The Privilege of the Non-Transfer Student

About 40 percent of all young people who actually complete a college degree will get that degree from a college other than the one at which they began. The business of transfer credit is a massive change in higher ed over the past fifty years, going from being an occasional need to a regular part of doing business. Whether it’s the cost-conscious student who launches with two years at a community college before continuing at the regional state school, or the student who follows a friend or a partner to a new campus, or the student who’s had to take some time away and then come back to school after they’ve moved across the country or had a child, transfer credit is just a baseline of America’s higher education model, and an important contribution to college accessibility.

But the ability to do college without transfer credit, the ability to do it “the old-fashioned way,” is actually a marker of an enormous number of other benefits and privileges that go unspoken. The most obvious, of course, is that a non-transfer student has the life stability and the financial resources to stay put, to avoid disruption, to take the simple ballistic path of starting in Fall ’19 and finishing in Spring ’23. At schools that rarely take transfer students, in fact, the incoming freshmen will be met at the door with materials proclaiming them in advance to be The Class of 2023. The presumption of continuity is a taken-for-granted part of their experience.

And when we talk about transfer credit, what kinds of schools are we talking about? Community colleges are almost entirely in the transfer credit business, creating detailed articulation agreements with schools throughout their region, bolting their gen-ed engines into other schools’ majors. The recipients of those transfer students are most often the lower tier of state institutions, the so-called “regional comprehensives” like UW-Parkside or Eastern Michigan or Cal State Stanislaus. The flagship research universities, the public elites, take far fewer transfers than the regionals. Only about three percent of the University of Michigan’s undergrads got there through transfer; four percent of the University of Vermont; four percent of the University of North Carolina.

The private elite schools take even fewer. When Princeton decided to accept thirteen transfer students for Fall 2018, it was a news story. Duke has half a percent of undergrads who transferred; Stanford slightly less than that. These are schools designed for the comfortable, designed for those who can take an uninterrupted four year path for granted.

And the courses that most often qualify for transfer applicability—courses in the general education and introductory curricula—are the ones most often remanded to adjunct faculty in those less-than-elite colleges. It’s not that adjuncts are bad teachers, far from it. But contingent faculty have less awareness of the other resources that the college has, they aren’t available for out-of-class consultations either during the semester or in subsequent semesters, they can’t do any meaningful advising because they don’t know the school or even their own departments well enough to offer well-informed coaching. They can’t welcome students to be a member of the community, because they aren’t part of the community themselves

When we think of transfer students, we most often think that it’s just another path to college completion. But it’s not a parallel path—it’s a path to a different definition of college completion, at a different kind of college that carries different kinds of life prospects, with a different set of experiences along the way.

More on that tomorrow.

Just a Little Off the Top…

I lost a job today.

For the past ten years, I’ve been leading a summer faculty development workshop for a college. It’s been really well received, lots of repeat attendance as well as new folks each year, and I humbly believe that it’s had some impact on their school’s culture. But alas, this morning I learned that several consecutive years of enrollment shortfalls have left that school unable to afford this year’s event.

It’s a tough time for anyone to count on income from higher education right now. But, you know, don’t cry for me, Argentina, and all that. I have a different point to make here.

At lunch, when I told Nora, she said that aside from all the reasons why this was unfortunate, it was galling that a university with an operating budget in the upper tens of millions of dollars couldn’t manage to sustain a fifteen thousand dollar event (that wasn’t my fee, by the way; that was four days of a facility rental and four days of food, and a stipend and travel costs for me and for another workshop leader). And yes, when each item is examined on its own, a productive event that amounted to 0.02% of their annual budget seems silly to trim away. But let’s look at the whole of the thing.

Here are some of the non-academic, or co-academic, offices that this school operates, a roster similar to hundreds of other schools its size:

  • an alumni and giving office
  • an athletic department
  • security and parking oversight
  • a career services office
  • a tutoring and student academic support center
  • a human resources office
  • endless amounts of instructional and business computing
  • an office dedicated to institutional research and assessment (my old job at a different school)
  • an office of grant support for faculty research
  • a health and wellness center
  • food service and housing
  • coordination for conferences and other facility rentals
  • an arts and cultural program
  • an office of diversity and inclusion

These are now all indispensable components of any credible college. They are the baseline, the functions that must be available. So when budget crises come, it isn’t possible to eliminate one of them and leave all of the others whole. Safer to starve everyone a little bit than to throw one off the boat altogether.

What IS a College?

This morning’s Daily Briefing from the Chronicle of Higher Education contains a link to an op-ed by Scott D. Miller, the president of Virginia Wesleyan College. In it, he talks the way that you’d expect a college president to talk—in platitudes, yes, but more centrally about colleges as businesses. Regarding the various threats facing smaller schools, he writes:

Those willing to take an objective look at their missions, their capacity for innovation, their planning and financial models, and their relationships with home communities and synergistic partners will stand the best chance of remaining viable. 

Dilbert could not have done better.

Language aside, though, we have to remember that this is a man charged with running a very large and very complicated business, with over forty divisions. And just as Vivek Sankaran, the CEO of Frito-Lay North America, doesn’t often grab a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos from the rack at the mini-mart, the president of any college has a remarkably distant relationship to what happens in a classroom, or a dormitory, or the admissions office. For its executives, a snack food manufacturer or a college is a money-harvesting machine, a predator whose metabolism burns through resources, always on the alert for its next meal.

The fact is that higher education is any number of different things, depending on where an individual stands within it. For permanent faculty, a school is an employer, in daily contact reduced to a single department. For contingent faculty, a school is a gig, a logistical and navigational challenge that must be met fresh every day. It’s also a statement of faith—that membership in this community is so emotionally important that they’re willing to endure remarkable suffering and disrespect to remain its tenuous members.

And for students? That experience varies enormously, based on the kind of school you go to and how you got there and various aspects of your identity and all of the other cultural resources you have available. But, although it’s passe, let’s think about the student experience of a college—any college—through Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

For far too many students, the basic physiological needs of food and shelter are inconsistent or unavailable. For women or people of color or people who are LGBTQ or have physical disabilities, the second level of safety is also not taken for granted, can be withdrawn without warning. Maslow claimed that if the more basic needs aren’t met, it’s awfully difficult to rise to the challenges of those higher and more ephemeral levels.

But if we could take all of levels 1 and 2 for granted, if every student came to us comfortably housed and decently fed and free from concern over physical safety, the most fundamental work of an institution would then be to help all of its members feel that they belong, that they are valued members of the community. If you don’t feel like others value your presence, if they don’t actively embrace your membership, then it’s worth wondering if you should come back for another semester.

It’s that layer, the sense of college as fellowship, as family, that’s missing at too many institutions and for too many of its members. Community colleges, for instance, are essentially every-man-or-woman-for-themselves experiences, with little opportunity or mechanism for larger collegiate life. That’s equally true for their faculty, the vast majority of whom have no affiliation (and remember that the root of affiliation is filius or son, a beloved and valued member of the family). When we look at a college’s retention and graduation rates, we can wonder about the merits of the academic offerings or the selectivity of admissions that allows the unprepared to give it a shot anyway, but we should consider another and probably more important fact—coming back to school for another semester is fundamentally a decision to rejoin a community. If that community doesn’t love you, it’s harder to make that decision.

So yes, a college is its police force and its accounting department and its grounds. A college is its financial aid office and its student center and its food service. But unless all of those are focused on the larger fact of being a family, of valuing and welcoming every member, then it’s all just Cheetos.

Wintry Mix

We’re having another strange winter. Last week, we had three straight nights below zero, and today and tomorrow are going to be in the mid-40s. The roof is bare after a week with over a foot of snow. The poor road crew is going nuts, trying to deal with plowing roads that won’t freeze hard, using up a winter’s worth of sand and salt before February ever arrived. (Our Cargill road salt this year, by the way, was sourced in Egypt. We’re all globalists now…)

Nora and I decided to take this opportunity of kind-of-warm weather to let the wood stove cool completely, so that tomorrow morning I can shovel all the ash out to get ready for tomorrow evening’s return to single-digit temps. And even though I turned the furnace up this morning, it’s still cold without the bright fire consuming the dead leftovers of our woodlot.

My writing today feels a lot like that. I’m writing the Town’s audit self-study, and proofreading someone else’s work on writing the annual report. I’m working on marketing material for The Adjunct Underclass, and offering markups on someone else’s novel. I’m waiting for a colleague to deliver a copy of the Town’s lease for the volunteer fire department, so I can talk with our attorney about how we might modify it. And somewhere, in the middle of that, I’m trying to write a story, of Kurt and Sarasa and the ways that they find themselves in a half-familiar, half-foreign place. It’s a day that’s neither snow nor rain nor dry, neither warm nor cold, neither clear nor dark. It’s a wintry mix.

Updike once wrote that he had three offices in his home: one for fiction, one for non-fiction, and one for poetry. That’s lovely, but most of us have just the one room with the one laptop and the cold stove, and we have to create another way to become multiple people, each of our selves able to focus fully on that one thing as it presents itself. If we can’t divide the world by space, we have to do it by time, setting up calendar stripes of different colors, each for its own purpose.

But there are days where the colors run together and become mud. A painter friend once told me the legend of Seattle Beige, the bland institutional color that comes from mixing together every can of America’s returned paint into a mammoth re-use vat. Ninety percent of it is white, and the other colors all even themselves out in large enough quantities to turn a sort of boring sandy tan. That’s the color of a writer’s mind on some cold February days.

Ecosystem Failure

When I was in grade school, the summers were increasingly marked by massive die-offs of a small fish called the alewife. Through a blizzard of invasive species and other human interventions, the alewife population boomed to the point where annual starvations became normal, and the beaches of southern Lake Michigan had as many as twenty billion dead alewives washed ashore in the summer of 1967.

Dead alewives floating atop the water in Lake Michigan, so many that they cover the entire surface of the harbor.

I’m writing this shortly after the announcement that Green Mountain College, eight miles away from here in Poultney VT, will cease operations at the end of this semester. After the announcement that Hampshire College won’t enroll a new Fall cohort. After the closings of Mount Ida College and Newbury College, after Wheelock merged with BU, after the risk announcements for the College of St. Joseph… I’m seeing dead fish on the beach again.

I think it’s unproductive to ask who’s to blame for this. What we’re seeing is an ecosystem collapse with dozens of contributing variables. In fact, I think it’s even worse than that. The collapse of higher ed comes from an attempt to optimize each individual aspect of the endeavor, with nobody watching the whole. It comes from tens of millions of individually intelligent decisions. We’ve been so smart about the details that we forgot about the purpose. And now the lake is dying, and the fish are washing ashore.

Saturday Morning

Hard to know why Ed wakes up so early. Somewhere between four and five, usually. He walks into the bedroom and starts whining at the side of the bed. So you roll out, trying not to wake Nora, and Ed follows you into the kitchen. Sometimes Simon follows, if he’s not curled down next to Nora’s knees. You check their food and water and litter boxes, put a little more wood into the stove, close the door between the kitchen and hallway, and go back to bed.

That often doesn’t help much. You’re awake, churning, trying all the meditative practices to clear your mind. But a writer’s mind is never clear, really.

So you get back up and dressed this time, make coffee, and start the day. Whatever it was that the cats wanted before is lost to us all—Simon’s curled in front of the fire, Ed on a kitchen chair, Nora still asleep.

You can get some decent work done.