Wednesday, March 22, 2017


Reverse Transfers and Unintended Consequences

Wise and worldly readers, I’m hoping you can help me settle a philosophical disagreement.

It’s about reverse transfer agreements and unintended consequences.

In this context, “reverse transfer agreements” refer to a community college and a four-year college agreeing to allow students to transfer “up” with a course or two still to go in the associate’s degree, with the understanding that the student can finish the last course or two at the four year school and transfer the credit back to wrap up the associate’s.

(Tressie McMillan Cottom owns the franchise on articulation agreements at this point.  In Lower Ed she refers to them as “pinky swears” between institutions.  That’s closer to the truth than many of us would like to admit.)

The incentive for the student is the safety net of an associate’s degree.  If life happens in the junior or senior year and the student has to drop out, better to leave as an associate degree graduate than as a college dropout.  If she plays her cards right, sometimes the reverse transfer agreement can also grease the wheels for the transfer of the entire degree; it’s not unusual for four-year schools to cherry-pick transfer credits in the absence of a degree, but to award a block of credits for a completed degree.

The incentive for the four-year school, beyond doing right by the student, is easier recruitment.  If a student just has one or two classes left, they can still close the deal and not tell the student to try again a semester later.  As we all know, when they get turned away, some students never return.  

The incentive for the community college, beyond doing right by the student, is getting some credit for a successful completion.  Get a bunch of community college administrators in a room and ask us about IPEDS rates, and you may have to duck.  A student who does 54 credits with us, transfers “up,” and finishes the four-year degree on time counts in our stats as a dropout.  That’s ridiculous, but it’s the system we have.  To the extent that reverse transfer agreements can help us get recognition for what we’re actually achieving, they level the playing field a bit.

All of that is fine, as far as it goes.  Here’s the philosophical disagreement.

Do reverse transfer agreements encourage students to leave early?

My position is that they almost certainly don’t.  Students move “up” when they’re emotionally ready to.  If they feel like it’s time, for whatever reason, they’ll go.  Better to provide a safety net, and to get some overdue institutional credit, than not to.  There may be some student somewhere who has made a calculation she otherwise wouldn’t have, but I’m guessing the number is vanishingly low.

The alternative position, held by someone I respect, is that we’re tacitly encouraging them to leave before they finish.  Students are savvy about reading signs; if they get what they perceive as a green light, they’ll go.  Yes, many will leave too early anyway; that’s no reason to encourage them.

Wise and worldly readers, I look to you.  From a community college perspective, are reverse transfer agreements a good idea?

They are unquestionably a good idea.

They do not, at my institution, encourage students to leave early. The students who leave early have always planned to leave early. (From the IPEDS viewpoint, they lied when they said their objective was to earn an AA degree. They intend to transfer before earning an AA degree, once they convince a particular university or their parents to let them transfer.) If they fail to transfer early, it is because they messed up and didn't take our classes seriously. Now our situation might be special, but your mention of 54 credits makes me suspect we are not.

There are three conditions under which our students can transfer to some of the more selective universities in this area. (1) They have an AA degree and meet the transfer admission criteria. They get block transfer of 60 credits and enter with all of their general education requirements met. (2) They have 54 credits and meet the transfer requirements. They get screwed, because they have to meet the university's general education requirements, which are different and in some ways quite unique. As the cost of those extra classes has grown, this happens less often so it not as big of a deal as it used to be here or might be elsewhere. (3) They meet the freshman admission requirements to the university, and earn good grades in a preset group of courses as freshmen. They can transfer in a year or less, if they make the grade. We used to get screwed on the IPEDS measures, but we are now capturing those via a reverse transfer agreement.

It is a win-win now, because the university uses this to game the college ranking rules. (Or parents use it to get their kids to prove they are responsible enough to move to another city on their own.) The university looks more selective, with a higher gpa and SAT ranking for incoming freshmen, and we get some great students who now actually earn a degree, and they also get those good students without risking their IPEDS grad rate.
Yes. If every community college had the resources to perfect their ed planning, class scheduling, ongoing advising, and remediation processes, and the majority of students were completing the AA - then the argument that reverse transfer is an incentive to leave early might be more plausible. These colleges are the exception, not the rule, though we are all striving mightily to improve. Beyond the structural gaps, students also just change their minds. I agree that reverse transfer offers wins for all parties.
My previous employer piloted reverse transfer in our state between our large, online, nontrad university and the community colleges. It was a win for the CC's because it bumped up their graduation rates. It was a win for the uni because students were taking more of our courses. It was a win for the students because they now had 2 credentials and in some cases got scholarship money too. And we worked out with the CC's a process to send them final transcripts so the students didn't have to.
That's a crazy person critique. Nobody makes decisions like that.

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