Transfer Degrees—Elephants in the Room, Lines in the Sand, Hills to Die on, and Dead Horses

Vice President

The subject of “transfer degrees” has never died but has become a topic of greater interest as of late. To the outsider, the issues are simple and the faculty perspective may be one that is easily dismissed, viewed as “elitist”, and/or in need of a legislative fix. Your local and personal elephants, lines, hills, and horses are likely to be touched upon here—and as there are diverse views amongst us, you are left to identify them. There is, of course, a common starting point—but then the divisions begin. I would like to hope that there are fewer divisions than there have been historically—but perhaps that’s my own bit of head-in-the-sand indulgence.

We all want students to succeed. We all care about students. We all believe that our colleges offer students an array of certificate and degree options that are of value. We don’t think that there should be unnecessary obstacles to certificate and degree completion. But, as always, the devil is in the details—your “obstacle” may be someone else’s hill and the real obstacles may be elephants that no one wants to confront. Where is the common ground? How can we unite when perspectives are so varied?

Our conversations about the degrees in question really began in Fall 2006—shortly after we took the position that our mathematics and English graduation requirements should be raised and during a time period when we were considering the “meaning” of our degrees, which culminated in last spring’s resolution that defined the AA and AS. At the Fall 2006 plenary we passed the following resolutions—which are included here in their entirety as the “whereas” clauses provide a context that should be kept in mind.

9.02 Eliminate the word “Transfer” in Degree Titles

Whereas, The use of the word “transfer” in degree titles may lead students to believe the completion of the degree ensures transfer to a four-year institution; and

Whereas, Students may believe that all courses they successfully complete for a “transfer” degree are transferable;

Resolved, That the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges work with local senates, local curriculum committees, and chief instructional officers (CIOs) to eliminate the use of the term “transfer” in program titles for the associate degree.

13.02 Opposition to Associate Degrees based Solely on IGETC and CSU GE Breadth

Whereas, Title 5 requires “At least 18 semester or 27 quarter units of study taken in a single discipline or related disciplines” (§55806) to provide an area of emphasis for the associate degree, and an associate degree without this area of emphasis devalues the concept of the associate degree;

Whereas, Many in the field have expressed that the associate degree needs to be used to capture numbers, further devaluing the degree;

Whereas, The use of IGETC and/or CSU GE Breadth as the sole basis for the associate degree reduces local control and subjects the associate degree to determination by groups external to the community colleges; and

Whereas, The use of IGETC and/or CSU GE Breadth in fulfillment of local general education requirements together with necessary units in an area of focus is clearly consistent with Title 5 and is not the issue under consideration here;

Resolved, That the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges oppose the use of IGETC and/or CSU GE Breadth as the sole basis for the area of emphasis for the associate degree; and

Resolved, That the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges support interpretation of Title 5 that prohibits the use of IGETC and/or CSU GE Breadth as the sole basis for the area of emphasis for the associate degree.

A lot has happened since these resolutions were passed. At the same time that colleges were called upon to ensure that their degrees were compliant, what the “major” component could consist of was expanded and an “area of emphasis” was introduced as an alternative to the more restrictive “major.” In response, we have created new certificates and degrees, and we have increased the ways that we recognize student accomplishments. The term “Certificate of Achievement” can now only be used for those certificates that receive approval from the Chancellor’s Office—a means of increasing their value and differentiating them from the variety of local certificates that colleges can award. Certificates of Achievement are the only credit certificates that can be transcripted and can now be awarded for certificates of 12-18 units and for completion of a transfer general education pattern. Thus, the student who fails to complete degree requirements—for whatever reason—may have various other awards to show for his/her time at our colleges.

And now an elephant I will call out—many, if not most, colleges developed degrees that have an area of emphasis that is roughly the equivalent to one or two general education areas—not too terribly far off from the “GE compilation” degrees of the past. These elephants, however, are far more philosophically aligned with what Title 5 called for than merely completing both a local and a transfer general education pattern. And even have the potential of guiding students in their course selections in a manner that just might benefit them. If a student completed an area of emphasis in “Social Sciences”, for example, he may very well complete the major preparation for two different majors in this broad area—such as psychology and sociology.

We’ve all navigated the maze that got us to a degree. And I suspect we all were asked to do things that did not make sense. I’m not suggesting that anything about our degrees does not make sense—just making a more general point—but that we did what we had to do to get our degrees. There were requirements to be met—and no one sought to decrease what we had to do to make degree attainment simpler. Is a student entitled to a passing grade because they attended all classes and took all exams? Is a student entitled to a degree because they complete 60 units? The means to increasing degree completion should not be lowering standards, but aiding students in achieving their goals.

But that’s one view of things. Do we make getting a degree harder than it should be? I’m going to argue no—but will, without hesitation, acknowledge that we could make it easier. Degrees should have requirements—including locally defined requirements. But they should also be honest—a degree should not bill itself as “intended for transfer” and then consist of well over the 18 units required for a major/area of emphasis (unless it is a high-unit major). The components of a major/area of emphasis or a degree should not be dictated by the desire to fill classes—but by an educational philosophy.

What local requirements do you ask your students to complete? Do they do double-duty as general education requirements? Are students informed of the courses that will meet multiple needs—do they know that selecting the “right” courses will decrease their ultimate course-taking? Are students steered towards the courses that will ultimately facilitate completion of all their goals?

I have spoken to counseling faculty who have found ways to help students out—to guide them in making the most “efficient” course selections—such as using advising sheets which clearly indicate which courses meet both general education requirements for transfer AND local graduation requirements. It sounds so simple, but are we doing all that we can to steer students to those choices? Are we doing all that we can to help students make the best choices? And is our curriculum structured effectively?

We need to look at how we can best “fix” ourselves before someone looks to mold us from the outside. Local faculty need to look at their degree requirements and options to ensure that they are meeting student needs and not creating undue barriers. We need to find ways to do better for our students, while maintaining quality and integrity. If we do not respond effectively to external calls for “reform”, we may find “reform” imposed upon us with a whole host of unintended consequences. We need to ensure that we are doing our best to facilitate student success—while ensuring the integrity of our offerings.