Tuesday, June 20, 2017


States or Departments?

Who should control curriculum at public colleges?  States, or individual departments?

Each answer has a pretty clear implication for transfer.

I’m facing this one because some of the four-year schools in my state -- not naming any names -- have recently declared that they’re each unilaterally changing the rules for which courses they’ll take in transfer.  In at least one case, the impetus seems to have come from one department within the receiving institution before spreading.  This in a context of a state with a law mandating transfer, but with asterisks that seem to grow over time.

If you’re a believer in the autonomy of academic departments, this act of nullification may strike you as a blow for freedom, or standards, or some other good thing.  If the Basketweaving department at Compass Direction State U wants to hoard credits for itself, it can simply declare ex cathedra that similar credits from community colleges supported by the very same taxpayers that support CDSU just aren’t good enough.  Or similar enough.  Or whatever enough.  

If each college -- hell, each department within each college -- is permitted to nullify statewide agreements, though, it won’t be long before the requirements of the different four-year schools start to conflict with each other.  (That’s already happening.)  If you’re a community college with a strong transfer function, whose curriculum do you mirror?  To put it differently, whose curriculum becomes your default choice?

I understand the temptations of devolution.  A few weeks ago I got into a colloquy with Richard Florida about devolution in the context of the power relations between the Federal government and cities; broadly speaking, he favors more local autonomy, and I consider it a trap.  His argument is that many cities are far ahead of national governments in addressing some very real social problems, and they shouldn’t be hamstrung by an agglomeration of rotten boroughs from doing what needs to be done.  My argument is that in actual historical practice, locally oppressed groups have sought to socialize conflicts for a very good reason; it’s no coincidence that the rhetoric of “states’ rights” was deployed in the service of systematic racism.  The smaller the venue, the easier it is for local tyrannies to reign.  

The stakes are juuuuust a bit smaller in this case, but the basic logic is the same.  If we conceive of public colleges as entirely freestanding, then yes, the argument from devolution makes sense.  But if we see them as part of a larger ecosystem, then the idea that any department can go rogue at any time, for any reason, quickly becomes ridiculous.  Assuming that the taxpayers would prefer not to subsidize the same student taking the same course twice at different schools -- a safe assumption, in my experience -- there’s a compelling argument for some sort of central authority to be able to override local preferences.  

That can be done with varying degrees of grace, of course.  In Massachusetts the state did it right, starting with a series of statewide gatherings of faculty from both sectors, clustered by discipline.  It basically locked each discipline in separate rooms and told them not to come out until they had the outlines of a workable agreement about what everybody would teach and what everybody would accept.  The state mandated that the colleges agree, but remained neutral as to the content of the agreement.  That struck me as a smart way to do it.  I sat in on the poli sci discussions, during which it quickly became clear that the expectations of the two sectors were almost entirely distinct.  (Intro to American Government was the only point of consensus.)  And while it would have been easy for a given department on a given campus to tell a dean who asks too many questions to go pound sand, it was much harder for a professor at Compass Direction State to tell a counterpart at Local Community College that he didn’t count.  

Because at the core of these battles are students who lose credits in transfer.  We know from the literature that credit loss upon transfer is a powerful predictor of attrition, and for obvious reasons.  We also know that neither legislators nor taxpayers relish paying for the same thing twice.  If we want to provide “guided pathways,” it would be much easier if the pathways upwards were consistent with each other.  Otherwise, we’re left with an advising task of such complexity that it guarantees failure at scale.

Wise and worldly readers, is there a better way than the Massachusetts model?  Or are we stuck with a choice between centralized dictatorship and entropy?

Because research universities have many more disciplines than most community colleges, there will always be some mismatch. What can be done is to try to standardize the courses that are service courses at the University (physics, calculus, composition, … ) so that those can be taken at any institution, but allow each institution to have its own distinctive flavor of things that are less useful to standardize. This is the direction that California is going (from having an all-vs-all articulation scheme that is terribly unwieldy with the huge number of pairs of colleges).
First, your leverage is to tell a university that you will advise all of your students to go elsewhere, because you can only maintain a curriculum for Rutgers? and everyone who follow that, plus maybe one other variant that has a lot of local interest for geographical reasons. And get other CCs to do the same. They can't afford to live without your students.

My answer to your question: Florida.

Now there is a certain advantage to having a system in place for 50 years that goes back to a time when there were some four-year universities that did not have any freshman or sophomore students (e.g. FAU and FIU), but it has only been maintained by a fight that goes all the way to the legislature. Indeed, the latest round had the legislature mandate that everyone agree on a small set of courses that would be the only "state core" courses for general education in various areas, what those areas would be, how many credits total, and that everyone has to accept the others in transfer if the student has completed an AA. They even, I was told, cracked down on a particular bit of evasion like you might be describing.

Writ broadly, an institution must get approval to create a new course number, and its content cannot be a slight variant of an existing lower-division one that is being created merely to deny transfer credit. The details are not fixed (textbooks and even coverage of the main content is flexible up to a point) but the primary outcomes are fixed. A course is flexible enough that some institutions have two reaizations of the same course, achieving the same ends through different means. As you might guess, it is grading standards (both within and between institutions) that are the main variable.

The guiding principle is that you cannot have a curriculum where a course required to enter a major as a junior cannot be taken at a CC. Whether a CC has the student demand and faculty to teach it might be an open question, but it has to be allowed. You can have a curriculum where sophomores might be taking 300-level classes in the major, but only if they met all major requirements before doing so. You can't require that a 300-level class be taken before entering the major, putting a CC transfer in a Catch-22 situation. It is all about the prerequisites.

The other is that the state does not tolerate nonsense like one place teaching courses on XA and BZ and refusing to take courses on XB and ZA as the equivalent, but the system is so old that EVERYONE agrees on what belongs in Bio 1 and Bio 2 for majors, and then go on from there.

Pretty much anything goes for upper division classes.
Minnesota's transfer curriculum is another alternative.

The basic idea is that there are 10 'goals', a course in the trandpsfer curriculum must meet at least 51% of the sub-goals to count as a course with that goal. A course can have a primar goal and a secondary goal. All Minnesota State schools must accept the goal course as something other than an elective.

we're also starting a 2-4 year transfer pathway program where the disciplines have to agree on the courses and learning outcomes, and then accept the coursework transferred in. Our first transfer pathway degrees start in the Fall, and there will be around 20 total (maybe more later)..
Illinois! We actually do at least one thing (mostly) right in the messed up Land of Lincoln. The majority of our community college and 4 year schools abide by the Illinois Articulation Initiative, whereby faculty panels review courses and assign codes that articulate among all institutions. The schools that don't play nice don't get as many transfer students. The issue is legislated just enough to make it work.
Indiana worked very hard to establish a list of courses that had to be accepted for transfer from any publicly-supported institution to any other publicly-supported institution. That was in-progress when I retired (2012) and I no longer have any idea how it's working. As there is only one publicly supported CC in Indiana (I think that's the case, anyway), this was also designed to facilitate transfers among 4-year institutions (or even regional and core campuses of IU and Purdue).

As an example of some of the issues...

IV Tech wanted their intro marketing class to be on the list. It was open to any student and had no prerequisites. At my institution (and this would be true for all of the IU campuses), intro marketing had the following prerequisites:
Two semesters of intro econ
Intro to business
Two semesters of intro to accounting
One semester of business law
One semester of statistics

I think you can see how that created issues. That was the most extreme case I saw, but it was not an isolated case. As I recall, that was still being argued abut when I retired.
I love learning new stuff. Thanks to Don Coffin, I learned a few new things about an AS major at my college as well as the structure of the Marketing major at a nearby university that is a common transfer target for our students. (I actually know COLD the transfer requirements, but tonight I looked at the courses for the major.) This exercise also reminded me of the mind boggling depth and detail the Florida system has, because I normally only look at the few things that concern me.

Your example showed me why it is so important that Florida ignores the title of the course being offered, controlling instead the number for that course. Because of that, the conflict described above cannot happen in our system.

My college offers a marketing course with a somewhat fancier title as a required course in one of its AS majors (2-year degree). That means it is probably a lot like the Ivy Tech course. Here is a snippet of what the state says about it: "Course Intent LOWER" That means it cannot be taught at the junior level. "Prerequisites THIS COURSE MAY, OR MAY NOT REQUIRE A" (sic) That is pretty neutral, but does mean a course that 'must' have a prerequisite cannot be taught under this number. In its description: "THE FOLLOWING MUST BE ADHERED TO: 1. THIS COURSE MAY BE A GENERAL EDUCATION COURSE REQUIRED TO EARN AN A.S. DEGREE. 2. THIS COURSE MAY BE AN INTRODUCTORY COURSE OPEN TO ALL STUDENTS. ..." I think you can see how this would conflict with the usual IU classs, which cannot be either of those.

In contrast, a course at a nearby university (and many others) with a similarly nondescript title has everything in your list plus Business Calculus as requirements to enter the major and be allowed to take it. Here the state says "Course Intent UPPER" That means a CC cannot teach it. Problem solved. "Prerequisites THIS COURSE REQUIRES A PREREQUISITE" So the Ivy Tech course you described (and the one my CC teaches) would not be allowed under that number. Ditto. Further description of the course makes clear it is not an introductory class. "THE CONCEPETS, (sic) TERMINOLOGY, METHODOLOGY AND STRUCTURES EXPLORED IN THIS COURSE SHOULD PROVIDE A BASIS ON WHICH TO BUILD FURTHER EXPERTISE IN THE STUDENT'S PARTICULAR FIELD OF STUDY. SPECIFIC COMPETENCIES DEVELOPED IN OTHER DISCIPLINES ARE DRAWN TOGETHER IN THIS COURSE AS STUDENTS CRITICALLY ANALYZE AND VIEW OF (sic) THE COMPREHENSIVE FIELD OF MARKETING." Nothing at a CC looks like that!

There is lots of bureacracy behind this, one that is badly in need of an editor, but with the result that there would be no need to waste the kind of time you folks wasted. Multiply these courses by the thousands, and you see the advantage you get with a 50 year head start. The two courses described above have been approved and in place at some schools for almost 30 years. Dig deeper in each of them and you see lots of room for flexibility at each institution but enough commonality that each course transfers freely between the more than twenty colleges (of different types) that teach each one.
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