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Tiny Budget, Big Payoff

December 5, 2013

Alabama's community college transfer office has helped hundreds of thousands of students save money by making sure their credits move with them to a four-year institution. But the office is on life support, with an annual budget that has been slashed to just $375,000.

Two employees and a part-time assistant run the website, which is powered by hardware and software that is more than a decade old.

“It can go down,” said Mark Heinrich, chancellor of the Alabama Community College System. “We’re holding our breath until it can be updated.”

Community college transfer is a core component of the national college completion push by President Obama and powerful foundations. They have encouraged community colleges and four-year institutions to work together to help more students transfer.

The work isn’t easy, as four-year colleges often do not accept some or many of the credits  students earn at community colleges. And even those that are willing to accept credits must make sure courses, curriculums and majors align, which is a tedious and expensive job.

Alabama’s transfer program is called the Statewide Transfer and Articulation Reporting System (STARS). It is housed at Troy University.    

State legislators created the system in 1994. They also formed a 10-member policy committee to oversee the work.

Heinrich chairs the group, which includes members from both the state’s community colleges and four-year institutions. They seek to ensure academic quality by deciding whether to approve courses for transfer credit.

The STARS office handles the day-to-day work by reviewing each new course offered by the state’s 25 two-year colleges. Its employees create the transfer guides and “contracts” students can download to guarantee that they receive credits for approved transfer courses. The system office also runs the website.

The legislature’s original goal was to make its higher education systems more efficient and save student time and money. That plan worked, said Heinrich.

“Before STARS, two-year college students in Alabama who wanted a university degree navigated in a virtual minefield of costly duplication and academic inefficiency,” he wrote in an op-ed published by al.com last week.

For example, Heinrich said the standard English, math and biology courses students took at community colleges were not accepted for credits at most of the state’s 14 public, four-year institutions.

Since 1998 students have downloaded more than 900,000 copies of the transfer guides. Heinrich and other officials estimate that the program has saved students and the state approximately $1 billion on tuition, books, room and board by preventing course duplication and speeding up their time to graduation. And he said that’s a conservative estimate.

If Heinrich’s numbers are correct, Alabama’s transfer office is one of the nation’s most cost-efficient completion programs. Other states have taken notice, with several copying aspects of the transfer system office or flying its director out to meetings.

STARS is important both to Alabama and to the nation, said Stephen G. Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama. That’s because the system is a good model for how to improve transfer in the 23 or so states without consolidated, statewide governing boards. In those states, voluntary cooperation is essential.

“Alabama was an early adopter,” Katsinas said in an email. “This model deserves national attention.”

Benign Neglect

Keith W. Sessions has been the STARS program’s executive director from the beginning. The original budget of $1.2 million included some startup costs. But in the system’s “glory days” before the recession, Sessions said, the state kicked in almost $700,000 a year.

At its peak STARS employed eight full-time and four part-time workers. Now it’s just Sessions, a programmer who is also an original employee and an administrative assistant they share with another Troy department. (Click here for a web presentation Sessions created about the program.)

“We’re now just basically in maintenance mode,” said Sessions. “We can’t cut much more than what’s been cut.”

Lawmakers haven’t intentionally gutted the program, said Sessions and Heinrich. Like the community college system on the whole, which has seen its annual budget cut by roughly one-third over the last five years, the transfer office has been a victim of a state government with too many competing demands and too little money.

It hasn’t helped that STARS is a separate budget item. As state lawmakers leave office and are replaced, many of the newbies may not understand what the small pot of money does.

“Sometimes that line item is not front and center,” said Sessions.

Heinrich attributes the program’s money woes to the declining economy and a lack of awareness about the transfer system among lawmakers. He’s pushing hard for the Legislature to restore STARS’ annual funding levels of $500,000 from a decade ago.

That extra $125,000 could support a couple of new employees and allow the staff to do more than just keep the current system afloat, such as by traveling around the state to work with community colleges and high schools on curriculum issues.

“We’re not really asking for a lot of money,” Sessions said.

Sessions isn’t waiting on the Legislature, however. He is negotiating with a software company to try to pay for upgrades on an installment plan. But a badly needed new web server will have to wait.

In the meantime, community college students are continuing the use the site. More than 75,000 students have downloaded a transfer guide each of the last nine years.

 

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