Monday, November 1, 2010

I Have Seen the Future and it is Here # 2

Recently, I wrote about a late September visit I made to McAllen, Texas and South Texas College; and shared my observations that the demographics I saw there, with the attendant inspiring energy and hopefulness of the new immigrants I observed, and how they were transforming higher education in the region. For this post, I report on a more recent opportunity to see another glimpse of the future, which is also already here.

This academic year, I have the privilege of advising three constituent colleges of the City University of New York, all in the same borough of the city, the Bronx: Bronx Community College, Hostos Community College, and Lehman College. The latter college is what in CUNY speak is known as the “senior college” and receives transfer students from the other two borough feeder colleges. Together we are working to improve both the success of “native” students and transfer students. The two community colleges are engaged in our Foundations of Excellence self study and planning process to improve the performance of their new students. But Lehman is engaged in our Foundations of Excellence “Transfer Focus” to improve the success of transfer students coming to Lehman from Bronx and Hostos Community Colleges. Together, these three colleges and our Institute have a great opportunity to improve the public good in this dynamic borough of the city of New York.

The future I saw, now the present reality at Lehman, defies the stereotypical, historical picture of what our colleges do. The lay public view of American higher education, unfortunately, is still that the academy is predominantly for students who come to college, stay four years, live on campus, get a degree and move on. My readers know this doesn’t square with reality. Exhibit A: Lehman is the new transfer institution. It’s now archetypal student is the transfer student. Last fall it admitted approximately 850 “new” students and approximately 1850 transfer students. To say that it is dependent on transfer students is an understatement.

Lehman, of course, is not unique in this regard. But it is quite unique in its current commitment to develop a coherent plan to improve the performance of its new majority: transfer students.

It has been my experience in many such institutions, where the transfer students now outnumber native students, that the dominant culture of such institutions (Lehman excepted) is still one organized for native students and where the assumption is they still predominate, even though they don’t in numbers, but do in influence. This is an example of colleges acting like the colleges they used to be, not the colleges they have actually become. Surely we can do better.

Admittedly, this is a complex problem (understatement). We cannot improve US graduation rates unless we improve degree attainment by transfer students. But colleges don’t receive public recognition for such a commitment because retention and graduation rates of transfer students don’t “count” in the Federal government’s tracking system for public reporting. The end results of this is that colleges court transfer students for their body count and tuition, fee, and funding formula dollars, admit them, but then largely neglect them and leave them to sink or swim in a college culture designed for native students. The end result is an enormous set of challenges for students seeking transfer, particularly in obtaining equitable and consistent treatment for transfer of credits. Unfortunately, in most states, rather than having transfer being systematized so that it is predictable and equitable, instead it is unpredictable, ad hoc, inconsistent, and often capricious and arbitrary, leaving enormous autonomy and power to individual faculty at “receiving” colleges to determine award of transfer students on an individual case by case basis. The potential for abuse based on prejudice in this model is enormous.

And what if we don’t get a handle on this situation, what are the predictable outcomes?
1. Graduation rates cannot improve
2. The US will never recover its primacy in world college completion rates
3. Litigation will increase; class action suits by students are inevitable
4. Legislative intrusion is also inevitable
5. We will like less the legislatively imposed fixes than the ones we could have worked out ourselves.
6. Proprietary colleges will continue to use the transfer problems as a marketing bonanza, recruit these students that the four-year public colleges erect barriers to, and then turn around and charge these transfers much higher fees, using up more of our federal aid dollars, and greatly increasing the debt levels of these less fortunate students. When proprietary colleges market that they are more transfer friendly, they do so accurately and ethically.
7. Ironically, private not-for-profit colleges, the smart ones, the ones not inhibited by prejudice towards transfers, will continue to help take up the slack.

Regarding points 1-6 above, surely we can—and must do better.

-John N. Gardner

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