All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


29 June 2011

Transferrability and Reputation

Over at Instapundit, I find the following link and short comment:

HIGHER EDUCATION UPDATE: Despite Faculty Opposition, CUNY Board Votes to Standardize Some Requirements and Streamline Transfers. I don’t see why transfers should be easier among colleges and universities in general. I think it’s absurd that you can switch institutions and lose a big chunk of your credits.

I agree with the Blogfather on most things, and I'm not 100% certain he and I really disagree here. But there's the possibility that we disagree, and I want to explain why.

Prof. Reynolds assumes, like most people who argue for easy transferrability, that classes among various universities are more or less fungible, that one intro course in psych is more or less like any other.

Except it isn't, and the assertion that all intro psych courses are created equal is facially absurd once one takes ten seconds to think about it.

An intro psych class at John Miller Community College outside Portland, Maine, (were there such an institution) is unlikely to be the same as an intro psych course at Harvard, and both are likely to be different than an intro psych course at Cal State Fresno. That's not to say that Harvard's course is going to be better, mind you, merely because Harvard has more "prestige". It may well be worse. But they're going to be different.

When you get a degree from Harvard, you're getting the University's endorsement of your curriculum, of your academic accomplishments. Same thing when you graduate from UC Davis or from Florida State. They can give that endorsement because they know (more or less) what their own professors are teaching, what sorts of performance are required in their classes, and what the grades in those classes actually mean.

One of the reasons that a Yale degree is "worth more" than a degree from Millertown JC is that it's widely recognized that classes at Yale are harder and demand more of a student. (Not more effort, necessarily, but a higher level of performance. Nor is it necessarily true, mind you -- merely recognized as such.)

I'm not arguing that the information regarding the actual values of diplomas is perfect; it's a mess. But institutional reputation means something, and the free transferability of classes undermines an institution's ability to control the quality of its graduates, to effectively vouch for their learning and performance. If Yale has to accept credits earned at Cal State Fresno, the end result is going to be a lot fewer transfer students accepted from Cal State Fresno. (Let us have assumed, for sake of argument, that there were any such students to begin with.)

Now it's one thing to say that a single unified University system like CUNY, or the UC's, is going to standardize its degree. That's fine, and I applaud it, even. But you have to understand that when you standardize a degree among multiple campuses like that, you're eliminating the differences between the campuses: you're standardizing the value of the diplomas, too. It's no longer a question of getting a Baruch degree, or a Hunter degree -- what you're really getting is just a CUNY degree. And the faculty know this. From the linked Chronicle of Higher Education article:

The University Faculty Senate has issued several resolutions opposing the proposal, which it said would undermine its authority to determine the curriculum and maintain a unique academic identity on each CUNY campus.

It's not merely about "identity" -- it's about reputation. This could have some serious consequences for the "flagship" campuses of many systems. If I can take all my UC Riverside courses and transfer to Berkeley, then the sole differentiating factor between my Berkeley diploma and my friend's Riverside diploma becomes the fact that I was able to get admission to Berkeley. (To be fair, many people argue that this is the primary value of colleges anyway. See this discussion.)

That's not to say that credits shouldn't be transferable, or that you should have to start over from step one at every new school you attend. But I don't think, as Professor Reynolds seems to think, that it's "absurd" that you should lose a big chunk of your credits. I think it depends greatly on where your credits were earned, and what the administration of your new university thinks of the faculty from whom you earned them.


Cedar said...

This is an issue everywhere, especially as the economy is bad with no end in sight. Many students try to save money by going to community college, junior college, or cheaper 4 year place for two years, and then transferring to get the best diploma that they can. I can't blame them, and might have done the same.
What often ends up happening is that students take distribution requirements, as best they can, then try to take major classes when they get to their final destination, assuming that major requirements will be more specific to the institution than general education reqs.
This is a really hard problem, we don't want to accept a student, and then punish them for the lack of rigor at, for example, a for-profit online useless-versity (I don't mean to degrade the people who teach there, but I think many would admit that the quality of the learning experience is degraded for reasons outside of their control). They don't have any control over that, and have an expectation that if they work hard in a CC, credits should transfer. If we don't want to undermine CC's (and I don't think we do) we need to come up with a good way to deal with the transfer problem, that makes the students feel comfortable going to CC, as well as transfering. A lot of the players in this depend on a trust of that transition. We can say that intro psych at a CC doesn't equal intro psych at Harvard, but we shouldn't let this fact get in the way of our goals of improving access, and easing transition to a four year degree.

Michael E. Lopez said...

Perhaps everything you say is true.

But I don't see why a University's diploma awarding should be held hostage to a student's "expectation... that their credits should transfer." The student's expectations could be unrealistic, or ill-informed. Indeed, I think that's probably where the problem lies.

I certainly wouldn't expect that unless I had some sort of written document in front of me published by THAT particular university saying, "We accept the following classes from the following institutions..." Indeed, if you think you want to transfer to some other University (or apply for transfer to a range of them) it would behoove you to do a little research ahead of time.

Now, maybe the information on this stuff should be more accessible. I'm certainly in favor of THAT! Maybe community colleges should, as a policy, get lists from their most popular transfer-destinations and put the portability information of classes into their course catalogs.

But all that is just an argument about transparency, free flow of information, and reduced transaction costs.

These are all changes that can be made to "deal with the transfer problem", to "improve access" and "ease transitions" -- and without sacrificing institutional reputation.

Cedar said...

Yeah, agreed. We shouldn't swing too far in one direction.
This is more inside baseball registrar stuff than I know. But it is hard to be transparent, when judging whether something is worthy of transfer credit involves some professional wisdom. The problem is that it resists an algorithmic solution that could be transparent.
And there should be a certain amount of "buyer beware" from huckster online programs. Just wish there was a bit more consumer protection.

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