Equity and Incentives | Confessions of a Community College Dean

Senators Promote Partnerships to Boost Affordability

If you missed it, Alexandra Logue’s piece in Inside Higher Ed on Thursday about blocked transfer credits as a form of structural racism is worth the read.

Logue notes, correctly, that community colleges have more racially diverse student bodies than four-year schools as a sector, and that community colleges tend to have more low-income students. When community college credits are denied, then, the denials fall disproportionately on low-income students and minoritized students.

The piece concludes with a call for four-year colleges to be more receptive to transfer credits. The money quote for me is this:

“These steps should be taken by whoever has the ability to make change — preferably, by faculty, but if they will not, by presidents, provosts and deans. And if they will not, such steps should be taken by boards, and if they will not, by legislators or accrediting agencies. Higher education equity is at stake.”

I might have started with “departments,” but otherwise, yes.

Those of us on the two-year side have become painfully familiar with the disconnect between what presidents of upper-level colleges say and what their academic departments do. Presidents and provosts of four-year colleges will say all the right things about transfer credits, diversity and working with their community college partners. But then the actual decisions about credits in the major are left to the departments. And those departments see transfer credits as threats. Courses they allow in from elsewhere are courses they don’t get to teach themselves. We can show all the learning outcomes we want; to paraphrase Sinclair Lewis, it’s hard to get someone to understand an argument when their paycheck depends on not understanding it. (I don’t think it’s the threat they think it is, given that students who get more credits accepted in transfer graduate at higher rates. But too many see transfer as a threat and behave accordingly.) To dig up a term from my poli sci days, too many departments act as veto groups. They do so mostly because they can.

The incentives are not aligned to encourage equitable treatment. They need to be aligned.

Off the top of my head, I can think of a few ways to do that.

One is to come at it through the incentives. Departmental resources are often allocated on the basis of student credit hours, or FTEs. When that’s the coin of the realm, there’s a short-term rationality to denying transfer credits. But if resources were allocated by the number of graduates, say, then departments might start to see the appeal of recognizing the credits students bring with them.

That’s a tall order, though, given that institutional budgets are driven more by credit hours than by graduates. In my world, that reality is part of the reason that programs like CUNY’s own ASAP are hard to replicate and sustain, despite proving wildly successful at helping students finish. Colleges are paid the wrong way, and the irrationality trickles down to departments.

Another would be to continue to allow departments to make judgments, but to shift the burden of proof from “accept” to “reject.” Set up internal tribunals in which denials of transfer credit have to be justified to people from outside the department. Better still, track the patterns and hold departments to account when patterns of disparate treatment come to light. The rule could be that credits from regionally accredited institutions are valid unless proven otherwise. That way, if there actually is a valid reason for which there’s actual evidence, the receiving department can act on it. (“No, Intro to Poetry does not fulfill the lab science requirement.”) But if they can’t defend their position in public, then they should change their position.

The default presumption should be in favor of the student. Exceptions should have to be justified.

Forcing students to retake, and pay for, courses they’ve already taken and passed is a burden that students who could afford to start at the four-year level don’t bear. We know whom that means.

Logue is right. This is too important to leave to good intentions, good will or deference to status. The incentives need to be aligned. Academics can do that, or outsiders can do that. We should take a shot while it’s still ours to take.

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