When the U.S. Education Department sought "emergency" approval from the White House last month for a survey of Pell Grant recipients who had transferred from one college to another, some critics accused department officials of trying to build evidence on the fly to support their contention that students in career-related fields are unfairly discriminated against in trying to transfer their academic credits. Strong support expressed by the Career College Association contributed to that impression.
Department officials bristled at the suggestion that they were trying a last minute end run around the regular process for approving such surveys, noting that the idea had been in the works for a full year. But after discussions with analysts in the Office of Management and Budget and with some of the higher education officials who had raised concerns, the department has gained approval from the White House for a modified version of the survey that seems to have satisfied all parties.
Starting next month, the department will conduct in-depth surveys with 200 Pell Grant recipients who attended a public community college in 2004-5 and transferred to a public or private two-year or four-year institution in 2005-6. The survey will gauge the students' views on their experiences, positive and negative, in transferring their academic credits from the original institution to the new one.
Several things are different about the newly approved survey and the proposal for which the department sought approval (and generated opposition) last month. First, this one makes clear, in a way the previous one did not, that it focuses on the transfer experiences of community college students. (Department officials insist that that was always their intention, but the earlier version of the survey suggested that the survey respondents would be Pell Grant recipients from all sectors of higher education.)
The focus on two-year institutions is logical, the department said in explanatory material about the survey, "[g]iven the percentage of students who begin their postsecondary education career at community colleges." (Although the transfer difficulties of students from for-profit colleges have gained significant political attention, department officials said it is clear that transfer of credit problems affect many more community college students than any other kind.)
Second, in addition to garnering the impressions of students via interviews, the department will collect the transcripts of the students to increase the chances that the government gains a fully accurate picture of their experience. Department officials said that while research suggests that the recollections of students in situations like this are usually accurate, the use of transcripts to confirm the findings are likely to make college officials feel more comfortable about the results. The study also adds some questions -- suggested by some of the officials who balked at the original survey -- designed to solicit the students' opinions about whether any courses they were forced to repeat were "identical" to the original classes.
Lastly, the Education Department's materials make clear (as its officials say they always intended) that the survey is designed not to justify the formation of new policies, but to "(1) inform the development of more in-depth studies, which may utilize more comprehensive methodology, and (2) help the Department prepare informational materials to educate aid recipients about the transfer process."
Those changes have assuaged critics like Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers. With the modifications, Nassirian said, "AACRAO has no objections to the proposed information collection."
A spokesman for the Career College Association, Bob Cohen, said in an e-mail message that the group is happy that the White House has approved the transfer of credit survey. "We think requiring students to repeat coursework they have satisfactorily completed is a recipe for student frustration, a cause for students to drop out of higher education, and a waste of money," he wrote.
It is not clear if the fact that the survey clearly focuses on community college students, and appears to exclude students transferring from for-profit colleges, will soften the Career College Association's support.