• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Ask the Administrator

Trying to decipher course equivalencies.

August 16, 2018

A left coast correspondent writes:

So I’m now a division chair at a large community college in California. One of the most surprising aspects of my job has been just how hard it has been to evaluate course equivalencies.  Often times students come to us with syllabi that do not have complete information allowing our college to determine equivalent courses. Our Admissions and Records department handles standard cases but anything tricky or incomplete gets sent to me.

Tracking down information from colleges is often challenging. Faculty coordinators and department chairs are often unresponsive.  Maybe it’s because it’s summer (right when a lot of students are trying to get enrolled, but also when a lot of faculty at other colleges are on break…), but I have a lot of unreturned emails and phone calls.  Some colleges do not have a department admin support person who can answer questions. And don’t get me started on how hard it can be to figure out who to call based on college websites.

Is there a better way then what our college does to track down info to evaluate course equivalencies? Students lose time waiting for us to figure out what we can give them credit for.

Been there.  And yes, it can be hard to get hold of people quickly in August.

The point about lost time is crucial, and often overlooked.  I’ve heard of colleges -- not naming any names -- that won’t reveal which courses a student will get credit for until after the student has committed to enroll there. From a student perspective, that’s cheating. In the colleges’ (limited) defense, though, some decisions require more research than others.

Some states handle it by going with common course numbering across institutions, at least on the public side. In my own career, I’ve seen “composition 1” designated English 108, English 101, and English 121. Your guess why is as good as mine. And that’s with a pretty standard gen ed course; it’s often much more idiosyncratic when you get to more specialized material.

(When I was in Massachusetts, the state did a sort of double-entry common course numbering. There was a master list of courses at the state level, and the registrar from each college had to indicate what the local numbers equated to on the state list. That way, the local campus could have its own quirky numbering, but each college had a sort of secret decoder ring. It worked, in its way.)

In the absence of common course numbers -- whether public or secret -- colleges usually develop working lists from their most frequent sending schools.  The “greatest hits of transfer” may take a little while to compile, but once you have them, they can save a great deal of time and ensure consistency. For example, at Brookdale, we get a lot of students transferring in (laterally) from Ocean, Middlesex, and Mercer county colleges. The registrar’s office knows how to read those transcripts. But we don’t get many from, say, Sinclair Community College in Ohio. A Sinclair transcript would have to be read individually.

When a registrar’s office gets a course it can’t decipher, the usual protocol is to refer it to the academic department or division.  The idea is that subject-matter experts would know what they’re looking at. Which is true, if they know where to look.

Ideally, you’d receive a syllabus from the course in question.  The syllabus should include the student learning outcomes for the course.  If you can match the SLO’s from the course coming in to the SLO’s from something on your campus, you’re good to go.  If you’re fluent in SLO-speak, you’ll even look at the verbs used and cross-reference them to Bloom’s taxonomy. (Lots of “identify” and “summarize” would indicate a lower-level class; more “synthesize” and “theorize” would suggest a higher-level one.)  Many colleges include SLO’s somewhere either in the online catalog or elsewhere on their websites. I’d start with those.

If you can’t track those down, samples of student assignments could also be useful. The trick here is looking less at the student work than at the assignments themselves. At what level were they pitched?

Some colleges also give the option of “area credit.”  That’s credit that isn’t as specific as the replacement of a particular course, but that’s more specific than the dreaded “free elective.”  For example, I’ve seen “transfer - humanities” for Portuguese 101-102 when the receiving school didn’t have courses in Portuguese. Languages aren’t interchangeable, so calling it “French” would be misleading, but it’s also tough to argue with a straight face that French is worthy of academic credit and Portuguese isn’t.  “Area credit” can give you a place to put work that’s obviously substantive and relevant, but that doesn’t quite fit an existing course on the books.

If none of those is available, you could always try to talk to the student to get samples of graded work. It’s slow, but it’s a good-faith effort, and it will show that you’re trying.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, I’m sure I’ve missed some methods.  What would you suggest?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.



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