Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Schrodinger’s Credits

It isn’t often that a sentence makes me stop, back up, read it again, email the article to my president, and then chew on it for most of a day.  And this one had absolutely nothing to do with the election.

In the IHE story about Affordable College, a new service (and app) to facilitate transfer from community colleges to four-year colleges, this line brought me up short:

“As for the community colleges, they would receive a share of the revenue for each successful transfer…”

(record scratch)

That’s a potential game-changer.

From what I can tell, Affordable College sounds like a sort of shopping app for transfer credits.  Students at Hypothetical CC can put in the courses they’ve taken, and then compare how many of them get accepted at various four-year colleges. The community colleges provide information; the four-years provide both information and funding.  For each successful transfer, some of that funding gets directed back to the community college.

I could write about this one all day.  But out of respect for my readers, I’ll cover a few highlights.

First, the idea of turning student transfers into a revenue stream for community colleges offers a conceptual solution to the chronic problem facing any provider of a public good: we don’t capture the full value of what we produce.  That leads to systemic, chronic underinvestment.  To the extent that we could recapture even a small fraction of the value we produce, we change the equation.  If we applied the same logic to employers hiring our graduates, we could really get somewhere.  I have no illusions that the amount we’d get would come anywhere close to solving real issues, but at a conceptual level, it would be the first formal recognition of a glaring structural flaw in our funding.  It could pave the way for something fundamentally new.

Second, it addresses a genuine student need.  Yes, many colleges have articulation agreements outlining which credits will go where and under what conditions, and some states (including New Jersey) have laws mandating certain kinds of transfer among public institutions, especially on the general education side.  But as those of us in the trenches know, it often doesn’t work as cleanly in practice as it does on paper.  Many colleges will be generous on the gen eds, but will defer to individual departments to look at courses in the major, so students wind up losing credits there.  They also frequently create a category -- “free elective” credit -- in which students’ credits are acknowledged, sort of, but not towards an actual degree. The transcript gets populated with Schrodinger’s Credits -- they both count and don’t count.  The student doesn’t open the box and see the dead cat until it’s too late.

If the app/program is sophisticated (and current) enough to distinguish between “taken for free elective credit” and “taken in a way that actually matters,” it could solve a major issue for students who are looking for the best deal.  It could even create competitive pressure among four-year colleges to be inclusive, which would be a lovely change.  Of course, that would require the four-year colleges to crack down on departmental home rule, which is a political challenge not for the faint of heart.  It would also require assiduous updating, since curricula evolve, sometimes precisely to evade mandatory transfer.  

That said, though, the app and payment systems sound like they’re built on the assumption that transfer only happens vertically, that is, from two-year to four-year.  It doesn’t.  

“Lateral” transfers -- two-year to two-year or four-year to four-year -- are as common as vertical ones.  That could complicate the payment system.  And “reverse” transfers -- four-year to two-year -- are more common than most people suspect.  They could make the payment system an enormous mess, depending on how it’s configured.  Reverse transfers in this use of the term -- as opposed to the student who transfers vertically before finishing a degree and then sends back some credits -- often happen for economic or familial reasons, though sometimes for academic reasons as well.  (In practice, the categories often overlap.  Family crisis leads to economic problem, which leads to working too many hours, which leads to academic problem.)  At my last college, the largest feeder schools for incoming transfers was another community college.  Any app or program built on the assumption that students only move in one direction will get it wrong.

Still, giving students (and parents) a legible, easily accessible shopper’s guide -- even an imperfect one -- offers the potential to shift incentives pretty drastically.  And if they can work out the economics of it -- which isn’t a given in the app economy -- it could establish a precedent that could eventually be a real boon to public higher education.

That’s a lot to ask from an app.  But in a world in which Instagram is worth billions and Kodak went bankrupt, we underestimate apps at our peril.  Color me intrigued.