• 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.

Title

Residency Requirements

The Jennifer Conundrum.

April 10, 2019

What fraction of a degree should be required to be taken in-house for that degree to bear a given college’s name?

We’re dealing with that question now, and it’s revealing some competing sets of assumptions.

Right now, Brookdale has a “residency requirement” by which at least 30 credits, including half of the credits specific to the major, must be taken at Brookdale. (In this context, “residency” refers to which institution teaches the classes; it has nothing to do with where someone lives.) Effectively, that caps credits from all other sources -- other colleges, AP, CLEP, DSST, everything -- at half of a degree.  

Across the state, community college residency requirements for a 60 credit degree range from a low of 15 -- the floor set by the state -- to a high of 32.  Most are either 15 or 30, with a few in the low 20’s. Two of the colleges in counties bordering ours are at 15.

Internally, we’re discussing whether to reduce the requirement from 30 to something more modest.

The arguments for keeping it relatively high are obvious.  There’s an institutional self-interest argument: “why give away more credits?  Wouldn’t that hurt enrollment?” And there’s an ineffable argument about institutional identity: “If we only taught ¼ of the courses, is it really our degree?”

I understand both of those, but I don’t find them persuasive. 

The argument about “giving away” credits sounds familiar -- it’s the same argument that four-year colleges routinely make about taking our credits in transfer.  I object to it there, so I feel morally bound to object to it here, too. Be the change you want to see.

A deeper moral argument would be around whether the students are there to validate the college, or the college is there to validate the students. If it’s the former, then yes, a degree of which we’ve only taught a quarter is objectionable. If it’s the latter, though, and we have a significant population locally with some college credits but no degree, then the attempt to claim the moral high ground starts to look petty.  If 30-year-old working Mom Jennifer has 40-something credits accumulated over the years from various places, and would like to finally have something to show for it, why force her to take at least 10 more than a degree requires? That costs her time and money, in the service of what, exactly?

Whether it would affect enrollment is ultimately an empirical question that can only be settled by trying it.  My guess is that while a lower requirement might result in fewer credits per student taken here, it would result in more students being here in the first place.  That’s especially true when neighboring community colleges have set thresholds of 15. A student with a grab-bag of previous credits and the ability to attend either here or, say, Mercer, might figure out that they could get the degree more quickly at Mercer.  Alternately, a student with a grab-bag of credits who can only go here might look at the 30 credit requirement and decide not to bother at all, because the goal is too far away. Bringing the goal closer might motivate more people to start.

The state recently passed a law capping most Associate degree programs at 60 credits. The goal, I think, was to improve completion rates and reduce cost by reducing the length of programs that had grown over the years.  Reducing the residency requirement strikes me as being in the same spirit. Allowing more external credits to count would bring graduation within reach of more people, and would save them time and money. 

It’s a difficult sell internally, though, because viscerally it feels like a loss or a concession.  That’s especially true for folks who teach in the general education areas, where students are likelier to have credits to import.  If you don’t stop and think about it from a student perspective, it can feel like watering-down in the name of market pressures. Market pressures are real, but I still have a hard time imagining what to say to Jennifer, the working Mom who already has 45 or 50 credits and wants to return.  “You have to take a full 30, going way over 60, because we’re uneasy.” That doesn’t sit right.

It’s easy to rationalize a visceral sense of loss with invocations of identity or evil administrators. But it’s also a copout. Take abstractions and deans out of it; what do you say to Jennifer? Why should she be forced into another semester or two beyond what anyone else has to take?  Until I hear a convincing answer to that, I’m on board with a lower number.

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Matt Reed

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