Better Transfer Course Equivalencies Using a Publicly Accessible Tool

A community college is often at a disadvantage when negotiating course equivalencies with a senior college offering bachelor’s degrees. Typically this senior college has the final authority: it determines whether to transfer Course X from the community college as the similar Course Y found at the senior college. A transfer tool that publicly reports on transfer equivalencies from multiple colleges gives community colleges more leverage in this negotiation, in part because this sort of tool can help the community college identify the most problematic equivalencies and provide valuable evidence to improve them. At Bronx Community College of the City University of New York, we used such a tool, known as Transfer Explorer, over the past year to improve equivalencies for our students with multiple senior colleges in the CUNY system. Transfer Explorer was funded by the Heckscher Foundation and developed as part of the Articulation of Credit Transfer (ACT) grant initiative, in which BCC participates.

Context

CUNY includes 20 undergraduate colleges enrolling more than 200,000 matriculated students. These colleges include associate degree institutions (community colleges), bachelor’s degree institutions (senior colleges) and institutions that offer both types of degrees (comprehensive colleges). The system is characterized by a significant student movement among institutions, so much so that the majority of the students at all the senior colleges transfer in, typically from CUNY community colleges. CUNY has made multiple attempts to address transfer barriers and challenges that can hinder a student’s ability to complete a bachelor’s degree. There has been notable progress, particularly with the Pathways initiative, which improved credit transferability, especially for the core curriculum. Challenges remain, however, including cases of nonoptimal course equivalencies, mainly in major courses.

These equivalency challenges can be addressed in a number of ways, including negotiation between a community college and a senior college. In such negotiations, a public equivalency tool, such as Transfer Explorer, can play a key role because it can be used to (1) identify problematic equivalencies that affect the most students, (2) compare equivalencies across peer colleges and (3) verify that any equivalency changes agreed upon were actually implemented. The following is a description of how this process can work, and the role played by the CUNY transfer equivalency tool, Transfer Explorer.

Identifying Problematic Equivalencies

Transfer Explorer has a frequently transferred course (FTC) feature that a CUNY college to identify the courses that transfer most frequently to another CUNY college. This feature also identifies what course equivalencies are given at the partner college, including whether the equivalency is simply elective credit. In general, elective credit is less valuable to a transfer student than is a specific course equivalency, in part because the former may be less likely to count toward graduation requirements. FTC allows a community college to focus its transfer equivalency efforts on the courses that affect the largest number of students. After all, if there is a course that has transferred to a specific senior college 5,000 times as an elective over the past 10 years, it makes more sense to focus on that equivalency than on a course that has transferred only 20 times. We did just this at BCC over the past year, focusing on several high-volume problematic course equivalencies, ultimately improving them.

Negotiating Equivalencies Using Peer Comparisons

After identifying the key course equivalency and senior college on which to focus, engagement with stakeholders at this senior college (referred to below as the Senior College Partner) is the next step. Transfer Explorer is very valuable in this discussion, particularly in its ability to provide course equivalency data across the university. This feature in Transfer Explorer is called How Does this Course Transfer (HDCT), and the data it provides can be an influential Partner in working with the Senior College. HDCT allows one to see how Course X transfers to all colleges in CUNY. There are two ways this feature can be used to support a community college argument for a changed course equivalency:

  • Scenario A: This involves using HDCT to see how other CUNY senior colleges transfer our Course X. If many/most of these senior colleges transfer our Course X as the analogous senior college Course Y, this is an argument for parity. That is, we can ask the Senior College Partner, “What makes your college and your course so different from your peers that you won’t grant credit for our course?”
  • Scenario B: This involves using HDCT to see if peer community colleges have a course similar to our Course X, and, if so, to see how this course transfers to the Senior College Partner. If the similar peer community college course transfers as a specific Course Y at the Senior College Partner, we have another argument for parity. That is, we can ask the Senior College Partner, “If you are going to give credit for that course from our peer community college, why wouldn’t you do so for the same course from our college?”

BCC has used both approaches with senior colleges in CUNY over the past year, leading to improvements in course equivalencies for our graduates. Parity is a powerful argument, in part because it appeals to a sense of fairness and equity on the part of the Senior College Partner. Additionally, the parity argument and the public nature of the data in Transfer Explorer implicitly create other forms of pressure due to further steps the community college could take. For example, the community college may be able to exert pressure on the senior college by advising students to consider transferring to other senior colleges in order to receive better transfer credit. The community college could also choose to engage other stakeholders to more publicly object to the existing course equivalencies. Of course, these are steps not to be taken lightly for a host of reasons, including that they may harm the relationship with the senior college. But these potential steps may play a role even without being taken, just by existing as an option due to the publicly accessible equivalencies found in Transfer Explorer.

It is important to note here that the Senior College Partner often has a good explanation for why a given course does not transfer as a direct equivalency. For example, the senior college course and the community college course may cover somewhat different content. To address this, a genuine discussion that includes faculty from both the community college and senior college is often crucial, because this allows for better understanding of each perspective and builds relationships across institutions. This discussion may lead to improved curricular alignment, because both the senior and community college can review their courses and syllabi to identify any gaps that require course revision. These revisions may be sufficient to result in the senior college improving the transfer equivalency.

Verifying Equivalency Changes

Once there is an agreement to change a transfer equivalency, the next challenge is how to ensure that this change is implemented. As someone who has worked in this field for over 20 years, I know well that this is not to be taken for granted. I have seen many cases in which specific equivalencies were agreed to on paper, in PDF or by email but never made it into actual practice. Transfer Explorer allows any user to see that the standard equivalency for a course has been changed and when the change occurred.

Final Thoughts

A transfer equivalency tool such as Transfer Explorer doesn’t completely level the playing field between community colleges and senior colleges when negotiating transfer equivalencies, but it does help. It gives the community college the ability to identify and prioritize problematic transfer equivalencies, empowers the community college to make a case for specific course equivalencies, and helps ensure that negotiated equivalencies are implemented. By strengthening the negotiating position of the community college, transfer students benefit: improved transfer equivalencies make these students more likely to earn their bachelor’s degree and in less time.


Alexander Ott is the associate dean of curriculum matters and academic programs at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York. He plays a leadership role in the Bronx Transfer Affinity Group and is a former president of the New York State Transfer and Articulation Association.

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