• 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.


The Uncounted Cost of Spurned Transfer

Taking on the tyranny of the checklist.


December 13, 2015

I was heartened to see on Friday that the CCRC, the Aspen Institute, and Public Agenda are teaming up to work on the issues around community college students losing credits when they transfer to four-year schools. I was even happier to see that much of the focus will apparently be on the receiving schools, where it should be; community colleges don’t control the decisions to accept or not. When students have significant numbers of credits refused at the receiving institution, it puts them in a tough spot: they have to pay again for classes they’ve already taken, they take longer, and they smart from what amounts to a slap in the face. I was so pleased to see the topic addressed that I even forgave the use of a “pipeline” metaphor.

All of those costs are relatively easy to calculate. We know the tuition rates at receiving schools, how many students attend them, and the impact on graduation rates of refused credits. (Hint: it’s bad.) We can figure out some potential savings for students accordingly.

From where I sit, though, there’s another cost of refused transfers that often goes uncounted. It’s the exciting experimental course that gets shot down during the planning phase because we aren’t sure that it would transfer.

Ten years ago (!), I did a piece called “Freshman Seminars and the Tyranny of Transfer.” A decade and two colleges later, the same issue keeps popping up. Interdisciplinary courses -- courses that don’t fit cleanly in the checklist in the Admissions office -- tend to get relegated to “free elective” status. Most majors have few or no free electives, so the credits are put in a sort of academic limbo. They aren’t “denied,” in a straightforward way, but they aren’t counted towards the degree, either.  

With an acute awareness of student costs, in both money and time, we’re increasingly reluctant to give students credits that won’t transfer, or that won’t transfer effectively. That means that courses that would make terrific educational sense, but that don’t have obvious currency in transfer, usually die at the proposal stage. They won’t show up in the statistics about “denied” transfers, because they weren’t attempted in the first place.  

If the transfer rules were cleaner, and written more to serve students than to avoid “giving away too many credits,” community colleges would be much more able to innovate. In a climate in which institutional performance is under new scrutiny, I’d like to be able to support exciting new ways to help students succeed.  

“Meta-majors” are probably the most salient current example. Would a three-credit interdisciplinary introduction to the social sciences transfer? We don’t know. I’d love to run it -- “Money, Sex, and Power: An Introduction to Social Inquiry” would make a hell of a course -- but at this point, it’s anybody’s guess. So we have a choice: either cut down the future to the size of the present, or roll the dice.  I lean hard towards the latter, on the theory that in the long run, success is success. But in the meantime, some help in reducing the risk would be most welcome.

I haven’t seen the CCRC/Aspen/Public Agenda report yet, obviously, but I hope it includes opportunity costs in its calculation of costs. Yes, by all means, help students get credit for the existing classes they’ve taken. But let’s also let community colleges experiment with ways to help students succeed. Let’s finally break the tyranny of the checklist.



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