Who Decides on Transfer Credit?

April 21, 2011

A longstanding complaint of students who transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions is that the 2+2 model quickly turns into 2+3 or 2+4 or 2+dropping out, when many of the credits earned before transfer are rejected or can't fulfill key requirements. At the City University of New York, an administration plan to deal with this issue has many professors at four-year institutions saying that their rights to guard curricular quality are being endangered.

The system's central administration proposed in January the creation of a common general education framework across its all of its two- and four-year colleges, which would cause many institutions to significantly trim their current requirements, some of which require as many as 60 credits. The system has also proposed a brand-new, overarching transfer agreement that would guarantee that liberal arts and sciences courses taken for credit at any CUNY institutions be accepted for credit by any other CUNY institutions, even if an equivalent course exists at the transfer institution.

As the majority of community college students within the system transfer to a senior college before having earned an associate degree, many of their community college credits are considered elective credits by senior colleges and add to their overall credit total without helping them progress toward their degree requirements. In other words, some students earn more than 120 credits but still cannot graduate.

The comprehensive reform efforts, including the trimming and standardization of general education requirements, that CUNY is pursuing are similar to efforts made within the State University of New York system two years ago and those currently being pursued between the California Community Colleges and the California State University System. Many higher education experts have commented in recent years that two- and four-year institutions should strive to make the transfer process easier and more seamless. For instance, the Education Department issued a series of suggestions last month for governors and other state leaders to help colleges in their respective states increase their completion rates. One of the "key strategies" the agency recommends is establishing statewide policies that govern the transfer of credit and "developing common lower-division, postsecondary general education curricula accepted by all public two and four-year institutions."

CUNY faculty at both two- and four-year institutions appear united in their frustration over the “top-down” method in which the system administration has sought these changes, arguing it threatens their autonomy and traditional control over curriculum. However, they are divided as to whether such changes are in the best interest of the system and its students — a conflict that says as much about the diversity of CUNY as it does about the vast differences of opinion regarding the recent nationwide push for more college graduates.

Faculty leaders at four-year institutions generally agree that the general education changes would dilute the quality of baccalaureate degrees. Of course, to some community college faculty members, the idea that giving more credit to their courses would dilute quality comes across like a slap at their institutions. Faculty senates at six of the senior colleges within the CUNY system have in recent weeks passed resolutions to condemn the planned changes. None of the faculty senates at CUNY's community colleges have taken such a stand.

General Education Tug of War

Sandi E. Cooper, chair of the system-wide University Faculty Senate and a history professor at the College of Staten Island, said she believes the broad changes being proposed by CUNY’s central administration are a “transparent attempt to ensure faster graduation” and that while "citing student complaints about the problems of transfer," it is "proposing a cure that threatens the entire validity of the four-year degree."

The administration has proposed a general education model in which all two- and four-year institutions would hold 36 credits — with courses distributed across disciplines — in common; then, each college would be able to designate up to six additional credits for the general education requirement that are specific to its institution. Cooper argues that asking colleges to trim their general education requirements, some of which currently consist of more than 42 credits, “dilutes quality” and the “rich range” of disciplines students may encounter in their higher education.

“An administration which pays for ads on the sides of buses, for billboards and for all manner of commercials demonstrating its commitment to quality, is now asking its baccalaureate institutions to bend to the limited educational attainments of transfer students who may have barely touched the menu of course work,” Cooper wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. “What should be eliminated? Languages? Lab science? History? Courses that are too tough — math?”

Cooper’s University Faculty Senate, which is dominated by representatives from the system’s four-year institutions, passed something of a compromise resolution on general education last week. It argues for a 30-credit base for general education at all CUNY institutions, plus at least an additional 16 credits to be determined by each individual college. Still, the vote on this resolution did not win the approval of some two-year faculty, who saw the stipulation of 16 credits as giving the senior colleges more than their fair share of curricular control.

“My thinking was, at the time, that this isn’t about whether we prefer the 36 + 6 model or the 30 + 16 model,” explained Katherine Conway, head of a caucus of community college representatives to the University Faculty Senate and a business management professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College, about her opposition to the resolution. “We just need to come to an agreement about what the core actually is, and I don’t think we’ve done that.... I don’t think this [common general education core] threatens the quality of baccalaureate degrees, but is the right number of [base] credits 36? I don’t know.”

Other community college faculty, however, are not as troubled by giving over control of a significant portion of the general education requirement to their colleagues at senior institutions, if only because they would rather students have a larger overall requirement.

“More is better,” said Emily Tai, a representative on the University Faculty Senate’s executive committee and a history professor at Queensborough Community College, of the general education requirement. “We want to expose them to enough so they can decide what they like.”

Officials from CUNY’s central administration defend the 36 + 6 plan for general education. Alexandra W. Logue, executive chancellor and university provost of the system, argued that the 42-total-credit requirement is “on the high side for good public universities around the country.” She also deflected faculty claims that the system’s administration was dictating curricular matter to them, and that the administration's approach would dilute baccalaureate degree quality.

“Education quality is not a function of what’s in a general education curriculum,” said Logue, adding that faculty will be part of a task force the system’s administration is forming this spring to try to settle what should be a part of this proposed common framework.

One-Size-Fits-All Transfer

On the matter of the system’s proposed overarching transfer policy, which Cooper and other four-year faculty view as a separate matter from reforming the general education requirement, the University Faculty Senate unanimously passed a resolution last week suggesting that the system’s transfer problems may be remedied more effectively by measures other than blanket acceptance of all liberal arts and sciences credits. It suggests, for example, strengthening “curricular counseling for students” and improving technology to link college course catalogs and make transcripts readily available to advising faculty.

Many four-year faculty members are worried by the administration’s effort to push through a transfer agreement in conjunction with a common general education requirement.

“It just hasn’t been explained clearly enough,” said Dean Savage, a representative on the University Faculty Senate and a sociology professor at Queens College, a four-year institution. “There just hasn’t been a persuasive case between [this] transfer [change] and a common framework for general education.”

Cooper said she will continue to pressure the system’s administration to “modify the language” of its proposal to separate the matters.

Logue, however, defended the coupling of the changes, arguing that students need both aspects to be reformed to ease transfer within the system. She added that CUNY has “tried a number of different resolutions to try and address this [transfer] problem” before, but that none of them has worked in isolation.

Still, as with their response to the system administration’s general education plan, community college faculty are not always in agreement with their colleagues at four-year institutions.

“We’ve always felt that our students who want to transfer to four-year colleges bump up against walls on their way there and that there’s always been a kind of barrier there that they didn’t expect to face,” said Sally Mettler, a representative to the University Faculty Senate and a humanities professor at LaGuardia Community College. “And it always comes down to the un-discussed and unspoken issue that some professor thinks that the courses they’ve taken [at a community college] are not up to the level of what they would have to take at a four-year college and don’t deserve equivalency.”

Mettler added, though, that she has concerns that the reforms being pushed by the system’s central administration discourage students from earning associate degrees. She worries that some of these reforms could “undercut existing programs” for the sake of a larger baccalaureate degree completion goal. And she said she thinks that some community college faculty have not entirely written off the system administration’s plan because of historical tensions between them and their four-year colleagues.

“I think some two-year faculty are willing to get behind the administration on this one because they think it will finally advantage their students in a way that they’ve always been disadvantaged,” Mettler said. “After years of getting the bad end of things, it looks tempting to support this…. Still, that can be something you can live to regret.”

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