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?