she's aiming at after a term or two.

CCPhysicist is smart with the advice to start with precalc, whatever else she takes. That is going to set the student up on the road to success with calculus if needed.
In California, I think that most "vertical" transfer is to CSU or UC, so there are only about 32 common destinations for the 113 community colleges. It is harder for the receiving institutions to figure out what to do with transfers than for the community colleges (more sources than destinations).

But there are various things being done to simplify transfer: increased number of articulation agreements, some standardized courses so that everyone can articulate to the standard, rather than having to do pairwise articulation, IGETC (Intersegmental General Education Transfer Curriculum)—which is great for social sciences and humanities, but a disaster for STEM transfers, …

Incidentally, there are other reasons than transfer prejudice that drive course-level inflation: teaching resources are often allocated internally based on the level of a course, with upper-division courses getting more resources than lower-division ones. This builds in an inherent pressure to inflate course level whenever you can get away with it.
You frequently say that receiving departments turn credits into gen eds because "they don't want to give away too many credits in the major." Can you provide data for this?

As someone who has made this decision a decent number of times, I've never once thought that, never been told to think that, and never heard it discussed by others making that decision. But, that's just my experience, maybe there is some sort of data showing that you're claim is closer to the norm?

His data might just be anecdotal. Happens to me all the time in New England, in my specialized CC program in a scientific discipline. All.the.time. despite the fact that the students come back to me and tell me that they did fine in the class they were forced to repeat at 4 year school because it was essentially the same course that they had taken and done well in at my CC. The "free electives" are pretty much useless, because in some disciplines, there is not much room for these electives.

I also have a friend, in another New England state, who teaches English at a CC. She told me the same thing happens to her.
Hi Anon @4:46--I understand that *your students* are getting free electives instead of classes in the major sequence even though you think that your classes are equivalent to the major classes.

But, the claim is that the receiving department is rejecting your classes to protect their teaching loads. Do you have evidence of the receiving department's internal discussions to support the claim? This claim can't be supported by asking CC faculty what happens to their credits!

*I get it, it's hugely frustrating to you and your students. When I worked at a CC course articulation was a huge issue, of course, but we sent 95%+ of our vertical transfers to the same 3 institutions, and, there were some helpful state laws enforcing articulation if specific criteria were met, so it was less of an issue than it was for colleagues working in other states.

*But! DD's claim is implying that there's nefarious motives on the part of 4-year college faculty and administrators. To support this, the onus is on those making such a claim to provide evidence from said college faculty and administrators.

The appropriate claim to make, from the CC side, is, "We design classes that we believe should transfer in as courses in the major. We don't know why the receiving department doesn't take them, but it's really frustrating to us and we've done everything we can to make them as close to the intended courses as we can."

>>One of DD's big goals in writing this blog is to help faculty see the administrator perspective and the kinds of thinking that go on--so that we can understand the issues that they confront and that they're doing the best that they can with limited information, competing goals, and insufficient resources. So that we, the faculty, don't demonize them or caricature them. I find DD's repetition of this claim so troubling because it's basically doing just that.
I'm a little annoyed with the unsupported accusation regarding denying credits to bump up FTEs. Dean Dad makes it sound like it's common, but I've never heard of such a thing in my department. Is chemistry just different? Is my department unusual?


My classes are equivalent; we teach specific lab skills that the four year school also teaches--the 4 year school which I'm thinking of eventually believed us after we sent multiple students to them who could do the work, and they rectified the situation for future students. It's too bad that the first students had to be guinea pigs, though, and repeat material that they had already mastered at the community college.

And it wasn't just my students. I mentioned a friend, in another state, in a completely different discipline, who has told me that the same thing has happened to her students.

You obviously don't know me, but at least in my experience, CC credits being rejected as counting for the major has happened when the students have tried to transfer them. It might not be universal, but Dean Dad has mentioned it before and I've experienced it with my own students, for whatever reason.
I have not read the entire article, but this link does talk about credit loss upon transfer. It does not give specifics about the courses which did not transfer and the reasons why this might be, but there is some data in this article to support the idea that this is something which does happen.

The talk of credit loss starts around page 14, and their calculations state that only 58% of transfers in their national sample are able to bring all or almost all of their credits with them.
Several things in the discussion between Tim and Anon includes some of the reasons why I think a political solution is the best long-range plan. GasStation-w-o-pumps points to the value of statewide articulation by law or regulation, which is what works very well in my state. I suspect that the broad agreement within the state on the content and level of the course I teach might help explain why it also transfers easily to Purdue and Georgia Tech, among others. But it won't transfer to a private university as "physics major physics", for very good reasons that I completely agree with. Where it looks fishy is when someone claims a class is "upper division" when it is almost entirely taught to sophomores as a prerequisite before entering the major. Right.

That said, my own take on the issue is that it is more about elitism than greed. I won't go into details, but lets just say that some of our faculty have also taught at a nearby university. Somehow the exact same course is more reputable when taught to hundreds in a giant lecture hall than when taught in a normal classroom. One almost exploded when someone made an ignorant comment about us without knowing where that prof normally worked.

More amusingly, I've also seen it from students who think they are slumming when they take a class at our CC -- until they take the first exam.
Hi Anon--I'm not discounting credit loss. I'm in agreement that it happens and that it's a huge problem, I have experienced it as a student, as a CC faculty member, and as a 4-year-faculty member.

--I'm simply asking DD to stop asserting that the reasons it's happening is a desire to protect FTEs at the 4-years.

He can write:

--Our students experience credit loss, we don't think they should, we don't get satisfactory answers about why. It's a huge problem for students.

CCPhysicist--my courses would be introductory for the students' major at the 4 year school, not junior level courses. Makes it all the more frustrating.

Tim--Got you. I have no idea the reason, although I can certainly speculate. I agree that it would be difficult to find out why. In our case, we had to prove ourselves, so I'm guessing they doubted the rigor of the courses.
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