Thursday, March 17, 2016


Reverse Transfer and Expiration Dates

On my campus, we’re starting to take seriously the idea of “reverse transfer.”  In this context, that refers to students who started here, then transferred to a four-year school before graduating.  They can transfer back some credits from the four-year school to finish the associate’s.  The idea is to recognize what they’ve achieved, and to give them a safety net should life intervene before they complete the bachelor’s.  Better to leave as an associate degree holder than as a college dropout.  

In concept, it should be easy enough.  We already take transfer credits from students who have left four-year schools to come here, and from students who have left other two-year schools to come here.  So we have the mechanisms for credit evaluation and for posting transfer credit.  We already have a clear residency requirement -- a minimum number of credits that need to be taken at Brookdale in order to get a Brookdale degree -- so that’s in place.  And as a school that transfers forward more students than it receives, it understands the importance of respecting transfer credit.  This should be easy.

It also offers one institutional response to the Purgatory Problem.  There’s a non-trivial cohort of students who come to community college as a response to a bargain with parents: prove your academic seriousness in a year or so at the community college, and they’ll agree to send you on to where you really wanted to be.  The community college becomes a sort of purgatory in which they cleanse themselves of sin -- defined, usually, as a checkered high school record -- before moving on to the promised land.  

Reverse transfer offers the possibility of showing some of those students as the completers they truly are.  If their plan all along was to do a year or so here and then move on to a four-year school, and they do that successfully, then they’ve succeeded by any substantive measure.  But by the measures by which we’re often judged, we’ve failed.  Pardon the pun, but reverse transfer gives credit where credit is due.

This week I saw a wrinkle I hadn’t anticipated.  

For the student who spent a semester or a year at Compass Direction State and then came to us, it’s obvious which catalog to use to determine where the credits go: we use the catalog in effect upon enrollment.  If you show up in the Fall of 2016, we use the catalog in effect in the Fall of 2016.  That’s straightforward enough.

But what about the student who started here in, say, 2010, stuck around for three or four semesters without completing, took a few years off, and is now enrolled at Compass Direction State?  The program in which the student was enrolled here in 2010 may have changed its requirements since then; instead of being, say, six credits short, now he’s twelve short.  Worse, what if the program in which the student had been enrolled has undergone a more fundamental change, or even been phased out?

For students who start here, stop out for a while, then come back here, we have a one-year rule.  If they’re out for a year or more, they restart under the new catalog.  But that might not be practical for reverse transfer.  They often take a while to send back the courses, for one thing, and dealing with two curricula in motion generates more variables than dealing with one.  

I’ll admit that the whole concept of “expiration dates” for credits rubs me the wrong way.  I got my Ph.D. in the 1990’s.  Is it obsolete?  Do I have to get another one?  (NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!)  The argument that content changes over time isn’t any less true for completed degrees than for incomplete ones, but we’ll expire credits toward incomplete degrees in less time than it should take to complete the degree.  Intuitively, there’s something wrong with that.  But without expiration dates, we could get folks who’ve been out for twenty years, trying to apply their DOS programming courses towards a computer science degree.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a relatively reasonable and elegant policy on reverse transfer and expiration dates?

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