Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Sun Devils

Can colleges charge a fee to accept transfer credits?

I had never heard of that until this week.  Tressie McMillan Cottom -- if you’re on Twitter and not following her, you’re doing Twitter wrong -- did a tweet about a specific clause in the edX-ASU agreement that stopped me short.

Quick review: edX and ASU signed an agreement by which students could take freshman gen ed MOOCs with edX.  If the students did well enough, they could pay edX a set fee for identity verification and a certificate, which ASU would accept for academic credits.  The fee would be $200 per credit, which is well below ASU’s normal rates (though well above normal rates for most community colleges). In theory, students from wherever could take their freshman year gen ed classes through edX, transfer them to ASU on the (relative) cheap, and then presumably stick with ASU after that.  ASU and edX would split the revenue.

But then, McMillan Cottom noted the following, from page 28 of the agreement:

d. Non-InstitutionX MOOCs: Institution will evaluate other MOOCs offered on the edX site and, subject to appropriate review and approval, consider offering Institution credit for a fee to edX learners who earn, or have earned, verified certificates of achievement for such non-InstitutionX MOOCs.

And I thought, wow.  That’s either terribly written boilerplate or evil genius.

In my day job, I read and sign plenty of articulation agreements.  It’s what I do.  Each one is slightly different, but they share some common features.  In their classic form, a community college and a four-year college sign an agreement delineating the courses and credits from a given program at the community college that will be honored at the four-year college.  The most plain vanilla version involves a student who graduates with an Associate’s in, say, criminal justice, who arrives at the four-year college with full standing as a junior in the criminal justice program.

Some of the agreements get more involved than that.  For example, HCC recently signed an agreement with Westfield State University whereby a student can do two years at HCC, followed by two at WSU, for a total four-year cost of $30,000.  (Dorms at WSU are extra; the agreements were designed with online students in mind.)  The idea is to give students a roadmap upfront, and an incentive to plan.  If a student follows the plan successfully, she emerges with two low-cost degrees from locally respected places.  Similarly, we have one with Elms College -- a private Catholic college -- in which Elms accepts up to 75 credits in transfer, thereby effectively allowing a student to complete the bachelor’s while paying community college rates for 5 of the 8 semesters.  

We have articulations in the other direction too, with certain vocational programs in some high schools.  We even have one with a nearby community college -- Springfield Technical CC -- in which grads of our medical billing certificate program can move there to complete the medical coding degree.  Most policy discussions are blind to lateral articulations, but they exist.

Articulation agreements are supposed to take the guesswork out of transfer.  By spelling out in advance which credits will carry over, and for what, students can be assured that they won’t have any unpleasant surprises.  Articulation agreements have to be updated regularly to keep up with curricular changes, but that’s typically how they work.

But in over a decade of doing these things at community colleges in two different states, I have never -- not once, not ever -- seen the acceptance of credits hinge on a fee.  I have never seen that.  That simply is not done.

I’ve seen application fees, of course, and fees for sending transcripts.  But I’ve never seen a receiving institution charge for accepting transfer credits.  That is entirely new.

If that’s what the language in this agreement actually means, it’s astonishing.  

It’s already unusual for an accredited institution to articulate with an unaccredited one.  It can be done, but it’s unusual.  But to then require the students transferring credits in to pay a per-credit fee for courses they’ve already taken elsewhere is, to my knowledge, without precedent.

If this sort of thing catches on, it could destroy community college transfer programs.  

From ASU’s perspective, of course, it’s free money.  Getting paid after the fact for courses already taught by other people is a hell of a business model.  

The edX/ASU agreement, as written, leaves students ineligible for financial aid, since financial aid doesn’t cover prior learning assessment.  As if that weren’t bad enough, now students who select off-menu MOOCs have to pay ASU even more -- still without financial aid -- to consider those credits.  And ASU didn’t teach the classes.

The closest thing to this that I’ve seen is something like a fee for a portfolio assessment.  But the premise behind that is that students didn’t take actual courses; they’ve just picked up information along the way, and they need to prove it. Each student’s portfolio is different, so the fee is to pay for the assessor’s time.  But MOOCs are supposed to be courses -- that’s what the “c” stands for -- and they have their own, freestanding certificates.  So ASU wouldn’t do case-by-case analyses, for which a fee might be appropriate.  They’d just honor the certificate from this unaccredited provider, as long as the check doesn’t bounce.

Color me impressed.  Credit-laundering for the sake of enrollment is bad enough, but charging on top of it for the privilege is groundbreaking.  And allowing a sort of tariff on imported credits could do untold harm across the entire higher ed ecosystem.  I know ASU likes to think of itself as “disruptive,” but this is something else.  I’ve literally never seen anything like it.  I don’t know if they just didn’t think it through, or if they’re evil geniuses, but either way, this is genuinely new.   Sun devils, indeed.