Welcome back to campus! I hope you enjoyed a restful winter break. Although I was able to find a few days of legitimate relaxation (I actually read fiction for fun!), a little thing happened at the end of last week that yanked me back into focus and kept my mind spinning over the weekend.
Friday morning’s big reveal from the higher ed press was the announcement from President Obama that he is proposing a program to make community college free. The details and the obligatory range of reactions was dutifully reported here and here, and by this morning it seems that almost every news outlet with an education beat has polled the usual suspects for comment, analysis, and knee-jerk reaction. The chatter about this policy proposal doesn’t need any more faux smart people to weigh in, so I’ll refrain from adding an unfocused “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down” to the mix. However, I think that the mere emergence of this policy proposal holds a couple of important implications that could matter a lot for those of us at Augustana College (as well as other small liberal arts colleges).
First, a big part of this proposal turns on the caveat that “Community colleges will be expected to offer … academic programs that fully transfer credits to local public four-year colleges and universities.” This sounds great, except for the fact that the destination institution is the one that determines whether academic programs or credits transfer fully, not the individual community college from whence the student originates. Whether or not the President’s policy proposal comes to fruition, I think it reflects a increasingly common belief that students should be able to move seamlessly between higher education institutions, no matter if they are moving between two-year or four-year institutions (not to mention the individual online courses, degree programs, or prior learning credits).
If I’m right here, then we will continue to see more and more students transfer credits to and from Augustana as they become less associated with a particular institution and more connected to the degree they are intending to earn or career they intend to pursue. Again, if I’m right, that will make it even more difficult for us to know, a) if our graduates have learned everything that we believe an Augustana degree represents, and b) if the students sitting in front of us on the first day of the term already possess the prerequisite knowledge and skills to succeed in each class. However we respond to this issue (for example, offering remediation services for students who struggle, signing articulation agreements with individual community colleges to assure some degree of vetting prior coursework for transfer students, or designing competency-based assessments for students to demonstrate their readiness for advanced academic work and graduation), the challenges that emerge when students increasingly enter and depart colleges and universities at times other than the beginning and the end of that institution’s designed educational experience are, as a 2012 study suggests, likely to become more prevalent.
Second, if this proposal does in fact signal that earning credits from multiple institutions to complete a degree is gaining in both numbers and legitimacy, then we would be smart to take a hard look at all of the ways in which our institutional practices might subtly dissuade transfer students from considering Augustana. Since our study of transfer students’ experience a couple of years ago, we’ve already made some changes to make Augustana a better destination for transfer students. But we still have some work to do – not because we have dropped the ball in responding to our findings, but because this kind of work is just plain hard.
Third, it seems to me that this trend further emphasizes the degree to which we need to be able to show that the totality of the Augustana experience – not just the academic coursework – produces the critical learning that we intend for our students. Otherwise, we are likely to fall victim to the external framing of what constitutes a college education (aka an accumulation of academic credits that are equally valuable as a whole or a sum of their parts), making it even more difficult to differentiate ourselves in product or perception.
I’m sure that you can think of specific issues that we ought to examine if transfer students are going to become an increasingly large segment of the college-going public. As the number of high school graduates in the Midwest continues to decrease over the next decade or so, it seems that this question becomes that much more important. If you have some thoughts, please feel free to post them in the comment section below. Maybe we can have a conversation without having to brave the frigid temperatures outside?
Make it a good day,