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?

We'll substitute classes they took for the old requirements for the new requirements.
I'm at a research university, so we don't have reverse transfer, but we do have to deal with students stopping out (sometimes for a long time), with transfer students coming in, and with requirements changing rapidly.

We have a notion of "catalog rights": students can graduate under any set of rules from the time they enter until the time they graduate—they need to specify which set of rules they are using when they apply to graduate. Students who come as junior transfers can extend the catalog rights two years earlier (so that changes that happened just before they transferred don't mess them up).

Catalog rights don't last forever, though—they expire after 10 years, so students who stop out and then return years later may have to meet more recent requirements.

The biggest problem with catalog rights is that courses required in one catalog may be discontinued, in which case workaround replacements need to be devised. This substitution is generally the responsibility of the undergraduate director for the individual program. I know I spend a lot of time thinking about how to handle students' catalog rights every time we modify the requirements or discontinue a course.
In one of my former lives, I spent an entire year on the university-wide policy committee trying to figure out the right language to deal with that problem. The problem was a year old then, and wasn't solved for another year or so when an imminent (5 years in the future) change from quarters to semesters forced action.

In the interim, we pushed it off to curriculum without a specific policy, telling them that they needed to have grandfathering/substitution courses identified any time a new course or course sequence was invented by the always inventive faculty. I was told that it also helped clarify the intent and need for the curricular changes. I'm sure it also provided guidance to deans. (See below.)

But this seems to be a minor problem at a CC and (in your case) possibly a result of something we got rid of at my college. We no longer have "AA X" majors, because our accrediting agency wanted massive documentation for each of those, as much as we had for the basic AA major. (Paperwork nightmare.) We already allow deans to override some weird technical violation in some local requirement (by a course substitution) or change the catalog of record to a later one that fixes the problem (that is in policy). You might simply allow a change from "AA X" to a plain "AA" by putting it in policy.
My university had an unlimited ability to graduate under a calendar, but has since instituted a six year rule where you can't graduate on a calendar older than six years. I think that's too quick, but that's me.

More useful is a generic degree program - we called it a Bachelor of General Studies. BGS. This degree gave us a kind of safety net to help stranded students graduate rather than drop out. There are issues with the solution - mostly concerns that we were graduating students who were weaker than the rest and that the degree was hard to market to employers.

But, on balance, I prefer that option to the alternatives. It also gives programs permission to be consistent elsewhere. If a student has a choice to graduate without making their program current, or a reasonable approximation of that, they have a choice. 'No alternatives' leads to compromised administrative decisions.
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