Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Yes, Virginia, CC Students Do Transfer

According to the Chronicle, the state (commonwealth?) of Virginia is considering a pretty comprehensive plan to encourage in-state high school grads to use community colleges as feeders to the four-year colleges.

The grant program, proposed by two leading lawmakers, would allow qualifying transfer students to pay the same tuition and fees at public four-year institutions that they paid at a community college. Each student who transfers to an in-state private college after graduating from a community college would initially receive a voucher worth about $2,150 a year.

The measure is part of a broader effort to encourage more students to start their college careers at two-year colleges, a shift that lawmakers estimate would help accommodate an expected 20-percent to 25-percent increase in college enrollment in the state over the next six years.

Obviously, the devil is in the details. That said, I like the overall idea.

Apparently, students have to graduate cc's with 3.0 or better GPA's. Their credits will carry over, and the students will be allowed to finish their four-year degrees at cc tuition rates.

This strikes me as a good idea on a number of levels.

  • CC's would get more academically-prepared students. (Grammatically, that sentence is ambiguous; I intend both meanings.) This would raise the bar for achievement in the colleges that are the most accessible to everybody, to everyone's benefit.

  • CC's already exist. Instead of pouring billions into new construction that would be unnecessary after the pig gets through the higher ed python, the money that would have gone into capital can find other uses.

  • Families could save substantial amounts of money. This is especially true of the huge cohort trapped in that no-man's-land of being too wealthy for really helpful financial aid, but too poor to really afford tuition. Right now, those folks either borrow to the teeth or just don't go. Families with several kids could really benefit. A former co-worker of The Wife was the seventh out of eight kids (or something like that), perfectly bright, but on her own financially when it came to college. I imagine kids like her benefiting from something like this.

  • I like the GPA requirement, since it implies some reciprocity for the gift. We'll help you get started, but further help is contingent on you stepping up academically. This will not be subsidized loafing. If you skate through your cc career, you're on your own after that.

  • In a way, the cut rate at the four-year school actually provides an incentive for the four-year school not to be too miserly about granting transfer credits. If they lose money on each student, better to cut their losses by not making students repeat courses they've already taken elsewhere. In my state, Flagship State gives the cc's fits with its arbitrary, finicky, and inconsistent transfer-credit practices. (I won't even accord it the dignity of calling it a 'policy.')

  • Given the relative lack of bread-and-circuses at most cc's (bigtime sports, lavish student centers, dorm life generally), students at the most vulnerable part of their life-cycle would be spared the distractions that claim so many. By the time they get to Four-Year College, they've already been at the college level for two years. As the Rolling Stones put it, they got their ya-ya's out.

  • At cc's, intro courses tend to run smaller than they do at larger schools. It's not at all clear to me that a kid taking General Psych with 34 other students and a full-time prof at a cc gets a worse education than a kid taking General Psych with 300 other students in an auditorium at Flagship U.

All of that said, I foresee a few complications:

  • The four-year schools will need to find ways to make up the difference between cc tuition and their own for two years per student. This is not a trivial sum of money. Absent a bequest from the state, this could get sticky.

  • I'm guessing that it will take a while for some parents to get over the cc stigma, if they ever do. While this plan should take some pressure off, I don't foresee the kind of numbers Virginia is talking about. It will help somewhat, but they'll probably still need to add some capacity at the four-year level.

  • Depending on the culture of higher ed in Virginia, there may or may not be spirited resistance to mandated transfer of credits. (I don't know Virginia's higher ed scene well enough to say.) I'd expect the usual elitist huffing and puffing from the Old Guard at Flagship U.

Those complications granted, though, I like it overall. Unlike, say, Wisconsin's plan to use higher ed as a sort of roach motel for its talented youth, this plan respects the ambitions of its target group. It offers an option, which the residents would be free to take or leave. And it makes the higher echelons of college seem like live options to the students for whom it might now seem out of reach. Good thinking, Virginia.