Scrutiny for Transfer Program

Indiana U. takes close look at program to award degrees for 3 years of community college work and 1 year of online courses.
February 21, 2007

An innovative "3+1" program intended to encourage out-of-state students at select community colleges to earn an Indiana University bachelor of general studies degree challenges the assumptions underlying most articulation agreements. Rather than transfer after two years, students in the 3+1 program do so after, well, three; due to the developments in distance education, they need never enter Indiana to take home an IU degree at in-state tuition rates; and, so, along those lines, the program is designed to appeal far beyond the local taxpaying base that state institutions typically cater to when crafting such agreements.

It's unique, yes, but so far, it would be hard to call the program a success: Not one community college transfer student has completed the degree, despite the fact that agreements with seven Illinois community colleges have been in place now for more than five years, as Daniel J. Callison, Indiana’s new dean of the School of Continuing Studies, wrote in response Tuesday to e-mailed questions.

Nor is the program particularly lucrative. Just 60 students enrolled in 2006 (although that was a 59-person increase over the one student enrolled in 2004). The 3+1 program, created by Callison’s predecessors, he said, “to develop ways to market the general studies degree to a larger audience and to increase awareness out of state,” accounts for less than 1 percent of annual revenue for IU’s general studies program.

Not surprisingly, Callison is currently overseeing a review of the program and its potential, considering, among other things, a change that would ironically leave the struggling program even less likely to attract students nationally: the possibility of charging out-of-state transfers non-resident tuition, as opposed to the $136.85 per credit hour in-state rate they’re currently paying for one year of IU coursework online ( the estimated cost of obtaining the 30 IU credits required, including textbooks and fees, is just $5,500).

“Any new dean will review the programs he or she inherits,” wrote Callison, who took over the reins in January. “I want to be certain that articulation of the transfer program is made more clear and that we are following specific expectations of the university."

The vast majority of students in IU’s general studies program, which features an interdisciplinary plan of study in the arts and humanities, social sciences, and mathematics and natural sciences, are Indiana residents who take courses at any of Indiana’s eight campuses (the actual degree they ultimately receive, said Larry MacIntyre, an Indiana spokesman, is from IU-Purdue University Indianapolis, as opposed to Bloomington, the flagship).

But, while articulation agreements with public universities typically focus on in-state students, Indiana community college students are explicitly ineligible for the 3+1 program because, MacIntyre said, the in-state two-year institutions lack the broad-based curriculum and academically qualified faculty to provide 90 transferable units of a student's 120 total credit hours. (When contacted about the program, Jeff Fanter, a spokesman for Indiana's Ivy Tech Community College, stood by a quote in The Indianapolis Star, which profiled the program Monday, in which he said Ivy Tech officials have not pursued a 3+1 articulation agreement with IU in general studies. “We are very pleased with the transfer agreements we have with Indiana University and look forward to moving forward with more in the future. We feel that our 2+2 degrees in career-specific fields prove to be very valuable for our students,” Fanter said via e-mail Monday).

The 29 community colleges and community college systems (including the giant Maricopa Community Colleges in Arizona) that do participate are all based in Arizona, California or Illinois. They all, Callison said, boast “reasonable academic status,” full accreditation, faculty Ph.D. or terminal degree completion rates at 20 to 25 percent or above, “a history of successful transfer programs” and “a wide menu of the courses in humanities, science, communication and mathematics that we expect ... not just technical training, which we do not normally accept for the general studies degree.” Callison said that, since initiating the program's review, he has not approved any further articulation agreements, and added that future marketing efforts will entail “generic descriptions of our requirements and expectations we have for transfer courses without showing special preference to any select group of schools.”

Officials at participating community colleges are big fans of the program, not least because it allows students to transfer 90 credits, as opposed to the typical maximum of 60 to 70. “It gives them some additional options, especially if they are place-bound and are looking for a non-traditional type of a degree program. Specifically the 90-credit transfer option makes it very available for students,” said John Coffin, associate dean of counseling and career services at Elgin Community College, in Illinois. “The 90-credit [transfer] is fairly unique; I hope that it gives some other institutions something to think about in terms of flexibility with transfer.”

But Coffin said he’s only personally dealt with a few students who have chosen to pursue the program. Janice Johnson, an articulation officer and counselor at Grossmont College, in California, which has participated for two years now, said that while she has promoted the program widely, not only among the college's students but also its staff, the first Grossmont student she knows of to take up the option is just preparing to start coursework now. “I was surprised that it didn’t really attract more people. It is a wonderful opportunity and I am surprised. I thought that there would be many people, especially with the [in-state] price, who would be very interested in it.”

"It’s interdisciplinary, it’s not for everyone, but it does work for those students who would like to pull together a wide variety of interests," Johnson said. "For example, if somebody has a degree in one of our vocational programs, they may have an associate’s degree in culinary arts or as an occupational therapy assistant, they can have their two-year degree, they might be working professionals, and then they can get a bachelor’s in interdisciplinary studies, and that’s what they need for advancement.”

But the feedback isn't entirely positive, and questions about equivalency linger. Betsy Henke, the student body president at IU Bloomington, said that the 3+1 program isn’t well-known among students, but its premise -- that students can gain an IU degree after three years of study elsewhere and one year of online instruction -- would probably bother many of her peers. “I see it from both perspectives,” she said, citing the potential revenue stream for the university, but also pointing out that the program seems to contradict IU’s commitment to increasing its standards. "On a personal level, someone who can go spend three years at a community college and pay for a year of online coursework at IU and walk away with the same degree and knowing that your admissions standards were much, much higher than at a community college ... it could be frustrating to many students," she said.

“The real question is, ‘What’s the difference in the quality of the courses at the four-year residential institution and the two-year commuter institution?" John Bean, an associate professor in Indiana-Bloomington's program in higher education and student affairs, said in an interview Tuesday. "If the quality is generally the same,” it’s not an issue. It gets to the boundaries -- how much do you want to push this? Would you say half a year [at the four-year institution] would be enough, someone would say, 'Oh no, you need a year,' someone else would say, 'Oh, no, you need a year and a half;' the standard answer is 50-50.”

The landscape of higher education is changing, Bean said, and no one knows the answers to those questions quite yet. “To the extent that a new generation of students comes on board the understands the world through IMs, the Internet, and other forms of electronically mediated exchange, programs such as IU's can be more beneficial than traditional educators might think,” Bean added via e-mail.

Thomas R. Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College, added that while IU's program struck him as unique, 3+1 articulation agreements are not unheard of in occupational fields, such as nursing, that tend to require more than two years to complete after prerequisites are factored in. And they're consistent with increasing trends within the community college world to offer four-year degrees, he said.

While online education is expanding the potential reach of programs within the community college market, it’s his sense, Bailey added, that these distance education initiatives are primarily reaching local students who take the courses online for convenience, rather than untapped student markets from across the nation. “The limited number of students involved with [the IU program] would be consistent with this,” he said.

But Ron Bleed, vice chancellor emeritus for Maricopa Community Colleges, wrote a viewpoints piece for the current edition of EDUCAUSE Review about the transformative potential of IU’s 3+1 program (a potential that has not, given the program’s utter lack of graduates, yet been realized). “This is one of those extraordinary, disruptive innovations for higher education,” wrote Bleed, who did not respond to an e-mail request for comment.

“For students, the effect of this disruptive innovation is that many of them will be better served. Although a four-year, residential experience at an ivy-covered campus may be the ideal, it is not the reality for the majority of undergraduate students in the United States. ... If IU’s 3+1 program enjoys success, other institutions are likely to follow with similar programs, perhaps including specialized degrees. ... With the flexibility built into the delivery systems at community colleges or via distance learning, the probability that a student will succeed in course work increases, since the effect of life interruptions is moderated. And students will graduate without the burden of large student loans," he wrote.

"Thus the time is ripe for a disruptive innovation," the article concludes. "I believe it has arrived: Indiana's extraordinary 3+1 program -- and others that may follow -- will dramatically change higher education, for the better."

Time will tell, at least for IU's 3+1 program. A student or two will have to finish it first.


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