Monday, October 21, 2013

You Didn’t Hear This From Me…

Every so often I’ll hear something that doesn’t especially resonate in the moment, but that won’t let go of my brain.  It sort of sinks its claws in until I finally deal with it.  That happened a little over a week ago at a conference at UMass.

The topic of the panel was helping transfer students succeed.  It featured a speaker from HCC -- Mark Broadbent, our transfer counselor -- as well as transfer counselors from several nearby four-year colleges and universities.  Much of the discussion was pretty much what I had anticipated: the importance of aligning coursework as early as possible, helping students set reasonable and realistic expectations, and the like.

But one comment stuck with me, and I haven’t been able to shake it.  One of the folks from a four-year school -- and I didn’t write it down, so I won’t attribute directly -- mentioned that transfer recruitment is harder than you’d think, because she can’t just set up a booth at other universities around the state and poach students.  She mentioned that she likes working with community colleges because they’re the only places where she doesn’t have to be…”sneaky” is probably too strong a word...discreet.  We like it when our students graduate and move on to higher degrees, so we have no problem hosting destination schools.  But she mentioned that traditional transfers like that are a minority of the students she gets; most of them are “laterals,” and it’s tough to market to them directly.

We have our own versions of “lateral” transfers, and they’re subject to similar sensitivities.  The most literal is the student who transfers from one community college to another.  It’s more common than you might think.  Sometimes it’s driven by the availability of a particular program at one campus and not the other, which is pretty straightforward.  But it’s also frequently driven by life issues, relationship issues, changes in outside jobs, and even sports.  

We also get “reverse” transfers, which are students moving from four-year schools to two-year schools.  In those cases, we face similar political sensitivities.  It would be frowned upon to set up a table in the student union at, say, UMass with a sign saying “Homesick?  Struggling?  Try HCC!”  Students in those categories absolutely exist, and many of them find their way here, but we aren’t supposed to be too direct about reaching them.  What I didn’t know was that the four-year schools face basically the same issue with each other.

(Recently, the idea of the abstract reverse transfer has caught on.  In that case, a student who leaves a community college a few credits short of a degree, and transfers to a four-year school, has the remaining credits transferred back to complete the associate’s on the way to a bachelor’s.  The idea is to give the student something to fall back on if she drops out, and to help cc graduation numbers come closer to reflecting reality.  That’s a different category than what I’m addressing here.)

We all know that students who transfer don’t only transfer “up.”  They move up, down, sideways, and back again, for a host of reasons.  But the systems we have in place -- whether graduation calculations, performance funding mechanisms, or even marketing agreements -- assume that transfer goes only in one direction, when they acknowledge transfer at all.  (Lateral transfers count against the sending school in IPEDS, for example, but they don’t count “for” the receiving school.  That’s a significant, and basic, distortion.)  Politically, we assume that the academic hierarchy reproduces itself in student pathways, like a Great Chain of Being.  Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.  But we haven’t developed the capacity to discuss what happens when it doesn’t.

So colleges quietly, discreetly, indirectly, deniably, kinda-sorta reach out to other colleges’ students, hoping to provide better fits for those who need them.  But not so anyone would notice.  And not in ways that the students with the least implicit knowledge of the system would understand.  We’re so discreet about it that the folks who make policy -- the folks who control the purse strings -- don’t even know it’s happening.  Like Poe’s purloined letter, these students are hiding in plain sight, unintentionally wreaking havoc with all manner of higher ed policy.

Not that you heard it from me...