Transfer Model Curricula: Preserving the Integrity of Transfer Associate Degrees

November
2011
David Morse, Secretary

Senate Bill 1440 (Padilla 2010) was created to serve two purposes: to streamline transfer from community colleges to the California State University system and to encourage and help more students to complete associate degrees before transferring. In the first year after SB 1440’s passage, much attention has been focused on aspects of the bill that facilitate or, in the view of some, complicate transfer. As faculty work to ensure that the implementation of the legislation is as beneficial to students as possible, we must remember that transfer is only one half of the bill’s intent and that associate degrees granted by the California community colleges, including the associate in arts or in science for transfer (AA-T or AS-T) developed under the specifications of SB 1440, must still meet appropriate standards of quality and integrity as complete degrees that can stand alone in order to be meaningful and useful for our graduates.

The Academic Senates for California Community Colleges and the California State University have worked together to ensure the quality and integrity of the associate degrees for transfer by developing Transfer Model Curricula (TMCs) in the most popular transfer disciplines. This intersegmental, faculty-driven effort has called together discipline experts from around the state in order to determine the most appropriate and useful preparation in each specific major or field of study. However, the TMCs, while offering outlines for the content of the associate degrees, have in no way ignored the fact that the degrees are designed for transfer to the CSU system. CSU faculty have been involved in all TMC discussions, lending their voice and expertise to the determination of requirements that are appropriate for both a legitimate associate degree and lower-decision preparation for transfer. Likewise, California community college (CCC) articulation officers have participated in the discussions held by the discipline faculty, offering their perspectives and expertise regarding transfer. In this way, the process for the development of the TMCs balances the content of the associate degrees with the facilitation of transfer in order to ensure the integrity of both aspects of SB 1440’s intent.

Still, some voices have asked that the requirements for the transfer degrees be made more flexible. At the Spring 2010 Academic Senate Plenary Session, as the Academic Senate approved Resolution 4.03 S10 endorsing the overall concept of the transfer degree legislation, an alternative resolution sought to eliminate the aspect of the bill that called for “18 units in a major or area of emphasis.” Instead, this alternative resolution and a clarifying amendment (4.04.01 S10) proposed that the major requirements for a transfer degree be limited to the courses listed as lower-division preparation in the ASSIST database for the specific CSU to which the student wished to transfer. While this proposal was not approved at the Plenary Session, some parties around the state still advocate for a similar minimization of major requirements in order to create more flexibility within the associate degrees.

In considering such proposals, we must bear in mind not only their impact on the transfer process, but also how they would impact our associate degrees. While some disciplines list multiple courses as major preparation in ASSIST, others would require almost no expertise in the discipline named in the degree’s title. For example, various CSU campuses require no more than two courses as lower-division major preparation for various political science tracks, and one CSU requires no lower-division courses for its communication studies major. Therefore, if the lower-division preparation in ASSIST were the only major requirements, a student would be able to receive an associate degree in political science from a California community college while having taken as few as two courses in the supposed major field and no courses in the communication studies example. Similar examples exist in other disciplines. Certainly no outside observer in business or industry could take seriously the claim that a student who completed such a degree had any meaningful level of knowledge in the subject area. Thus, minimizing the requirements in the major in associate degrees for transfer would defeat one of the primary purposes of SB 1440, the idea that transfer students should receive associate degrees that have meaning and value for them.

Economic difficulties, health issues, and numerous other factors can interrupt a student’s educational progress, and for such reasons some students who transfer to the university system will be forced to delay completion of the baccalaureate degree for an extended period and ultimately may never finish a university degree. In such cases, the associate degree will stand as the student’s highest academic achievement and will therefore be an essential tool in the student’s quest for secure employment. In order to give students in such situations the greatest possible opportunity to adjust to their life circumstances, we must make certain that degrees intended for transfer are not viewed as lesser degrees that have value only as means of accessing further studies.

Under Title 5, all associate degrees granted by California community colleges must include a minimum of 18 semester units in a major or area of emphasis. While the origins of this requirement are unclear, one can assume that it was intended to set a minimum standard necessary to uphold and ensure the quality of the degrees. If we allow students to graduate with a degree in a specific discipline without ensuring that the students have adequate training or background in that discipline, we do them no service; rather, we diminish the public regard for both the students’ work and effort and the quality of our programs. The 18 semester unit requirement therefore does not place an unnecessary burden on students, but rather benefits the students by ensuring the quality of their preparation.

Even in terms of transfer, minimized lower-division requirements would not in all ways benefit students. A long-standing and well-known issue regarding transfer is that requirements for the same major differ at various CSU campuses. Thus, a student who wishes to transfer to CSU Northridge in history but who might also wish to consider CSU Long Beach in the same field would have to meet two separate sets of lower-division requirements. Indeed, this inconsistency is exactly one of the frustrating and confusing aspects of the transfer process that SB 1440 was designed to address. However, if major requirements for the associate degrees for transfer were based on the lower-division preparation in ASSIST, this situation would in no way be changed, and students would continue to be subjected to inconsistent transfer requirements. Only a statewide effort that develops a comprehensive lower-division preparation plan that all CSU campuses can accept will alleviate this problem, and such an effort is exactly what the TMCs seek to offer.

Some advocates for minimized major requirements have also pointed out that those of us who attended four-year universities for our entire undergraduate experience often were not required to complete 18 units of major preparation in our first two years. This claim is, of course, accurate; however, it overlooks the fact that such an experience at a university did not necessarily have the same intended outcome. While a community college education is often equated with the first two years at a university, those two years at a community college are intended to offer a benefit that a lower-division university experience does not: an associate degree. Those of us who went directly into the university system did not receive a degree as recognition of our efforts in our first two years. If community college programs of study are to continue to provide this additional benefit for students, then we must ensure that we uphold the standards and quality upon which our degrees are based.

Certainly, as we develop the TMCs and our local associate degrees for transfer, we must continue to consider how best to make the transfer process as seamless and easily navigable for students as possible. However, we should not allow transfer requirements and concerns to override considerations regarding the integrity of the degrees that our institutions grant. As faculty we are the guardians of academic quality, and this issue has the potential to impact in profound ways the quality of the programs in which we teach and the way we are viewed by the public. We must always remain conscious of the important balance between the two purposes of SB 1440: facilitation of transfer, but only after the student has completed a meaningful and appropriate degree.

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