Monday, September 15, 2008

It's Not 'Career or Transfer'

I had a conversation last week with the chair of the Human Services program (think Social Work), in which she made the point that she didn't know how her program should be categorized. As she explained her dilemma, I realized I didn't know, either.

Classically, cc programs are grouped into either 'career' or 'transfer' tracks. The idea is that students who matriculate typically have one of two desired outcomes when they graduate: either step right into a full-time job, or transfer to a four-year school. Perkins funding assumes a relatively clear distinction, as does much of the public discourse around cc's. (Even this satirical piece in last week's IHE seems to assume that the distinction is both natural and self-evident.) Politicians love the 'career' aspect of cc's, and are curiously silent on the transfer aspect. (They're similarly reticent on the subject of remediation.) Faculty, supposedly, favor the transfer side of things, though in practice I've found the stereotype to be pretty unreliable.

What we're discovering, though, is that the world is blurring the distinction between career and transfer, and we have to, too.

Fields that once hired people with two-year degrees are increasingly insisting on four-year degrees. (Locally, at least, that's proving to be the case with social work, engineering, and, surprisingly, nursing.) As the fields professionalize, they expect a higher level of academic qualification. In the late 90's, the way to handle that was to get a two-year degree at a cc, get an entry-level job in the field, and have the employer pay for the completion of the bachelor's degree, usually at night. But employer-paid tuition is much less common than it once was. In the late 90's at PU, most of the evening students were employer-paid. In the early 00's, that funding source dried up, and the program shrunk dramatically. Since then, they haven't bounced back much; employers seem increasingly to take the position that finishing your degree is your problem, to be solved on your dime.

That's not to say, though, that the two-year programs have lost their relevance; it's just that they aren't enough by themselves anymore. A student who really wants to break into those fields can (and probably should) complete our program and then transfer. So is it a transfer program or a career program?

The wisdom of the various fields 'professionalizing' is, of course, open to debate. But whether the shift is good or bad, it's out of our hands.

One strange side effect of the shift, at least in my observation, has been that the generic 'transfer' major – all gen eds, all the time – is thriving. Between the sticker shock of four-year college tuition and the increased relevance of transfer for career fields, the enrollments in the classic liberal arts courses are as healthy as they've been in decades. The liberal arts fields may be increasingly marginalized at many colleges and universities, but they're healthy – if not thriving – at cc's. I'm not entirely sure what to make of that – on the one hand, I'm happy to see the classic academic fields well-enrolled, but on the other, I'm a little wary of them becoming too closely identified with the least prestigious tier of higher education. Since prestige and funding tend to go together, this isn't just a theoretical point.

Although the facts on the ground are shifting, our ways of talking about them haven't. We still talk about career and transfer as if it were as clear as 'HVAC technician' and 'philosophy major.' And there are still enough clear cases that the discourse can survive. But that area in between is where the real growth is, and we haven't quite figured out how to handle that yet.