The Faculty Key to Transfer

As SUNY moves to ease the way for community college students to transfer to four-year institutions, its emphasis is on getting professors to create a system and then make it work.
October 29, 2009

Community colleges have complained for years that their graduates get the run-around when they try to transfer credits to four-year institutions. The State University of New York, a 64-campus system with two-year and four-year campuses, thinks it has a way to solve the problem: putting the faculty in charge.

Two weeks ago, the Special Joint Committee on Transfer and Articulation – whose members include representatives from the system’s administration, Faculty Senate and Faculty Council of Community Colleges – delivered a set of policy recommendations to Nancy Zimpher, new SUNY chancellor. The stated goal of the committee’s work “is to enable students to transfer seamlessly among SUNY campuses without replicating courses taken at other SUNY institutions.”

David Lavallee, the interim SUNY provost who is leading the reform initiative, said the proposed revision marks a “paradigm shift” for the acceptance of transfer credits throughout the system. Though core general education requirements have traditionally transferred easily among SUNY institutions, upper-level courses that can count toward undergraduate majors have often been the source of debate between transferring institutions. To use one example, that means students who are getting started on programs in business at community colleges may have to retake "financial accounting" and "managerial accounting," two courses taken by all business majors, because there is not yet a common understand of what these courses comprise.

“In the past, transfers relied upon numerous one-to-one agreements between individual community colleges and four-year institutions within the system,” Lavallee said. “If community colleges wanted courses accepted, they submitted them to all of the four-year colleges in the system. Odds are that, when shopping around courses to two dozen faculty boards, not all of them were approved. Now, we’re moving toward a system where sets of courses within disciplines will be defined by their name, not their number, and then will be accepted system-wide.”

The issue of making transfer work has vexed many states, while others have made progress. Obama administration officials and foundation leaders have said making transfer work is an essential part of using community colleges to increase the number of Americans with college degrees. The SUNY system is large enough that it must see progress if the numbers on transfers are to move on a national level.

To determine which courses within disciplines will be considered equivalent for the sake of transfer, the Faculty Senate and Faculty Council of Community Colleges will gather 20 separate committees to review the basic coursework of those majors that account for 90 percent of the undergraduate degrees pursued by the system’s transfer students.

“These committees will ensure that certain learning outcomes are ensured within the majors,” Lavallee said. “We’re looking to have a set of typical courses within majors and the typical number of credits that are transferred. Also, we’ve really narrowed the focus to just four or five courses in each major. We’re not talking about how to get every possible course to transfer everywhere for everything. There will have to be changes to courses at both two- and four-year institutions. For example, the committee might decide that if you want to call a course ‘Financial Accounting 101,’ then it has to include this. If you want to include something else, that’s fine, but you can’t call it by that name. This focus will make it easier for students to know which courses transfer and which do not.”

In the event a student or an institution is not pleased with a transfer decision after these sets of common courses within majors are determined, then the policy establishes an appeals process by which they can bring concerns directly to the system. Until recently, when a similar appeals process was developed by the system, there was no formal way to register a complaint about transfer conflicts to the system at large. These issues had to be resolved between institutions, without mediation. Typically, this process sufficiently slowed things down that community college tranfers lost out, as they needed to enroll in courses knowing whether or not they would get credit for prior work.

Faculty Involvement

Representatives from both the system’s two- and four-year institutions expressed optimism for the policy changes, largely because of the system’s insistence that faculty members, not upper administrators or state lawmakers, define how and when courses will transfer.

Lavallee noted that SUNY talked about instituting a “common course numbering” system similar to the one adopted in Florida a number of years ago. Still, he said the administration wanted to avoid a system where transfer obligation would be “forced” upon faculty from the top down.

Dennis Golladay, SUNY vice chancellor for community colleges, who worked in Florida and Maryland during similar transfer reforms, expressed his appreciation for the role of faculty in SUNY’s efforts.

“The Florida situation was essentially driven from the top down,” Golladay said. “It had its genesis in the state legislature. When I was in Maryland, I warned my colleagues, ‘Listen, the legislature is looking at us. If you don’t want a legislative decision which you might not be happy with, then you need to reform this yourself.’ The reforms here in New York are coming from a faculty perspective, those who have the chief responsibility of shaping curriculum. That makes a big difference.”

This meeting of the minds, Golladay said, has put to rest concerns that those from both community colleges and four-year institutions often have about transfer policy. For example, he said he has not heard traditional complaints of “mission creep," either from two- or four-year faculty members, in all his conversations with the committee.

“Often in state systems of higher education, two- and four-year faculty never talk to one another,” Golladay said. “When these two groups of faculty actually get together and talk about their discipline, a mutual understand and respect for one another grows. The two-year faculty realizes that the four-year faculty is not elite snobs, and the four-year faculty realizes that the two-year faculty actually has advanced degrees and has a genuine interest in their concentration. During this process, I’ve watched those stereotypes break down beautifully, and I’m gratified with how well it went. I believe this will happen in the discipline committees, too.”

Tina Good, president of the Faculty Council of Community Colleges and an English professor at Suffolk County Community College, said she believes the new transfer policy is “sound.” Still, she said its true success or failure rests upon the financial resources the system puts into its implementation. With all of the cuts being proposed both by the system and the state government, she said it would be incumbent upon both to ensure this new system is “given the resources necessary to make it possible.”

Representatives of four-year faculty are also cautiously optimistic. Kenneth O’Brien, president of the Faculty Senate and history professor at SUNY Brockport, said he believes the new system will be able to address potential transfer conflicts before they occur in addition to resolving today's minor issues.

“Transfer within SUNY is successful as it stands,” O’Brien said. “While there does not appear to be a whole lot of problems, those problems we see are consistent. The project we’ve put in place will handle those old problems in the next five years. What will always occur is that faculty will change programs. This system, I believe, will be able to identify those future issues and resolve them so that students are not caught between competing faculty interests."


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