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In improvisational comedy, the rule for the actors is “yes, and …” No matter what someone else in the scene does or says, your job is to accept it immediately and build on it. Done well, it can take stories to vertiginous heights.
Reading the new report on institutional policies and incentives that need to change in order for the student transfer experience to improve, I quickly landed on “yes, and.”
If you haven’t seen the report, it’s worth the read. It acknowledges many of the real-world issues that prevent the acceptance of community college credits at four-year schools, and I found myself nodding along as I read. Yes, the burden of proof is typically on the applicant to prove why credits are worthy, rather than on the receiving school to prove they aren’t. Yes, most performance funding schemes either omit transfer entirely or address it in unhelpful ways. Yes, individual departments have a direct conflict of interest when evaluating courses for transfer, fearing that if they “give away” too many credits, their funding (and possibly jobs) could be at stake. The conflict of interest is structural, rather than personal, so it’s not mostly a matter of cracking down on bad actors. Motivated reasoning can be subtle enough that the people using it might not even be aware that they are. Yes to all of that.
The report settles on some recommendations around data analysis. It suggests that if institutions actually look at the benefits in terms of retention and completion, they’ll find that being more accepting of transfer credits on the front end can be profitable. A student who stays for 60 credits and graduates generates more tuition revenue than a student who quits after a semester, frustrated at having to repeat courses they’ve already taken.
It also suggests using technology to come up with faster ways to process transcripts, such as a standard reporting sheet. Allowing students to see quickly where the various credits would fit into the program into which they’re transferring would save time, money, and frustration. Yes, yes, yes.
Having said “yes,” here comes the “and.”
Many students who transfer try to comparison shop. Given the cost of senior institutions, I can’t blame them. But most senior institutions won’t let students know which or how many credits will get accepted until after they’ve enrolled. (The obvious exceptions are when there’s either an existing articulation agreement or a rigorous transfer law that’s actually enforced.) Students should be able to know, prior to enrollment, how many more credits they’ll need to complete the program. In the absence of reliable prior knowledge, it’s hard to connect the dots at the senior institution between openness to credits and improved enrollment. Armed with relevant knowledge, students can vote with their feet.
Notice that I phrased the above as “how many more credits they’ll need to complete the program,” as opposed to “how many credits will be accepted.” That’s because there’s a long and ugly track record of senior institutions assigning “free elective” status to credits as a way to say they’ve “accepted” them, but then not counting them toward degree programs. Going by subtraction—how many left?—renders moot some of the definitional shenanigans around “acceptance.”
Then, I’d advocate that states post scorecards on the various senior institutions and programs showing how many more credits students had to take to finish. Name and shame those who persistently deny students credit for work they’ve done. Part of the rationale for this is to empower comparison shopping, but the other part is to shift the conversation around denied credits from the community college (which doesn’t make credit-acceptance decisions) to the senior institution, which does. Put the spotlight where it belongs.
I’d be explicit, too, that all of these measures apply to credits earned in dual-enrollment settings as well as traditional ones. I’ve seen some ugly gatekeeping around dual-enrollment credits. That has to stop.
Still, these suggestions are intended to make a strong and thoughtful report even better. Kudos to the Beyond Transfer Policy Advisory Board for this. It’s badly needed.