Credits that don’t count cost transfer students time, money — and often the opportunity to complete a degree, according to the Hechinger Report.
“One of the most common complaints a legislator gets from a constituent about higher education is, ‘My credits don’t transfer,’” says Davis Jenkins, senior researcher at Teachers College, Columbia University, who has studied the issue.
“This is so common, but it’s heart-rending,” Jenkins says. “And it also pisses me off as a taxpayer.”
A third of students transfer at least once, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center says. Most lose credits along the way. Full-time students average 3.8 years to earn a two-year degree and 4.7 years to get a four-year degree, according to Complete College America. An associate degree requires 60 credits, but the average graduate has earned 80, the advocacy group estimates. Bachelor’s degree graduates average 136.5 credits for a degree that requires 120.
Part of the problem is that public universities are largely funded based on their enrollment, not on whether students actually graduate. So while an institution has a financial incentive to take transfer students to fill seats left vacant when other students drop out, it may not have a financial incentive to help them successfully finish college and move on.
Karen Hernandez started at St. John’s University in New York and transferred after a year and a half to Nassau Community College, with 27 of the 36 credits she’d earned and paid for. After another year and a half, she received an associate’s degree. Then she transferred to Columbia University with 55 of her 63 credits. After three years in college, she faces another three years to complete a bachelor’s degree in art history and human rights. (And, if she graduates, she’ll have a hard time finding a job and paying off her college loans with an art history and human rights degree.)
University faculty often question the quality of courses taught at other institutions.
“Everybody feels that the way they do it is the right way,” says Janet L. Marling, director of the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students at the University of North Georgia. “To admit that somebody else does it equally well can chip away at their foothold.”
Sometimes students are told their credits will transfer, but don’t realize they won’t count toward their major. They end up with too many electives credits that don’t help them complete a degree. Others don’t learn if their credits transfer for a semester or more.
Some states have passed laws to guarantee associate degree graduates can transfer all their credits to a state university. But it’s a slow process.
It took Florida 10 years to bring its universities and colleges into line on transfer credits, for example. An analysis by a technical college in North Carolina found that only one of its English courses was accepted for core credit by all 16 of that state’s public universities. And some legislative efforts to make universities fix the transfer process have slammed up against the culture of competition.
Almost three years after California legislators demanded that anyone who earns an associate’s degrees at a community college be guaranteed transfer into the California State University system, for instance, students in two-thirds of all majors still don’t qualify, college and university officials there concede.
As more students take online courses, getting credits counted will become even more important. I predict that learning assessment will boom in the coming years as universities come under heavy political pressure to raise graduation rates by crediting what students have learned at other institutions, online, on the job, in the military or whatever.
Success rates in developmental math tripled – in half the time — at community colleges using Statway, the Carnegie Foundation’s new statistics-based program, an analysis has concluded. In an intensive yearlong program, students learn basic math skills and take college statistics for credit.
Statway began at 19 community colleges and two state universities in fall 2011. After one year, 51 percent successfully completed the math sequence with a C or better in college statistics. By contrast, only 15.1 percent of remedial math students at the same colleges earned math credits after two years if they started in conventional remedial courses. The one-year success rate was 5.9 percent. Even after four years, only 23.5 percent passed a college-level math class.
“These are the students that community colleges especially need to serve well,” Carnegie President Anthony S. Bryk said. “A disproportionate number are minority, from families whose primary language is not English, and typically where neither parent has a post-secondary degree.”
Students in Quantway, which stresses quantitative reasoning, also are showing signs of success, said Carnegie officials, but the program is too new to produce outcomes data.
Both Statway and Quantway stress what Carnegie calls “productive struggle” or “productive persistence.”
It’s not about guessing what the teacher wants to hear or about finding a particular answer. It is about the process of thinking, making sense, and persevering in the face of not knowing exactly how to proceed or whether a particular approach will work.
In addition, instructors connect facts, ideas, and procedures to help students understand what they’re doing and carefully sequence problems to provide “deliberate practice.”
Both Pathways use face-to-face and online learning.
Instructors make math relevant, said Carnegie officials at a press conference.
By applying math concepts to determine the braking distance of their cars, for instance, rather than simply plugging numbers into an equation and hoping for the right answer, students see the connection with their lives, Carnegie officials said.
“Students tell us they’re learning mathematics that matters to them instead of a series of disconnected math concepts,” said Karon Klipple, who directs the Statway program for Carnegie.
Sixty to 70 percent of new community college students are placed in remedial math, Carnegie estimates. More than 80 percent never qualify for a college-level math course.
Some Coursera students may get college credit for massive online open courses, reports Information Week. The American Council on Education (ACE) has certified five MOOCs taught by university professors: Pre-Calculus and Algebra (University of California at Irvine), Introduction to Genetics and Evolution and Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach (Duke) and Calculus: A Single Variable (Penn). The algebra course is for developmental students; the rest merit college credit, ACE decided.
So far, even Duke, Penn and Irvine don’t plan to award credit for their own professors’ MOOCs, reports the Wall Street Journal.
Penn students who take the calculus MOOC and pass a department exam can move on to a higher-level course, but don’t receive credit.
Duke Provost Peter Lange said his school won’t award credit to its own students or to others who enroll in its Bioelectricity and Genetics classes online, two of the Coursera options that ACE has recommended for credit. Though the classes are led by Duke professors, he said, “they’re not taught the way we teach Duke courses” because they don’t have a set meeting time, nor do they involve face-to-face instruction.
While college administrators say it’s hard to verify what MOOC students have learned, elite universities “have a major financial incentive to limit academic credit only to registered, paying students—and not those following along free online,” notes the Journal. “Undergraduate tuition and required fees at Duke and Penn top $40,000 this school year, while out-of-state students pay nearly $37,000 at Irvine.”
At community colleges, where tuition is heavily subsidized, awarding credits to MOOC students could cut costs and open up classroom seats for students who prefer a face-to-face education.
Online learning will revolutionize higher education and liberate students from ever-rising college costs, predicts Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, in an interview with MIT Technology Review.
Here’s what I think it could look like in five years: the learning side will be free, but if and when you want to prove what you know, and get a credential, you would go to a proctoring center [for an exam]. And that would cost something. Let’s say it costs $100 to administer that exam. I could see charging $150 for it. And then you have a $50 margin that you can reinvest on the free-learning side.
What’s a credit worth? Moves to give credits to students for taking massive open online courses (MOOCS) or demonstrating competency are threatening the college cartel, writes Jeff Selingo on The Chronicle of Higher Education.
The American Council on Education will review some free online courses offered by elite universities through Coursera and may recommend that other colleges accept credit for them.
Right now, it is easy for most institutions to deny students who ask to transfer credits from their local community college or a for-profit provider, such as StraighterLine. They just say the quality is not up their standards.
But what happens when students arrive at the registrars’ office with credit-bearing courses from professors at Stanford, Penn, and Princeton? What will the excuse be then to reject the credits—that the courses were free? Such an excuse might finally expose the true reason many colleges refuse to accept transfer credits: They want students to pay them tuition for a class, not another institution.
In addition, Southern New Hampshire University’s accreditor has approved its new competency-based associate degree, which is based on students’ knowledge rather than time in class. Students will pay no more than $2,500 a year. The university is working with local employers to design the curriculum.
Western Governors University pioneered the idea. Now, “Southern New Hampshire is about to show whether the idea can work within the walls of a traditional university,” Selingo writes. Northern Arizona University and the University of Wisconsin system also are developing competency-based degrees.
UW’s Flexible Option will let adult students “earn college credit by demonstrating knowledge they have acquired through coursework, military training, on-the-job training, and other learning experiences.”
Students will be able to earn college credit for free online courses thanks to a partnership between the Saylor Foundation, which offers free, self-paced college courses, and StraighterLine, which offers low-cost online courses.
Saylor students will be able to take a StraighterLine exam to earn credit backed by the American Council on Education, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. Or students could enroll in a StraighterLine course but use Saylor’s free course materials to save money.
Alana Harrington, director of the Saylor Foundation, said her group’s repository of free online courses won’t go anywhere, and will still grant certificates of completion. But the partnership with StraighterLine will give students a way to get credit for low-cost online courses that’s more meaningful than a certificate.
“We understand the fact that to some students, the pure acquisition of knowledge or the certificate proving their competency isn’t enough,” she said. “Credit is a form of currency today.”
StraighterLine and Saylor will work with George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College to help students transfer credits easily.
Some colleges are giving students credit for work and life experience, writes Jon Marcus for the Hechinger Report and McClatchy Newspapers. But, so far, few students are turning on-the-job experience into college credits and speedier degrees.
The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning is trying to change that by launching a campaign to enable adults to prepare online portfolios of their job experience that independent faculty will evaluate for academic credit.
One hundred institutions in 30 states are on board. Top higher-education associations back the coalition, and major foundations are bankrolling it. It hopes to reach tens of thousands of people within five years.
Professors often oppose giving credit for experience, said Pamela Tate, who heads the council. “They still believe that ‘If you weren’t in my class, you couldn’t possibly know it,’ ” she said.
Credit for work experience can have its downsides. The credits are difficult to transfer if you change universities, and substituting them for introductory requirements can cause problems for students later in their careers, when they can’t keep up with classmates in writing or other basic academic skills.
Forty percent of college students are 25 and older.
“All of our institutional frameworks have been created around 18-year-olds coming out of high schools without any experience. They’re the empty vessels into which we pour knowledge. But when you’re a working adult, you’re hardly an empty vessel,” said Lee Gorsuch, the president of CityU.
“You learn by doing,” Gorsuch added. “We’re not anti-intellectual, but can you balance a spreadsheet or can’t you?”
Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges, a consortium 0f 1,900 colleges and universities, helps veterans get credit for military training and experience. Some 45,892 vets earned 805,473 credits last year.
Navy veteran John McGowan was awarded enough credits for his electronics training and other military experience that he got a bachelor’s degree in half the usual time from Irvine, Calif.-based Brandman University, even while working full time. “I went from zero college to a bachelor’s degree in two years,” McGowan said.
In some cases, experienced students can earn credit by passing a test. But often students have to put together autobiographical portfolios for faculty review, paying as much as if they’d enrolled in the course.
California’s community college system has canceled an agreement with Kaplan University, a for-profit educator, to recognize credits earned through Kaplan’s online programs. Because of increased demand and underfunding, many students can’t get into the classes they need at their local community college.
In an Aug. 17 letter calling off the November memorandum of understanding, Barry Russell, the vice chancellor of academic affairs, cited concerns that it could have a “negative effect” on students who transferred to a California State University or University of California campus and could not get credit for the Kaplan course.
Kaplan had agreed to give students a 42 percent discount on courses, lowering the cost to about $216 a credit. That’s much more than the community college cost, $26 a credit. But students might have paid the Kaplan rates to avoid waiting a semester or two for space in a community college class.
Meanwhile, California community college students are in transfer limbo, reports the Los Angeles Times. The California State University system has opened applications for spring semester transfers, but isn’t promising to accept anyone. It all depends on the state budget, which is months overdue.
What’s in a college credit? In trying to define a credit’s worth, the Department of Education continues to equate credit with “time spent learning rather than with the learning outcomes,” writes Julie Margetta Morgan, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.
The proposed regulation defines a credit in three ways (pdf):
One hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out-of-class student work for 15 weeks in a semester or trimester program.
An equivalent amount of work to one hour of classroom time and two hours of out-of-class work for other academic activities such as laboratory work, internships, practica, or studio work.
Reasonable equivalencies to the amount of work required in one hour of classroom time and two hours of out of class work, represented in intended learning outcomes and verified by evidence of student achievement.
All three options are based on a “butt in chair” standard, Morgan writes. Even the third option is based on seat-time equivalency.
This standard makes it impossible to know whether a student with an engineering degree from Dartmouth College is learning the same amount as a student with an engineering degree from the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. All we will know for certain is that they both sat in classrooms for 120 hours and hopefully completed 240 hours of work on their own time.
Federal regulators want to prevent colleges — typically newcomers at the “fringes of higher education” — from inflating credits to collect more money from students, who rely on federal aid. But regulators are ignoring another problem, the crisis in college completion.
A better definition of the credit hour is a necessary component of any plan to improve college completion rates. Researchers identify transfer of college credit across institutions as a key to increasing completions since almost 60 percent of students transfer during the pursuit of a college credential and many lose credits along the way due to flawed credit transfer agreements among institutions. One of the central stumbling blocks in the credit transfer conversation is that administrators cannot compare course credits across institutions because all the credit tells them is the number of hours spent learning.
An improved standard for assigning credit should be based upon outcomes, not inputs. An outcomes-based definition would improve comparability across institutions, and it would bring us closer to the kind of transparency students need to judge the quality of educational options.
As more students sign up for online courses, it’s even more critical to measure learning outcomes, she writes.