Wow, that’s a bad idea

Pop quiz: when a student transfers from a community college to a four-year school, which school decides which credits to take in transfer?

Hint: the word “take” is key.

The four-year school decides.  The community college is at its mercy.

I bring that up because it demonstrates why this piece by Ames Brown, identified in Forbes as a managing member of Capital Counsel Management LLC, is so misguided.  It proposes using performance funding to reward community colleges that teach a lot of classes that transfer, and to punish those that teach a lot of classes that don’t.


Never mind that performance funding for colleges at the institutional level has been thoroughly discredited.  Never mind that community colleges have come under increasing pressure to teach more of the A.A.S. and short-term certificate courses that _don’t_ transfer, in order to place students into jobs more quickly.  Never mind remedial courses at all; he doesn’t mention them once.  And never mind that “transfer” comes in many flavors, such as the “free elective” category that many four-year schools use to say that they’ve “accepted” credits, but won’t apply them to a given student’s degree program.

All of those are true, and in combination, dispositive.  But let’s just focus on the most basic issue.

Four-year schools don’t agree with each other.

Unless and until they do, punishing community colleges for internal squabbling in the four-year sector is like punishing Syria by invading Scotland.  It misses the point entirely.

Some states have figured this out, and done some version of a mandatory transfer law for public institutions.  Those help, to some degree.  The two with which I’m personally familiar, Massachusetts and New Jersey, both require four year public colleges and universities to accept an associate’s degree in a bloc, and to cover the “gen ed” portion of the first two years.  But even in those, any given department can decide for reasons of its own to curtail or eliminate the courses in the student’s major that it will accept.  And that’s not even counting the private institutions that aren’t covered by the transfer laws at all.

I’ll give an example close to home.  My own college had to establish two different degrees in criminal justice: one an associate of science, and one an associate of arts.  That’s because most of the four-year schools in the area with criminal justice programs, including Rutgers-Newark, give bachelor of science degrees, but the flagship campus in New Brunswick gives a bachelor of arts.  Courses that count towards one branch of Rutgers don’t count towards the other.  In Brown’s world, Brookdale should be punished financially because the different campuses of Rutgers don’t agree with each other.

What behavior that’s supposed to incentivize here is hard to say.

Reducing transfer to the course level is misleading, too, because the same school that will accept, say, a Spanish class towards a history degree might not accept it towards a biology degree.  Different degrees have different requirements.  If you switch from, say, history to engineering, you’ll probably have more history credits than you need, and you’ll have to play catch-up in math.  That says absolutely nothing about the quality of the history courses, nor does it suggest that the history courses aren’t transferable.  They would have transferred without issue if the student had remained a history major.

These mistakes are basic.  They’re first-level stuff.  I understand that bringing the four-year schools to heel is a daunting prospect, and that there are arguments both ways on that.  But what he’s proposing instead is simply nonsensical.

If you want four-year schools to take transfer credits, talk to them.  We’re busy teaching.