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The blizzard this weekend forced some serious “inside” time, so I was able to be slightly more attentive than usual to Twitter. (I also learned firsthand that “slippery plus steep plus snowblower equals big fun,” but that’s another post.) On Saturday, Lee Skallerup Bessette got a discussion going about some of the issues that get in the way of successful community college to four year transfer, and it became clear quickly that some of those issues are more complicated than 140 characters can convey.

“Transfer” is one of those things that many people think they understand, but few actually do. To the extent that most people think about it, they imagine students at community colleges getting the associate’s degree in two years, and then getting the bachelor’s in two more. And that does happen. But the picture is much more complicated than that.

For example, lateral and reverse transfers are much more common than most people think. Lateral means cc-to-cc or four-year-to-four-year; reverse refers to a student moving from a four-year to a two-year. Many programs aren’t meant to transfer; they’re intended to be two-and-out, leading directly to jobs. Those aren’t what policymakers imagine when they refer to transfer, but they’re significant parts of the picture, and each part brings its own needs.

Within the realm of the more traditional vertical transfer, though, I get twitchy when I read about “leaky pipelines” and community colleges. That language assumes that it’s essentially an engineering problem; it isn’t. It’s largely a political problem.

Here’s a riddle we face every single day on my campus. (I’ll change the names and details for the sake of decorum.) Amy wants to get her degree at the community college and transfer on for a bachelor’s, but she isn’t sure yet where she wants to go.  Hypothetical State U wants her to have taken US History, Pre-calc, and a year of a foreign language. St. Somebody wants her to have taken European History, Statistics, and a separate diversity course. Meanwhile, Respected Private College wants her to have taken World Civ, Calc I, and a service learning course.

What do you advise Amy to take?

Multiply that dilemma by more receiving institutions, chains of prerequisites, student preferences, and majors, and you begin to get the idea.  

Although we try to work around it, this issue will not, and cannot, be solved only at the community college level. We twist ourselves into pretzels to try to satisfy the idiosyncratic and frequently-changing preferences of four-year partners. But when each four-year partner wants different things, it’s impossible to satisfy them all.  That’s especially true when entering students don’t have a single destination in mind.

(Last year I saw a presentation on the very successful “pipeline” from Maricopa community colleges to Arizona State. It works because over 90 percent of the students who transfer from Maricopa go to one place.  When you have multiple destinations, it’s much harder.)

The internal politics of many four-year colleges make matters worse.  Admissions offices will frequently defer to receiving departments for decisions on the acceptance of transfer credit. Receiving departments are frequently willing to accept gen eds, but unwilling to “give away too many credits” in the major. They want those FTE’s for themselves. They can do that and still comply with statewide transfer mandates by reclassifying classes as 300 level, rather than 200 level, and/or by awarding “free elective” credit for transfer classes, rather than credits in the major. In the absence of some sort of master list of what belongs at what level, a 300 level class is whatever the receiving department says it is.

In most professions, such an obvious conflict of interest would have been blocked years ago. But in higher ed, it’s so normal that most of us don’t even see it.  

In parts of the country with relatively robust private college sectors, there’s a limit to what legislative mandates can do. But even on the public side, where mandates can exist, it’s easy to evade their intent while staying within the letter of the law. Every exception becomes a new “leak.”  

The politics become obvious when you start trying to engineer a solution.  If every college agreed on what belongs at which level, and what the transfer requirements should be, then it would be far easier to ensure that students would transfer and get full credit. But that would involve a central authority, outside of the four-year colleges, making academic decisions for them. Departments would have to live with the decisions others made; they would lose their power to make those calls.  Experience tells me they’d fight that bitterly, invoking “academic integrity” to protect their own enrollments.

The metaphor of the “leaky pipeline” assumes that the system is basically well-designed, and just needs some fixes. I’d argue that the system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets. If you want different results -- as I do -- the changes will be a lot more drastic than fixing leaks. The issue isn’t Amy or her community college; the issue is that there’s no obvious answer to her question. Until there is, we can expect the “leaks” to continue.


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