Sunday, October 22, 2017

Student-Centered Transfer

Let’s say that you’re graduating a community college with an associate’s degree this Spring, and you want to go on for your bachelor’s in the Fall.  How will you know which colleges will give you the best deal on accepting credits in transfer?

Remarkably, as of now, there’s no requirement for colleges to disclose which credits they’ve accepted until after a student has enrolled.  And even if they do, there’s no standard disclosure form they have to provide.  Most of the time, there’s no meaningful way for a student to comparison shop.

Yes, there are articulation agreements -- what Tressie McMillan Cottom calls “pinky swears” -- and, in some states, laws about transfer between public institutions.  But some states don’t have those, they don’t apply to private institutions, and even when they do exist and apply, they tend to be...porous.  That’s because at most colleges and universities, decisions about the acceptance of transfer credit are decentralized, with the most important decisions devolved to the departments which have the greatest conflicts of interest.  Departments don’t like to “give away” credits because they see transfer credits as eroding enrollments in their own classes.  From a system perspective, that’s penny wise and pound foolish, but departments have little incentive to take a system perspective.  

Even worse, receiving institutions have so many moving parts that it’s not unusual for rules to change on the fly.  Every year, we get a report of some unfortunate student being told “no” on some credits that had always been told “yes” before; the inevitable followup calls usually result in some version of “oh, yeah, sorry, we forgot to tell you that we made that decision last year.”  

I was disappointed in the joint statement last week from AACRAO, ACE, and CHEA on transfer, because it didn’t even attempt to change any of this.  It argued for approaching non-traditional learning with an open mind, which is fine as far as it goes, but it defaulted to the existing decision tree.  In other words, it will have little to no effect, other than putting off a needed conversation for a while.  Which may or may not be the intent.

The alternative isn’t as easy as mandating acceptance of credits, of course; if that were true, the state laws that currently exist would suffice, at least in the public sector.  Besides, sometimes students change majors, so credits that would have applied to program A don’t apply to program B. I get that.

But I don’t see a principled argument against some sort of mandatory timeframe for reporting which credits would transfer how, and some sort of standard form on which to report it.  If I’m comparing three different possible receiving schools, I’d like to know -- before enrolling -- which credits will apply to the program, which will be consigned to “free elective” status, and which will simply be denied.  Let the schools compete on openness; put the burden of proof on departments to show why they shouldn’t accept a given course or set of courses.  Then let the student make an informed choice.  In some cases, the student may decide that the loss of some credits is worthwhile for other reasons; that’s fine.  But the student should know enough going in to make that call.

So, here’s my alternative.  If we’re unwilling to upset the existing decision trees -- which I consider a pretty major concession on my part, but never mind that -- there’s no reason we couldn’t move to standard timeframes and reporting formats to give students a fighting chance.  It’s one thing to build a conflict of interest into the system; it’s something else to hide it until the damage is done.  If we can’t move to a strong system approach, we should at least move to full and timely disclosure.  Open minds are well and good, but closed systems beat them every time.  Let’s rebuild the system as if students matter as much as departments.