Tuesday, November 11, 2014

200 or 300?

Is there a national standard on what makes a course 200 level, as opposed to 300 level?

I haven’t found one, and it’s starting to matter.

A few weeks ago, I attended a statewide conference on streamlining transfer pathways between two-year and four-year public colleges and universities.  The idea was to ensure that students who start at community colleges and then move to four-year institutions don’t lose credits when they transfer.  The DHE was smart enough to specify that the credits should actually count towards majors, rather than just vanishing into the “free elective” black hole.  Too many colleges use “free elective” status as a way to say that they “accept” credits without actually letting them count for anything.  It’s an elegant political dodge, but a dodge nonetheless.  The state has figured that out, and is isolating the actual problem.  

When moving from institutions to majors, though, the discussion has to move to the level of specific courses.  At that point, several things quickly became clear:

First, many community colleges have departments of one person in certain disciplines.  When you only have one full-timer, there will be courses you can’t cover.  If we want seamless transfer, we need parity of resources.  

Second, many of the four-year schools disagree with each other.  The premise that there are two internally consistent blocs of institutions is false; each bloc is heterogeneous.  In the absence of a consistent set of rules at the four-year level, asking the two-year schools to mirror the first two years of the four-year level doesn’t make sense.  Which ones should they mirror?

Third, and the point of today’s piece, is that there is no industry-wide standard in many fields for which courses should fall at the 200 level and which should fall at the 300 level.  In states in which community colleges are limited to the first two years, such as Massachusetts, the distinction matters.  If we teach a class that a receiving school counts as 300 level, the receiving school may decline to take it.  If they move too many classes to the 300 level, they can effectively force students to retake multiple courses.  (From their perspective, if we redesignate too many 300 level classes as 200, we’re poaching.)  

The annoying truth is that mandating streamlined transfer will require putting stricter limits on the curricular decision-making authority of individual campuses.  It can’t not.  From the perspective of an enterprising faculty member at a community college, that can amount to a cap on scholarly ambition.  “Topics in…” classes don’t lend themselves to seamless transfer in the same way that “Intro to…” classes do.  If an entire state decides that, say, these five psychology classes are what the four-years will take, then the two-year curricula are basically capped.  I’d expect some pushback from the most academically ambitious faculty who would protest, rightly, that they’re being put in their place.  But I don’t see how to get mandated transfer without some level of standardization.  From the four-year perspective, they’d be facing a mandate to take a black box of credits, and count them towards a given major.  Either way, someone has to be willing to give up some authority to make the system work.

I’ve seen the downside of too much local control.  At my last college, a branch of the state flagship only took 30 out of 60 credits towards a criminal justice degree, and most of those credits were gen eds.  Forcing students to retake a year’s worth of credits struck me as insane.  It’s probably no coincidence that the legislature stepped in shortly thereafter and mandated acceptance of transfer credits.  That could happen here, too.  

Legislation wouldn’t be an issue if it were based on a broadly-shared understanding of where the boundaries are.  Which brings me back to my first question.

In humanities and social science fields especially, is there a national authority or something similar that delineates the boundaries between 200 and 300 level in a generally accepted way?