The In-Person Double Standard | Confessions of a Community College Dean

One of our largest transfer destination universities—you’ve heard of it—is teaching remotely right now. And it’s telling us that it won’t accept math courses in transfer unless the exams were taken in person.

It isn’t giving its own exams in person.

Double standards in transfer aren’t new. The most obvious example, which I’ll admit is even true at my own college, is the D grade. Most colleges, including my own, won’t take grades of D in transfer. But if a “native” student has a high enough GPA overall, they can graduate with some D grades in the mix. The ethics of that are tricky, but at least the rule is reciprocated across the industry. The rule about in-person testing, especially during a pandemic, is more idiosyncratic.

It’s not the only idiosyncratic rule. I’ve also run across colleges (or individual departments) that won’t grant credit for a class taught in a high school building, even if the work was the same. Yet those same places will give credit for AP or IB.

Before COVID, some places wouldn’t accept classes in transfer if the classes were online. That’s really not tenable anymore, to the extent that it ever was. But some are finding ways to achieve the same result through the back door, such as in-person testing requirements for classes for which students may have chosen that modality due to distance.

Transfer doesn’t get nearly as much attention in policy discussions as do programs that lead directly to employment. It should. Transfer enables access to higher-level education and credentials that unlock access to even better jobs (in many cases). It also gives students who may not have started with all the advantages a chance to prove themselves. I take it as a point of pride that we routinely send students to places like Columbia, Cornell, NYU, Rutgers and NJIT. (Princeton hasn’t come on board yet, but we’re trying.) For the folks who are concerned about college costs and student debt—not the same thing, but that’s a different post—the opportunity to start in a less expensive setting while living at home can be an effective way to keep costs down.

Silly transfer rules like these are part of what makes competency-based education so appealing. If a student can demonstrate ability, who cares which building they were in when they picked it up? Why engage in bad-faith forensic interrogation of inputs when outcomes are what matter? My pro tip for folks at receiving institutions: the harder you make it to play by the rules, the more momentum you give the folks who play by an entirely different set of rules. “Persnickety” is not a good look, and it may not be sustainable.

The most frustrating part is that, by all accounts, our graduates do better than “native” students when they arrive at their destination schools. They perform. But even with a track record extending back for decades, our students are subjected to arbitrary criteria that students who could afford to start at the four-year level are not.

I’m at a loss to explain why regional accreditors allow shenanigans like these. You’d think that they would frown upon such abuses of power, particularly in the absence of anything resembling data showing that the abuses are somehow justified. Somehow, they manage not to notice. Perhaps they’re asking the wrong questions.

Fair is fair. If the university students can test online, ours should be able to, too.

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