Too Much Institutional Autonomy Is Bad

Last month, for-profit Kaplan University and the California Community College Chancellor’s Office announced a mutual course articulation/transfer arrangement whereby CCC students who transferred to Kaplan would be able to bring their credits with them and get a 10-percent price discount on Kaplan courses, while students who stayed enrolled at a CCC while taking Kaplan courses would get a 42-percent price discount and be able to count those Kaplan credits toward their CCC degree. The arrangement was spurred by the fact that incompetent politicians and feckless voters in California have run their state into utter financial ruin and are thus unable/unwilling to provide space in public colleges and universities to tens of thousands of students despite the fact that economic down times are precisely when such access is needed the most.

Jane Patton, President of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, objected to the deal, saying “I’m hard pressed to see where we could … make this favorable to faculty.” Fellow Brainstormer Sara Goldrick-Rab rightly called b.s. on this, saying “Since when is ensuring the continuation of a degree, and the portability of credits, meant to be about helping the faculty?” To which Patton responded by saying no, they were really just looking out for the best interests of students because, among other reasons, “The [agreement] implies that all the 112 colleges have agreements with Kaplan, although in California, each college is autonomous, and articulation is determined locally.”

Let’s pause for a moment and contemplate how completely insane that is.

I don’t believe that all credits should be automatically transferable everywhere all the time. If you’re Saint John’s College and you have a unique Great Books curriculum, you’ll want to take a hard look at credits earned elsewhere. And, for that matter, vice versa. Just because an accreditor approves suspicious five-week-long nine credit courses people don’t therefore have an absolute right to force any other institution to take them.

But the idea that every public college in California should autonomously develop its own local articulation and credit transfer policy is beyond dumb. California deliberately designed its higher education system so that most college students can’t start at a public university. Most students are required to start at a community college and the assumption is that they will probably enroll in the one that’s in their local community. For students tied down by families and/or jobs—i.e. most community college students—there’s little choice. And I suspect that nearly all such students assume that since they’re enrolling in a publicly governed and subsidized system they can expect a certain minimal level of rationality with respect to basic issues like credit transfer, commensurate with the plain meaning of words like “public” and “system.” Particularly since, let’s be honest, most community colleges have nothing like a distinct St. John’s-style academic mission that would require or excuse an idiosyncratic or restrictive approach to credit transfer, and the same is true for most public universities. Yet instead California maintains an elaborate system of discrete, course-by-course credit transfer agreements that are specific to each combination of college and university and, due to the mathematically forbidding number of possible combinations thereof, collectively amount to thousands of pages (viewable here.)

All of this stems from one of the basic tensions that complicate American higher education. When community colleges and regional public universities were established in the mid-20th century, they were assigned certain missions that are very different than what one would expect from established liberal-arts colleges and research universities. But those new institutions got plugged into a monolithic preexisting higher education culture, one that reflected the values and norms of the the established liberal-arts colleges and research universities. Over time, culture overwhelmed policy. And a major element of that culture is autonomy. Earned independence is the mark of a successful scholar. Colleges worth working for are masters of their own destiny. They’re not just the local office of a government-run mass higher-education enterprise. They’re unique institutions that decide for themselves who they are. Thus, they decide what credits are worthy of their name.

Again, I’m not advocating for the complete removal of institutional control over credit transfer. But I imagine that nearly every student in California who wants to enroll in a public higher education institution and is effectively limited to his or her local community college enrolls with the expectation that their earned credits will at the very least be good at other public higher education institutions in California. The fact that reality diverges so sharply from this reasonable expectation tells you a lot about how little consideration student interests receive. 

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