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Many years ago, a friend used to describe herself as “a socialist, and yet, a smart shopper.” She usually followed that with her characteristic cackle. She captured the tension between individual solutions and systemic solutions, noting through irony -- it was the ’90s, after all -- that the two often conflict, and yet we have to live in the world. The same person who believed wholeheartedly in structural change still had an eye for a sale.

Reading Jay Mathews’s latest on community colleges in The Washington Post, I was reminded of her line.

A couple of months ago, he wrote a terrible broadside against community colleges generally, for which I took him to task. This week he wrote in their defense, though without acknowledging the change. Hey, I’m an educator; I applaud growth when I see it. So, great.

The gist of the newer piece is consumer tips for community college students who want to ensure that their credits are fully recognized by four-year colleges when they transfer. Among those tips are keeping careful track of syllabi and transcripts, deploying AP and CLEP credits when they exist, and appealing adverse decisions.

All of those are worthwhile, as far as they go. Mathews even acknowledges the “free elective” trap into which many transfer credits fall. (By putting transferred credits into a category that doesn’t exist in a student’s program, a university can claim to “accept” the credits but still charge the student for retaking the class there.) “Free elective” status is where credits go to die, but they allow the receiving institution to maintain plausible deniability. That distinction is often lost in policy discussions, but transfer advisers know it well.

(I’d add that many community colleges have transfer advisers, and students can benefit by consulting with them.)

Still, two points bothered me.

The first was that he seemed to misunderstand the role of departments as against the overall university. Yes, that’s a bit inside baseball, but it matters. It’s much easier to transfer credits outside the major than inside the major, because the receiving department typically gets veto power over the latter. Despite a broad and deep literature showing the success of transfer students, short-term self-interest remains powerful; many departments resist “giving away” credits, because they’d rather get those credit hours for themselves. There’s a conflict of interest at the departmental level that doesn’t exist for general education credits; the cost of that conflict is straightforward enough. If you misunderstand the incentives, you’ll offer the wrong solution.

The second is that, at its base, this is not a consumer problem. This is a system problem. Smart shopping can only go so far in fixing it.

There’s plenty of room to discuss the merits of various systemic changes against each other. For instance, some states have adopted common course numbering across all public colleges and universities, thereby making course equivalencies more obvious. I have previously suggested shifting the burden of proof on transfer credits from yes to no and publishing data on the most transfer-friendly (and unfriendly) colleges and universities. My Inside Higher Ed colleague John Warner suggested conditioning federal “free college” funding on robust transfer credit acceptance. Legislative mandates work pretty well for general education but tend to struggle at the level of the major.

Folks at four-year colleges have pointed out that the system of internal cross-subsidies there uses large intro classes to fund small upper-level classes; if students are siphoned away from the former via free community college, the latter may become more expensive. There’s truth in that. System fixes are complicated and imperfect, with somebody’s ox getting gored in each variation. But if we don’t engage in the system-level discussion, we’re left with consumer tips. As long as the system’s incentives are what they are, consumer tips will accomplish only so much.

Still, the piece represents some progress. We’ve gone from the “dropout factory” narrative to the “smart shopper” narrative in less than two months. Here’s hoping we can get to the “systemic change” narrative while the political window is still open.

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