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Faculty Voice in College Credit Transfer

by Alison Kadlec, Ph.D.

Monday, March 25th, 2013

A recent piece by Jon Marcus from the Hechinger Report, "Stopping the Clock: Colleges Under Fire Over Transfer Credits That Don't Count," does a great job of drawing attention to a serious problem facing higher education today, especially in the consideration it pays to the insights I have heard from college students during focus groups on the issue. However, my colleagues at Public Agenda and I are troubled by one of the premises of the piece.

While faculty "hubris" and "snobbery" may account for some portion of the problem students face as they seek to transfer credits, it would be a mistake to dismiss faculty concerns in the absence of systematic efforts to improve skillful and thoughtful assessment of learning outcomes.

In nearly every focus group I've conducted with transfer students, some portion of the participants (usually 10-30 percent) tell stories of courses at open-enrollment institutions that should not have been allowed to transfer because they were of such low quality. These students talk about feeling like they're being set up for failure, and one even said to me, "I'm glad that class didn't transfer because I would have definitely failed the next level."

If even 10 percent of community college courses are watered down to the point that transfer students are set up for failure when they seek to continue their education at a more selective (and typically more expensive) institution, then we need to begin having in earnest the conversations about the real tensions between a mission focused on access and one focused on success.

Faculty Face a Multitude of Challenges

Through dozens and dozens of conversations with faculty at community colleges in several states, I've heard their daily struggle to find a way to help catastrophically underprepared students advance to the next level. A majority of these faculty members are adjuncts without a voice in, strong support from or deep ties to their institution.

I've also heard faculty at non-selective four-year institutions describe the "daily compromise" they make as they attempt to balance meeting students where they are while setting expectations to help them get to where they need to be. One memorable faculty member at one of the nation's largest community college systems echoed many others in saying, "I used to teach calculus, but now spend most of my time trying to figure out the best way to teach how to add whole numbers."

The challenges faculty face on the issue of academic transfer go beyond the pressures that come with underprepared students. Transferability of credits across institutions will ultimately depend on the ability of faculty to do something they've never been trained or supported to do before: determine how to effectively assess learning outcomes and then actually do it.

In a focus group last week at a non-selective four-year institution in Ohio, one faculty member brought this challenge into focus when she asked her colleagues at the table, "Do you think part of the problem is our training? I went to a very good Ph.D. program, and I never once heard the word assessment or learning outcomes." For all the training and knowledge that college faculty accrue and possess, they are never formally taught how to be teachers or how to reliably assess what their students should know and be able to do.

It's Time to Change the Conversation

Community colleges and non-selective four-year institutions have hard conversations ahead of them about the relationship between access and success. If simply making it possible for students to enroll is not enough - if institutions have a responsibility to pay attention to who succeeds, who fails and how we know - then it's time for new kinds of conversations that move beyond finger pointing at any one group.

The tendency of experts to caricature faculty as shameless egotists obscures the more serious issues at work, and it ignores the fact that any meaningful and lasting success in higher education reform will require the knowledge, expertise and commitment of faculty.

It's too easy, and even a little lazy, to blame faculty egotism for such a complex and systemic problem, and doing so won't help bring faculty to the table. It's time for the conversation to change so that we can all get down to the real work ahead of us.



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