Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Policy Levers

Most college faculty don’t consider themselves policy levers.  

Until you understand that, you’ll have a hard time understanding why so many policy proposals come to grief, or angst and unintended consequences, on the ground.

For example, take the following proposal: “Four-year public colleges and universities should accept community college graduates as transfer students with full junior standing.”  It’s a popular view, and it it has much to be said for it from a state’s perspective.  It offers the prospect of steering students to lower-cost providers for the first two years, of no longer paying to subsidize the same course twice, and of increasing graduation rates without increasing -- indeed, possibly while decreasing -- spending.  And the community colleges tend to like the idea, since it’s a vindication of their work.

To the extent that states pick up the tab for their public colleges -- a decreasing extent, in most places, but still -- it makes sense that states would want some say in how the money is spent.   Anyone who cares to look can easily find horror stories of students forced to repeat a majority of their classes, at significant cost of both money and time.  And it’s easy to spot the discrediting self-interest in a department at a four-year college refusing credit for a transfer course that it prefers to teach itself.

If you read the previous sentence closely, you’ll see where the issues arise.  The unit of analysis went from “college” to “department.”  Those are not the same thing, and they do not necessarily have the same goals or interests.

Public colleges are caught between imperatives.  “Shared governance,” as usually understood, places academic judgments in the faculty.  Judgments of transfer equivalence are usually rooted in decisions made by departments.  (Actual transcript evaluations are often done in Admissions or the Registrar’s office, but they typically follow the guidance of academic departments, and they call departments to settle unclear cases.)  

But “judgment” is a big word.  When the people with the power to determine whether a credit is equivalent stand to benefit materially from saying “no,” since “giving away too many credits” would imperil their FTE’s, it’s not surprising that borderline calls tend to fall always in the same direction.  Then, when the public college is shamed for being unrealistically exclusionary about credits, it throws up its hands and pleads shared governance.

The disjuncture between an institutional-level view and a department-level view explains a lot about how transfer credits are treated.  Typically, “general education” credits outside of the major are accepted without serious pushback, since they don’t affect the receiving department.  The Psych department at Wherever State is often quite willing to accept a cc’s Intro to Composition, since it doesn’t teach that itself.  But it’s likelier to balk at the 200-level Psych courses.  And receiving colleges will often “take” the orphaned credits by labelling them as “free electives.”  “Free elective” status is where credits go to die.  It’s a polite fiction that allows the college as a whole to claim that it’s welcoming, while still allowing departments to shoot down anything they find threatening.  “We gave you free elective credits.  It’s not our fault the curriculum doesn’t have any free elective slots in it…”  

The situation is easy to outline, but hard to fix.  In order to force the four-years to accept every credit towards every major, you would need some sort of override mechanism.  In other words, academic judgments of equivalency would have to be removed from the faculty at the receiving institution.  That could be done by fiat, or it could be done by constructing standardized statewide curricula across the sectors.  Either way, local departments would have to be stripped of the power to say ‘no.’  I would expect the pushback to be vigorous and extended, with the craftier ones immediately setting to work carving out loopholes and exceptions.  

From a state’s standpoint, that may look like simple intransigence or a mere conflict of interest.  And those both play parts.  But it’s also a reflection of a serious and longstanding concept of the faculty role.  

Most college faculty don’t see themselves as line workers, stamping students as they move along an assembly line.  They see themselves as craftspeople, using personal (if informed) judgment rooted in their guilds/disciplines.  The entire discourse of meritocracy within academia is based on the idea that some people are better practitioners of craft than others.  If you replace craft judgment with mass-produced stamps of approval, you can expect vigorous howls from the craftspeople whose judgment -- and therefore, indirectly, merit -- has just been devalued.  Even allowing for the inevitable corruptions that stem from self-interest, it’s still true that locally designed curricula don’t always align cleanly with each other, and that subject-matter experts will be the likeliest folks to notice.

The best local solution is usually the “articulation agreement,” which is a sort of contract between colleges listing specifically the credits that will be taken in transfer towards a given degree.  Departments are typically involved in negotiating those, and they offer students pathways from one college to another with some security in knowing what will count.  They manage to square the circle of respecting local craft and still wanting smooth transfer.  But they’re necessarily piecemeal, and from a system perspective, they can look redundant.  Policy types tend to disparage them, on the grounds that they’re messy.  Which, in fact, they are.  But done right, they work.

I’m thinking that the low-hanging fruit here may be the system-level encouragement -- with funding -- of fairly robust articulation agreements.  Address the issue of departmental self-interest with incentives, issue a standard reporting form, and call it good.  Otherwise, I see levels of open warfare the costs of which would overwhelm any savings.