Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Transfer as a Get Out of Jail Free Card

This piece in Salon has drawn some attention lately. It's a recounting of an academic advisor's usual responses to parents who ask, regarding their children who have chosen liberal arts majors, what they're going to do with that. The piece basically sides with the parents, noting that the combination of a backbreaking recession, what Richard Florida calls a “reset,” and record-high student loan burdens makes the usual question much more relevant than it once was. The author wrings her hands a bit, but essentially concludes that the folks asking the question have a much more valid point than most academics would like to admit.

I'll confess that one of the perks of working at a community college is that we have an easy answer for that one. You use the liberal arts major to transfer. What happens after that, you can discuss with the destination school. Next!

The great virtue of this answer is that it's true. Although the 'workforce development' side of things gets most of the attention, the largest major on campus is the transfer major. It's built around gen ed requirements, and that's by design. It's supposed to fulfill the distribution requirements for most liberal arts majors, and to give students a chance to sample electives in various disciplines while they're here. The idea is that when they move on, they will receive full credit for the first two years of their four-year degree, and will have done so at much lower cost. And we have articulation agreements and statewide mandates to ensure that this actually happens.

I know I shouldn't make predictions, but I'll venture a pretty conservative one: I hereby predict...and you can hold me to this...that the cost of four-year colleges will continue to go up. And since they're starting from a dramatically higher base than most nearby cc's, even smaller percentage increases will amount to larger absolute increases. (That is, five percent of $50,000 is more than ten percent of $3,000.) Put differently, the cost savings of a cc – as opposed to the first two years of the typical four-year school – will continue to increase.

As long as that's true, I'd expect to see the transfer function continue to thrive. Intro to Psych doesn't change dramatically from one college to another, so why not take it where it's affordable and convenient?

That's not to say that evasion is the only answer, of course. We all know the usual responses to “what are you going to do with that?” Communication skills are crucial in any professional job; you need to learn how to learn; adaptability is key in a rapidly-changing economy; it’s good in itself to be a well-educated person. Those are all true, as far as they go. I’d also add that chasing this year’s hot field is a serious roll of the dice; these things are notoriously cyclical. In the 90’s, petroleum engineers were not hot at all; now, they can write their own tickets. A few years ago, new nurses were rock stars; now, they have to scrap like everybody else. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t study something hot, of course; if you love what you’re doing, you stand a good chance of succeeding whichever way the wind blows. If you want to be a nurse because that’s what you’ve always wanted to be, then by all means, go for it. You’ll be the nurse I’ll want to have. But if you’re doing it because it’s the only way you can see to make money, I’d recommend pausing to reconsider.

From the provider’s perspective, the two-year perch is a pretty good place to be. You wouldn’t know it from the popular discussion, but the liberal arts disciplines live remarkably guilt-free (or angst-free, if you prefer) at the two-year level. Sometimes I forget how oppressive that vague sense of guilt can be at higher levels.

Wise and worldly readers, have you developed an elegant answer to “what are you going to do with that?”