Joel E. Anderson, Chancellor
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
University Assembly Meeting
April 25, 2006
We kid ourselves if we think transfer-of-credit issues are going to go away. The subject received considerable attention in the last regular session of the Arkansas General Assembly, which adopted Act 672 of 2005 mandating a strengthened statewide transfer policy regarding freshman and sophomore general education courses. In recent years we have even seen committees of the U. S. Congress debating what Congress could and should do on the subject. At both federal and state levels it is a concern shared by elected officials in both political parties.
I do not think we should adopt a circle-the-wagons mentality, which has often been our response to legislation aimed at higher education. Nor should we continue to believe that if someone would just do a good job of explaining our practice and our record on transfer of credits, legislators would leave the subject alone. Able people have been explaining it clearly for years. The explanation is not convincing. At the end of the day, legislators, governors, and board members remain convinced that there is a problem in how colleges and universities handle transfer of credit, that there has to be a better way.
Two years ago I inquired of the Office of Institutional Research and learned that 7 out of 10 students whom we had given an undergraduate diploma in the previous two years had brought credits from at least one other institution. Many of them had brought credits from multiple institutions. We have more reason than any other university in Arkansas to be mindful of transfer issues.
The Prevailing Paradigm
The existing approach to transfer of credit in American higher education is rooted in the last decade of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century when there were few colleges and much dissimilarity in academic practice. The regional accrediting organizations, such as the North Central Association, were started in part to address transfer-of-credit issues. The “Carnegie unit” was developedâ€”embodying recognizable credit hours earned in academic terms of similar length, taught by faculty with recognized credentials. Course descriptions in college catalogues not only informed students about course content but also permitted academic officers on others campuses to compare another institution’s courses to their own. Long ago the key question in transfer decisions became a very narrow oneâ€”was the course taken there closely equivalent to one offered here? If the answer is yes, then the student is ahead. When the answer is no, the student often feels he or she wasted time in the first course.
Legislative efforts on transfer issues have not sought fundamental change in the system. In essence they have sought firm, advance determination of specific course equivalencies. In some states a common course numbering system has been imposed on all campuses, Florida being an early and prominent example. In other states, including Arkansas, legislative mandates have focused more narrowly on trying to assure that freshman and sophomore core/general education courses will be accepted and will satisfy core/general education requirements on all other public campuses.
Recently the internet has been embraced as a new vehicle for providing information about specific course equivalencies, with such equivalencies pre-determined by the state’s colleges and universities under pressure of a legislative mandate. While such legislative initiatives have no doubt been beneficial to many students, they have not put the transfer issue to rest.
Uniformityâ€”identical curricular requirements and identical courses on every campusâ€”would eliminate transfer of credit issues. External efforts to cure transfer problems have reflected that logic and have pushed us toward more uniformity. If we want to avoid the imposition of transfer policies that dictate uniformity from one campus to another, we need to develop an approach that makes diversity (in institutions and courses) work better for our students.
A revised approach to transfer issues would serve colleges and universities across the nation. A revised approach would certainly serve the interests of a metropolitan university like UALR that serves so many students who present credit hours from multiple institutions. We must find a better way.
Fundamental Changes in Higher Education
The first step to a better way is to recognize that the way we currently operate is an artifact of a bygone era. What has changed?
- The number of students enrolled in colleges and universities has jumped from 238,000 in 1900 to 2.6 million in 1950 to 17 million today.
- Today there are more than 3,000 colleges and universities.
- Higher education is widely perceived as valuable and important.
- The national population is very mobile. People often move.
- A college degree is costly in both money and time.
- Over the course of the 20th Century the nation put in place, state by state, a de facto national network of academically solid colleges and universities. Today there are very few places where a citizen would not be able to pursue an undergraduate degree at a regionally-accredited campus within driving distance.
- Faculty at these institutions are well-qualified.
- The curricula, both general education and discipline majors, are remarkably similar at higher education institutions across the country.
- No university today imperils its reputation by accepting credits from other accredited institutions.
- Does it prepare a student to go on to graduate school in the discipline?
- Does it prepare a person to get a job?
- That the entire transfer system is overly complex, and we do support efforts to simplify the processes involved.
- That UALR has more complicated general education/core requirements than other colleges, which causes problems for transfer students.
- That transfer of core courses is problematic from both two and four year institutions.
- That numerous individual academic units have additional specific requirements for their majors, adding to the complexity for transfer students.
- Minimum hours (124) and GPA (2.00) required for graduation: no exceptions.
- Minimum hours and GPA required for majors and minors: no exceptions.
As a result of these developments, there are millions of students attending thousands of campuses, and there is much churning of students among campuses. It should be no surprise that there is strong and persistent demand that the movement of students among institutions be accommodated without “penalizing” students for having attended another institution. It should be no surprise that elected officials give voice to that demand.
But there is more that has changed, often unremarked:
These changes give us new options but not unless we re-frame the transfer issue.
The Paradigm Effect
Things have changed fundamentally, but we have suffered the paradigm effect. (Shades here of Thomas Kuhn and his insights regarding paradigm shifts in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.) Paradigms tell us what data are important and screen out the unimportant. On the one hand a paradigm helps make sense of a complex reality. On the other hand a paradigm can prevent our seeing that things have changed and that there are alternatives.
As described above, the prevailing paradigm requires close course equivalencies. This made sense in the conditions of the first few decades of the 20th Century when calendars and curricula were dissimilar and only a few institutions of higher learning were mature and had well-qualified faculty.
The paradigm has persisted despite changes. Within the paradigm, all of our transfer policies, decisions, and explanations make perfect sense! But what the persistent external questioning and pressure have been shouting at us is that the paradigm itself no longer makes sense. There needs to be a paradigm shift. But we, so thoroughly enmeshed in the paradigm, do not see it.
I want to suggest a different paradigm and then suggest a mechanism as a means of breaking the mold that always shapes our decision making.
Here is the different paradigm for faculty:
Instead of seeing your role in such matters as the role of local departmental faculty who are asked to pass on whether one course (offered on another campus) is equivalent to another course (offered here), think of yourselves as part of a national faculty in your discipline expected to assist the nation and your state by increasing the number of college graduates.
Nowadays the reality is that you are part of a national faculty in your discipline. Here and on other campuses across the nation you and your colleagues in your disciplineâ€¦
â€¦are well-qualified with advanced degrees from the same or similar graduate schools at accredited universities.
â€¦teach at remarkably similar institutions.
â€¦attend the same professional meetings and interact face to face, not to mention the ease and frequency of interaction via electronic communication.
â€¦read and contribute to the same journals.
â€¦offer remarkably similar curricula, and this is one of the reasons UALR faculty can move smoothly to a department at another university and fit in easily; and vice versa.
These statements are essentially self-evident to all of us in higher education today. I can affirm them, however, on the basis of my visits over the last decade to universities large and small, rural and urban, as a consultant-evaluator for the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.
If we were to see ourselves as local custodians and agents of a national faculty community in a specific discipline, it would make it more comfortable and easy for us to be flexible in the combinations of courses we would accept and count toward satisfying our major requirements. We would not feel so bound to the particulars of our major requirements, which reflect our consensus as to which of our departmental courses and in what arrangement constitute a major.
For perspective, if a department advertised a faculty position and expected applicants to hold an undergraduate degree with a major in the discipline, and then applications came from 50 different accredited universities, the department would not closely examine the courses that made up the major of each job applicant and throw out all of those that did not coincide with local major requirements. The judgments of the faculty in the discipline at the other granting institutions regarding appropriate courses for the major would be respected and accepted without second-guessing or heartburn.
So why not liberally accept the credits in the discipline from those same institutions, when brought by students who have not completed a degree, even if the final combination of 30 credit hours (or however many hours required) did not conform exactly to specified distributions?
We typically apply one or both of two tests to the major offered by a department:
We could accept major courses more freely from other institutions and rarely have to say no to either question. This is so because UALR faculty members are part of de facto national faculties in their respective disciplines; and a sense of the content of each discipline is shared nationally. As a result, curricula are remarkably similar though requirements from campus to campus are not identical, which is what trips up transfer students.
I realize that in some tightly-sequenced curricula, and in some curricula largely controlled by accrediting organizations, particularly if either health or safety is involved in the professional practice for which students are being prepared, what I am saying may have limited applicability. I am talking at the moment about the numerous undergraduate curricula which are not tightly sequenced. Let me add, however, that in some disciplines it might be appropriate to encourage revision of accreditation requirements that make it more difficult for students to transfer credits.
A Pilot Program
In my inaugural address I requested that faculty work to remove bottlenecks and barriers to graduation, I am grateful that in response the Faculty Senate has already given attention to transfer of credit.
In 2005, for example, the Faculty Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Transfer of Credits submitted a report to the Faculty Senate. I will quote four of its findings:
The Ad Hoc Committee’s second recommendation was as follows: “That course transfer issues should be determined as flexibly as possible.”
I am pleased to say that since then changes have been made to accept a completed Associate of Arts degree as satisfying core requirements, and individual core courses have been accepted on the basis of satisfying specified competencies rather than on the basis of being the equivalent courses specified at UALR. These have been positive steps. However, it is clear to me that tackling the transfer issue by changing existing policies and procedures has produced only tweaks, not changes that make much difference.
I want to request consideration of a three-year pilot project. The project would involve a mechanism for transfer decisions. The mechanism would be Fast Track Transfer Committees in perhaps three or four departments, which volunteered to be part of the pilot project.
The Faculty Senate would delegate authority to these Fast Track Transfer Committees to exercise broad discretion in making transfer decisions for their majors, to take a macro rather than a micro approach in evaluating equivalencies and course substitutions. They would be given a broad charge. Here are limited restrictions which might be specified:
Flexibility in satisfaction of major requirements, except the minimum number of hours, would be encouraged. With regard to the requirement of 45 upper-level hours, 30 hours in residence, and core requirements, the intended purposes of those requirements should be honored by the committees, but judicious flexibility would be permitted. Flexibility in satisfaction of minor requirements, except the minimum number of hours, would also be encouraged. (It is worth noting that not all institutions require minors.)
The rationale for a pilot project is that it allows testing on a limited basis to determine if a new approach will help or hurt. If the new approach yields positive results, then it can be scaled up to maximize the benefits. If it yields undesirable consequences, it can be easily abandoned.
The departments participating in the pilot project would be required to keep detailed records of the transfer students with whom they dealt so that we all could learn whether the approach should be broadened or discontinued.
I would like to see what alternative ways of framing various transfer issues might emerge if faculty in selected departments were told to see themselves as part of a national disciplinary faculty and make decisions, exercising good judgment, that remove barriers and minimize delays in a transfer student’s progress toward degree completion. My advice would be that we not try to answer in advance every question that might arise. If committees in different departments came to different ways of framing and answering certain questions, that could be instructive at the end of the trial period.
I am confident that any UALR faculty participating in such an experiment could be counted on to undertake the experiment seriously and responsibly.
What I am offering for consideration will strike some as revolutionary and others as mere baby steps and no more than tweaks. I will suspend judgment as to which adjectives fit, but if the Faculty Senate approved such a pilot project, I would hope the faculty involved might end up breaking the decision-making mold with regard to transfer students.
At UALR, a university situated in a metropolitan area, we are in a most enviable position. We attract and serve far more transfer students than do most other institutions.
We need to strive to respond to the changed realities of higher education which have made transfer students a major phenomenon. I have sketched one possible approach which I think holds promise. I would welcome other approaches shaped by the changed realities.
If a new transfer paradigm were accepted across higher education in the United States, our university, along with other urban/metropolitan universities, would be the biggest beneficiaries. Therefore, it is simply enlightened self-interestâ€”and assuredly consistent with the interests of the thousands of transfer students we serve and who spend precious time and money with usâ€”for UALR to lead the way to a new transfer paradigm.