Equity and Incentives: Readers Respond

Senators Promote Partnerships to Boost Affordability


Friday’s post, itself a response to a piece by Alexandra Logue, generated some thought-provoking responses from readers.  They were good enough to deserve some airtime of their own.


The core of the argument of Friday’s post was that unfair denials of transfer credit by four-year colleges are a burden on community college students, who tend disproportionately to be low-income students and students of color.  The persistence of such denials, it went on, is largely a function of the different incentives facing colleges as a whole and individual departments in particular.  Colleges as a sector benefit from seamless transfer, or at least from the appearance of it.  But individual departments often balk at “giving away” credits.  Between the president and the department chair falls the shadow.


Much of the feedback was in agreement, which was gratifying.  But critics raised some worthwhile points, too.


For instance, one proposal I suggested for aligning departmental incentives with the greater good involved basing departments’ budgets on graduates, rather than FTE’s.  That way, what currently looks like “giving away” credits would look instead like betting on students who are likely to graduate.  We know that the more credits that get denied, the greater the damage to graduation rates.


Several readers objected on the grounds that some departments are “service” departments and would suffer under such a system.  For example, English and math departments often teach almost everybody, even though most people don’t major in either one.  


It’s a good point, though I think it’s probably less compelling at the third or fourth year levels than in the first two years.  Distribution requirements are usually covered in the first two years.  But I should have clarified that many colleges split the transfer decision into two parts: the major and everything else.  They’ll sometimes accept everything else as a bloc, but allow the receiving department in the major to cherry-pick.  In practice, a student transferring as a psychology major probably won’t have any issue getting English comp recognized, but might hit a speed bump with the research methods class.  Statewide agreements sometimes write the distinction into law, as we do in my state: for graduates, the gen ed bloc transfers as a whole, but the department in the major can nitpick.  


The proposed mechanism may be clunky, and I’m certainly not wedded to it, but it presumes a distinction between overall credits and credits in the major.


One particularly critical reader noted that four-year public regional colleges are, in fact, competing with community colleges for enrollments.  In settings where the long-term demographic trends are negative, it’s a tall order to ask them to disregard their needs for funding.


That’s true, of course; I assume it’s at least part of what’s behind the foot-dragging we often encounter.  But it’s also a textbook case of a category mistake.  Colleges are supposed to serve students, rather than the other way around.  


My Inside Higher Ed colleague, John Warner, responded that competition like that is destructive, and amounts to an argument for federal funding of higher ed as a system.  I’ll admit not having connected the dots in quite that way, but he makes a good argument.  As he put it in a Twitter thread, “as a condition of receiving federal dollars to go tuition-free, four-year state institutions would be required to accept all transfer credits from their own state’s two-year institutions.”  That would remove the incentive for schools to poach from each other, and would help to align departmental incentives with institutional incentives and larger social goals.  Of course, it presupposes a regime other than the regime in which we currently live, but that’s sort of the point; our current regime rewards acting at the expense of students.  It shouldn’t.


Finally, one astute reader pointed out that I had switched Sinclair Lewis with Upton Sinclair.  I have to concede that one.


Taking the responses in succession, it became clear to me both that the core issues are structural, and that there’s much more work to be done.  And also that I have the best and smartest readers around.  Thanks, everyone, for modeling thoughtful discourse. 


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