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No, college tuition bills are not just like cable bills.

Jeff Selingo argues that they are. In a piece in the Washington Post this week, he focuses on “bundling” as the common denominator. He notes that on most four-year campuses, students are billed by the semester, rather than by the course or the credit. Therefore, students either take too few credits per semester, or too many credits per degree. (To his credit, Selingo notes the apparent contradiction.) Consumers routinely complain about paying for cable channels they don’t watch in order to have access to the ones they do; Selingo argues that students have the same issue.

I don’t know if Selingo is right about most four-year colleges, but I’m pretty sure the observation doesn’t apply to most community colleges. Most of the community colleges I’ve seen have one of two pricing structures: either a basic per-credit rate (the pure a la carte model), or a per-credit rate up to a certain plateau. Given that the majority of community college students attend part-time -- even though most performance measures assume otherwise -- a per-credit rate offers the proportionality Selingo advocates.

It’s a mixed blessing.

Making part-time attendance easier makes on-time completion harder. That’s why so many community colleges are adopting versions of “15 to finish,” encouraging students to move quickly enough to graduate in two years. Some variation on plateau pricing -- or limited bundling, or “buy five, get one free” -- can nudge students towards taking more credits. Many students won’t because they can’t, but some may move from 12 per semester to 15.  

Selingo is on weaker ground when he addresses transfer. He argues:

The credit transfer business is arbitrary at best. Credits earned at a community college might be accepted at a public university across the state, but not one in the same town. Colleges say they reject credits they don’t deem worthy, but what they are really doing is trying to protect their bottom lines, just like the cable companies. Each credit a college accepts from somewhere else is revenue they forgo.

Be careful here. That’s not exactly how it works.

Typically, when students transfer with a non-trivial number of credits, they’re transferring into a given major. The receiving college will split the transfer credits into two groups: those that apply directly to the major, and “gen eds.” Gen Ed credit transfer decisions are usually made centrally, and apply across the board. A prospective poli sci major, for instance, is likely to be able to transfer English Composition without much trouble.

But courses within the major are typically referred to the academic department at the receiving institution. The prospective poli sci major might have no trouble with U.S. History, but could easily run into issues with, say, Constitutional Law. That’s because the receiving department doesn’t teach U.S. History anyway, so it suffers no loss by “giving away” credits. But it does teach Con Law, and it isn’t psyched about losing those credits.

Four-year colleges often fudge the issue by assigning the denied credits “free elective” status. That way they can claim publicly that they’re good transfer partners, even while actually making students pay to repeat courses they’ve already taken elsewhere because gee, it’s not their fault that none of their programs actually have “free elective” slots in them. Darn the luck.

All of which is to say that if you want to look at the economic basis of transfer credit acceptance decisions, you have to unbundle the university. There’s the university as a whole, embodied in action by the dreaded Administration, and then there are the various departments. The incentives of the two often conflict.

Selingo is right that over the last few years, as enrollments have dropped sharply in much of the country, many four-year institutions have become more accepting of transfer credits. That largely reflects an economically-driven power shift from departments to central administrations at four-year schools. I’d argue that it’s mostly a good thing, in this context, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see a back-and-forth between the power centers over time as enrollments fluctuate.

Yes, by all means, let’s unbundle cable bills. But if we want better credit transfer policies, a certain kind of tighter bundling may actually be the answer.


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