• 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.


Guided Pathways for Transfer

Options vs. clarity of direction.


November 17, 2015

Last year I caught a presentation by some folks from the Maricopa County Community College District (Phoenix, AZ) on a transfer partnership they had developed with Arizona State University. With nearly every transfer student aiming at the same destination college, it was relatively easy to design curricula for the first two years. (That’s not to demean the effort involved; it’s just to say the target was clear.)  

I was jealous. That kind of clarity wasn’t possible at Holyoke, and it isn’t possible at Brookdale. That’s because in both places, students had many more options for destination colleges, and the destination colleges didn’t agree with each other. When the destination schools disagree on what should go into the first two years, who are we supposed to imitate?

Loss of credits upon transfer is a massive barrier to degree completion, for obvious reasons.  It forces students to spend time and money retaking classes they’ve already taken. It’s also incredibly demoralizing. Students feel ripped off, either by the destination college or the sending one, and feeling like a chump doesn’t often inspire greatness.  

When the loss of credits in transfer occurs between public institutions -- say, a community college and a state university -- taxpayers wind up paying twice for the same courses. It’s a huge issue for students, but not only for students.  Everyone winds up paying for it, except maybe for the destination school.

Yet in the public discussion of transfer -- to the extent that it exists -- most of the blame for “wasted” credits is aimed at community colleges.  

To some degree, any region with a healthy population of private colleges and universities will have to deal with this no matter what. Private institutions can define curricula pretty much as they see fit, within the confines of state licensing regs and accreditation criteria. But it seems like the public institutions should be more subject to public authority.  

This week I was in the umpteenth meeting in which discussions of possible changes to curricula led to the inevitable “but will it transfer?,” answered with the inevitable “well, yes and no.”  “Yes and no” is not a satisfying answer.

Put differently, four-year publics need to be required to create “guided pathways” for community college transfer. That means keeping their own curricula in relative check, and vetoing departmental efforts to go rogue and construct idiosyncratic requirements to avoid “giving away” credits (or, in what amounts to the same thing, relegating them to “free elective” status). The easiest way, I think, would be to cap at sixty the number of credits that a destination school could require of someone with an associate’s degree. Let the four-year college departments fight out which sixty credits they can require; I have no dog in that fight. But allowing the people with the greatest conflict of interest nearly unfettered discretion to double-dip is not okay. It’s a disservice to the students and the taxpayers.

Have any states actually tried that? I’d be interested in hearing about unintended consequences and/or workarounds. Alternately, for folks at public four-years, can you foresee unintended consequences and/or workarounds?



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