• 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.


Will (Name of University) Take These Credits?

Some critical variables.

October 20, 2020

Monday’s Inside Higher Ed piece about bumps in the credit transfer process between community colleges and four-year colleges has much to recommend it; I encourage you to check it out if you haven’t yet.

It’s a summary of a report on a crucial topic. Too many students lose too many credits when they transfer. Loss of credits increases time to graduation and cost of completion; unsurprisingly, the more credits lost, the less likely students are to finish. In the case of public-to-public transfers, one could argue that taxpayers are also paying twice when a student has credits denied.

I smiled wistfully at the opening of the article. It suggested that in this economy, transfer should be more important than ever. I agree that it should, but transfer tends to take a back seat to discussions of workforce training in the public discourse. That’s frustrating on a number of levels, not the least of which is that for jobs that require more than a two-year degree, good transfer agreements are a workforce development tool. The dichotomy is false. Worse, it plays into a popular narrative about college as a luxury good.

But the really crucial part of the article is the discussion of what it means to ask whether a given university accepts certain credits. A few key variables come into play:

  • Graduation. Typically, a student who completes an associate degree has a much better chance at getting credits taken as a bloc than a student who transfers without graduating first. In some states, such as my own, that’s actually a law (for public four-years). If a student transfers prior to graduation, the receiving school can cherry-pick; if they transfer after graduation to a public university, they get full junior standing. The same class can be accepted or rejected, based on whether or not the student graduated.
  • Grades. This is an issue with AP credits, as well as with certain classes. Many community colleges give credit for AP grades of three, but many four-year schools require a four or five. That means that a student who thought they got something out of the way may abruptly find out that they didn’t. For students who don’t graduate, grades below C typically don’t transfer. It’s possible to get away with a D or two if you graduated with a sufficient GPA, but if you didn’t graduate, you can leave the D grades at the door. That creates an obvious equity issue with “native” students at four-year schools who can carry a D grade or two through to graduation: as one admissions rep said to me, “D’s get degrees.” But there it is.
  • Departments. This is the biggie. Students have some control over their own grades and whether they graduate before transferring. They have no control over what a receiving department chooses to accept. This is the fatal flaw in the transfer system. A university might want to accept courses in transfer, but it will often delegate those decisions for courses in the student’s major to the receiving department. In the Inside Higher Ed story, Alison Kadlec is quoted attributing department-level reluctance to concerns about quality, and it’s true that sometimes they’ll say that. Sometimes they’ll even mean it. But there’s also a basic issue of self-interest. I’ve had too many conversations in which people were unwilling to “give away” credits. They see it as a threat to their own jobs. In practice, that means that, say, a prospective business major might not have an issue getting their English Comp or Intro to Psych classes accepted but might hit a wall with Accounting II. As long as the incentives are perverse, we can expect behaviors to follow. This is not a “both sides” issue; it can only be solved at the four-year level, either internally (through enlightened decision making) or externally (through legislation).

None of that is to deny the presence of self-interest at the two-year level, of course; I’ve been through enough discussions of proposed curricular changes to know that self-interest is always present at some level. But ultimately, decisions about accepting credits are made by the receiving institution.

At its core, the issue is around who gets to decide. If a university decides centrally, then we can have productive discussions of transfer agreements. But if every department is granted the power of nullification, then we’ll keep having these same issues. The incentives are just too strong.


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