Tuesday, October 4, 2016

An Introduction to Transfer Rants (and Other Thoughts on Higher Education)

So, this is my contribution to the blogosphere, to the discourse on higher education issues, and to the sanity of my colleagues in NYSTAA, NACAC, and elsewhere, whose poor, unsuspecting inboxes have been often been weighed down with my longwinded responses, rants, and clever witticisms (or snark, depending on your personal bent of humor).  I’m hoping that by creating this blog, I can provide a perspective on issues that are critically important to our nation and to an enormous number of underserved students.  Or at least, amuse myself and give myself a virtual soapbox to blather from.  Either way, I’m good. 

And let’s get this out of the way early – the views expressed here are my own, and not those of my employer.  I’m going to work very hard not to do anything that will embarrass my bosses, college, or system (I do have a mortgage and three kids, including twin toddlers, so I need to remain gainfully employed for the next 75-100 years).  It would probably be smarter to do this anonymously (I’m a huge fan of Dean Dad Matt Reed from InsideHigherED, who wrote that way for a very long time), but part of the impetus for this blog would make that impossible to do, I think.  Steve Peifer (the Director of College Counseling at The King’s Academy in West Palm Beach and NACAC guru) planted the seed for a blog probably a year ago, and in the year and a half that I’ve been at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, NY, I find myself increasingly answering NACAC Exchange questions and concerns with a perspective that seems to be absent, that of the transfer student/transfer out advisor.  Rather than stay with email or Facebook posts, I thought I’d listen to Steve and give myself a bit more room to expound.  So, blame Steve.  In any event, I’m not sure how secret it would be if I mysteriously vanished from the Exchange except to post links to the Transfer Guy’s Blog. 

As the title would indicate, the primary lens that I look at things through is that of the transfer student, really, the community college transfer student.  The reason for that is luck, mainly.  After teaching for a few years in high school, I realized (with the help of not getting tenure, twice), that it was not the career for me.  I was a working at the time as a college football coach, which, for whatever it lacked in free time or sleep, it also lacked in pay, so I sought and got a job in the admissions office.  I walked in, and the transition was essentially – “Great, a new guy!  New guy, you’re on transfers.” 

What did I know about transfers? Sadly, about as much as most people, including many people in and around higher education, the students who will have to go through it, and the parents hoping to shepherd their students through college to success (and out of their houses) – that is to say, not much.  I got to learn by immersion.  That first job was about recruiting and enrolling transfer students, as were subsequent jobs and educational processes, and now I’m on the other side of the coin, helping students prepare for transfer from the community college.  Certain things have become clear to me over that time. 

First, there were some core questions that students have, regardless of background, ability, or academic interest: Which credits will transfer?  When will I be done? How much will this cost?  There is no one more practical than a transfer student.  Conversely, some of their assumptions are so founded in the myths of higher education that I call it the Hogwarts Approach – they think that credits will magically transfer, or financial aid will magically appear, or that the name of the institution will invoke such immediate job market responses that any loan amount is worth it.  They’re practical, but often in a very na├»ve way.

Second, there are three primary ideas/philosophies that I rely on in thinking about, addressing, and talking about community colleges and transfer. 

You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, "you are free to compete with all the others," and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates. 
- President Lyndon B. Johnson
Commencement Address at Howard University   
June 4, 1965

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear…If you know yourself, but not the enemy, for every victory gained, there will be a defeat.  If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
- Sun Tzu
The Art of War
5th century BCE

Higher Education is arbitrary, exclusionary, inherently contrary to common sense and logic, and largely unknowable for most of our students as they enter the community college.
-Me.  Probably like two years ago. 

Nearly half of the nation’s undergraduates are enrolled at community colleges, and it’s far more normal at this point to have credits from multiple institutions than not.  In CUNY, the majority of students are transfer students.  And yet, it’s often very overlooked in admissions, credit review, financial aid, and any and every practical aspect of the degree seeking process. In fact, while there is exhaustive research on community colleges and community college students as contributors to the success and failing of those students in transfer, the receiving institution gets an almost complete pass – it’s the variable least often discussed.  Unfortunately, the students most harmed are also frequently the most lacking in the social and cultural capital needed to challenge the status quo.  And as that first quote indicates, I think there are some substantial impacts beyond simple educational issues. As to the second quote, transfer is often a war between student and/or sending institution and the receiving institution, so Sun Tzu struck me as appropriate.  More importantly, however, if students do not understand why they are in what they are in, if they do not understand the schools at which they enroll, then their chances of graduating drop precipitously.  They need to understand both in order to be successful. 

And the last quote is the driving philosophy of my office and staff’s interactions with students.  We (higher ed) make this stuff up as we go – there’s no reason our students should get it.  Our job is to help them. 

All of this is to say, transfer students, and those who work with them the most, need a voice in this process.  There are thousands of great people doing great work in this area, and there are a lot of ways to approach it.  I’ll throw in my two cents on a number of issues (I have a compulsive need to give my opinion), but the goal will be to contribute to closing the gap in this area.  Fingers crossed. 

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