Recently, I published an article in the Association of Governing Board’s periodical, Trusteeship, entitled “Low-Hanging Fruit: How Boards can Improve Education Now Through Pedagogy, Portability, and Price”. Recently, at the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) meeting in Boulder, Stan Jones, President of Complete College America, described several practices that higher education routinely employs that delay progress to the degree, increase expenses, and otherwise frustrate learners. Since they are practices that can be reviewed and changed at the institutional and system level, I want to describe them in a series of three blogs.
Higher education in the 21st century is increasingly characterized by student mobility and flexibility. More than half of today’s college graduates, not to mention those who never graduate, attend two or more institutions on their degree journey. Yet most degree programs are written “from the bottom up”.
Faculty members craft the sequence of courses, from basic to advanced, as if the student were going to be in the same institution for his or her entire career. That curricular structure leads to heavy discounting of credit for transfer students with learning achieved in other settings. Specifically, institutional transfer policies and general-education requirements pose enormous obstacles to including all learning on one transcript and counting that learning towards the degree.
Take the case of Shirley, who responded to a blog I wrote on this subject several years ago. She attended college in medical-office management and wanted to transfer to another institution. But she had to take certain classes again. “I have had many classmates transfer from one college to the next, pay a truckload of cash, and the end result is that not all of your credits transfer,” she wrote me. “So you have to take the material that YOU ALREADY KNOW all over. For what? I now have to pick between choosing another B.A. program or waste my money and more importantly my time. I mean, if it’s money they want, why don’t they figure out some other way to scam us out of it? But, time, we cannot afford to waste.”
Look at the different ways this practice negatively affects Shirley, and millions of others in the same position.
- She is considering actually changing her program to accommodate the credit-transfer requirements.
- She is suffering financially from the redundant costs that arise from taking a course that she has already taken successfully.
- She is losing ground in her time to degree.
- And she is frustrated, demoralized, and angry.
These are all reasons why people leave college and do not return. And they have nothing to do with the individual’s capacity to learn or academic success in other settings.
It is estimated that such practices require many students to attend, at a minimum, one additional semester. For others, it requires an extra year or more. That approach increases student indebtedness, demands more investment in federal and state financial aid, raises the cost of post-secondary education for everyone, and expands the time it takes students to actually graduate and join the workforce. On top of the extra time and duplicate costs, the foregone income and tax revenue that such students represent, as well as diminished productivity, is significant as well.
The Gates Foundation has argued that 50% of all annual higher-education expenditures, including financial aid, go for services to people who never receive a certificate or a degree. These people are a natural resource of enormous value, waiting to be discovered and recognized for the learning they have done and the capacities they exhibit every day. We need their knowledge and skills recognized so they can be more productive in the workforce.
In fact, for the first time in our history, America has high-skilled jobs chasing workers. In the old days, colleges screened people out. Failure was a disqualifier to determine who would get the scarcer high-skilled jobs. Today, however, colleges need to create merit. We must develop higher levels of capability in many more people so they can take the emerging new jobs. But we can’t do that without vastly improved portability of recognized learning. Higher-education institutions and state systems must use more aggressive approaches to support students in managing the transfer of credit more fairly, more efficiently, and more accurately.
What specifically can an institution do?
- Conduct an immediate review of how we currently recognize student learning that has been achieved in the military or in corporate training, accepted by the American Council on Education (ACE) College Credit Recommendation Service(CREDIT) and College Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams, or assessed from experience through programs like KNEXT.
- Develop a transparent and streamlined process that allows and encourages acceptance of learning that has been done in other colleges and universities as well as recognized non-collegiate settings.
In order to place the learning on the transcript so that it counts towards the degree, use available elective credits, review major pre-requisites and convert them to electives wherever possible, and accept other accredited institutions’ general-education programs as equivalent to our own.
Institutions that take these steps, putting the learner and learning first, will become far more attractive to current-day learners, while increasing their own productivity.
Next Week: Low-Hanging Fruit #2: Pedagogy and Advanced Placement