The Department of Obvious Studies has been working overtime. Last week, it issued a report  showing that despite much of our political rhetoric, students are, in fact, different from each other. This week, it issued a report  showing that students whose transfer credits are denied are less likely to finish a degree on time than students who don’t have to retake (and pay for) courses they’ve already taken. Apparently, when a college puts up high barriers to completion, completion rates drop. It’s almost as if barriers somehow get in the way.
As with the finding about student differences, this finding is both obvious and radical.
The study, by David Monaghan and Paul Attewell of the CUNY Graduate Center, shows that transfer students who had 90 percent or more of their transfer credits accepted towards their degree did as well, if not better than, “native” four-year students. The lower completion rates on which critics like to focus occur in cases in which students have been denied credit for the work they’ve done, and were told to repeat it.
In that light, then, the issue with community college starts isn’t community colleges. It’s the destination colleges. By putting up arbitrary obstacles, they cause the very problem they claim to discover.
Which makes sense, if you think about it. A barrier founded originally on a combination of class prejudice and short-term conflicts of interest becomes self-reinforcing through its effects.
I saw this firsthand when I was at CCM. My vice president and I once made the drive to Rutgers-Newark to talk about an articulation agreement between CCM’s Criminal Justice Program and Rutgers-Newark’s CJ program. (For those unfamiliar with New Jersey, both are public institutions.) After exchanging pleasantries, the dean there announced that they’d be willing to recognize up to 30 of the 60+ credits in our program. In other words, they’d discount at least one full year of a two-year degree, and make students retake the classes. The lucky taxpayers of New Jersey would pay for an extra year for every single student. And that was at the exact same time that they congratulated us on how well our students did at Newark.
We drove back without signing anything, alternately fuming and laughing. I couldn’t decide if I was more offended as an academic or as a taxpayer.
The situation got so bad in New Jersey that the state eventually passed legislation mandating transfer within the public sector. Massachusetts did something similar with its MassTransfer program. The legislation applies only to the public sector, but it exerts competitive pressure as well on the private sector. A non-elite private college that tries to railroad transfer students will find transfer students instead heading off to the nearest state school. The smarter private colleges have figured that out.
The republic did not fall.
Now that the Department of Obvious Studies is on a roll, I hope that we can start to shift the political discussion around public higher education in more intelligent directions. We can start by ditching the popular slander that says that you can infer a college’s quality from its IPEDS graduation rate. We can utterly discredit the assumption that a college’s overall graduation rate equates to any given student’s chance of graduating. (In statistics-speak, that’s called the “ecological fallacy.” Would that more people knew that…) That assumption is behind most of the “pipeline” metaphors that people use, as if students were interchangeable. And now we can attack the unthinking assumption that students who start at community colleges are somehow at an inherent disadvantage. They’re only at a disadvantage when discriminatory policies at four-year colleges put them at one.
Truth is stubborn. It resists fads. I’m glad to see some truth start to poke out from behind all the rhetoric. I look forward to the next dispatch from Obvious Studies.