Administrators still insist transfer degrees are in the student’s best interest.
Bleah B. Patterson
Though they have no right by district policy to interfere, trustees listened to complaints and pleadings from the public and questioned the district administration’s decision to remove concentrations from the Associate of Art and Associate of Science degrees.
Trustees are requesting more information and compromise while students are asking for communication, inclusion and demanding district administrators leave concentrations, or major specifications, on their diplomas.
In April the Presidents and Vice Chancellors Committee, or PVC, made a decision to switch from traditional “degree plans” to advising guides and remove concentrations from diplomas.
Dr. Jo-Carol Fabianke, vice chancellor of academic success, spoke during the Student Success Committee meeting Oct. 21 to clear up “confusion” and “misunderstandings,” for students, faculty and the board.
She explained transfer degrees are necessary because of the 60 credit hours required for an associate degree; 18 hours above the 42-hour core are required for particular concentrations.
In her research of UTSA and Texas A&M-San Antonio, very few of those 18 hours actually transferred when the students moved from an Alamo College to a four-year university, she said.
In past interviews with The Ranger, Fabianke said the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board were putting pressure on the Alamo Colleges to change its degrees to follow a “nationwide trend,” she said.
Three of the Alamo Colleges — Northwest Vista College, St. Philip’s and his college, — are in the process of reaffirmation and Northeast Lakeview is still seeking accreditation.
Fabianke said this leaves the colleges vulnerable to the SACSCOC, the accrediting agency prompting the change.
English Professor Alex Bernal, two parents of students and Craig Coroneos, humanities coordinator at Northwest Vista College, were among 18 people who registered for the citizens-to-be-heard segment. All objected to the change.
“This discussion is from the administration, not from SACS or the Coordinating Board,” Coroneos said. “People in this room have the ability to approve or resend it have no proof that it works. This is an experiment and the 60,000-plus students of the Alamo Colleges are the guinea pigs.”
Coroneos cited NVC’s transfer rates to Texas universities showing the college was recognized last year by the state as the top community college to transfer from in the state.
Coroneos said the increase in transfer rates that secured the top position came from emphasizing specified majors on diplomas.
He didn’t want to stop at NVC though and continued, citing a 2011 study by Hanover Research, a national a higher education research entity, “Improving Student Retention and Graduation Rates.”
The study’s key findings were that “the majority of factors proven to improve student retention are related to academic goals, academic-related skills and academic self-confidence.”
This, he said, is directly related to having concentrations printed on diplomas.
According to the Center for Community College Student Engagement, or CCCSE, the Houston Community College System put an emphasis on offering concentrations to transfer students in 2007.
By 2012, they found students who knew they were working toward a degree and would receive a diploma with the specialization improved their persistence. They finished on time and continued to a bachelor’s degree and beyond.
According to the California Community College system’s Student Success Task Force, declaring a specific major or area of study is crucial to graduation and persistence, and students who feel they’ve entered into a broad area of study are less likely to continue.
The California community colleges offer majors on their transfer degrees.
After citizens to be heard, trustees discussed degrees with Fabianke and Chancellor Bruce Leslie.
Fabianke said, “It’s wonderful students are so excited about what’s happening. Some just don’t have the full story.”
She continued to explain that transfer degrees are the best option for students and necessary to ensure all of their hours transfer to a four-year university.
Joe Alderete, District 1 trustee, said “We really need to have this crystal clear. I need to know specifically: Did this come from SACSCOC? Did they tell us to do this?”
Fabianke said “No, but … ,” and Alderete stopped her.
“Did the Coordinating Board say this is something we need to do?”
“No, but … ,” Fabianke said.
Again, he cut her off. “Well that’s an important point. I’ve been telling people that we have no choice, that we had to do this. I was mistaken and mistakenly didn’t tell those people the truth. If we’re not being driven by the board or SACS, it looks like it’s our decision. The burden of responsibility falls squarely on our shoulders. We were mistaken in not asking students to be completely cognizant of the decision they were making. Of what they were getting into.”
Alderete compared it to a loan or a mortgage, asking if there was anywhere students were notified and had to sign off on it, recognizing they would be receiving a degree without a concentration.
Fabianke said no.
“This is a significant action, and like any significant action, they should have been notified. We have to let them make that decision — whether they want to earn that degree or not. We did not do that,” he said.
“I just need to be clear, and we need our message to be clear because it leads to a credibility issue between you and the student body if you’re not,” Alderete said.
Fabianke said the accrediting agency does not give specific instruction, instead it gives suggestions and guidelines and allows the colleges to choose how to interpret those guidelines.
“We’ve taken it all into consideration, and now our intent is to change this so we can tailor those 18 hours to best serve the students,” she said.
Board Chair Anna Bustamante, who represents District 3, wanted to know why the change was implemented in April and the trustees weren’t informed until Oct. 21 during committee meetings.
“Well, that’s not under the board’s jurisdiction,” Fabianke said.
“So when were you going to inform us? Or the students? Because we didn’t know,” Bustamante asked.
“We just haven’t made a declaration … ” Fabianke said.
Bustamante cut her off and said the issue was “obviously more important than you thought, and that was a mistake.”
District 8 trustee Clint Kingsbery said he’s not sure how well the system will work and how to rectify for students who do not attend the university they thought they would.
“I thought I was going to the University of Houston and instead I went to UTSA can’t always anticipate these things,” Kingsbery said.
Fabianke said that would be solved with the new advising model that will be initiated in fall 2015. “We’ll guide students at certain checkpoints. For instance, with the new model, they would be required to choose their transfer institution by the 30-hour mark. If a student sticks with their adviser and does what they tell them to do, then there isn’t any reason they shouldn’t go to their first choice institution.”
Leslie suggested following Chicago’s community college model that would put a hold on a student’s account at 30 hours until they declare a transfer institution.
“That’s a possibility to solve the issue,” Leslie said.
“What it looks like is we got caught with our pants down this time,” District 7 trustee Yvonne Katz said.
“Now we just need to anticipate other big issues like this before they come down the pipe so we can make sure this doesn’t happen again,” she said.
“It looks to me that if I’m a 19-year-old, I’m in a crap game. I’m young, I change my mind a lot. It would be better for me to just take 42 hours and transfer, avoiding all of this,” District 2 trustee Denver McClendon said.
The trustees said they want more time to figure out the best options and how to ensure issues like this do not happen again.
“We don’t even have those advising models in place,” Alderete said. “Is there any way we can just leave things as they are? Decide later when those are set up and revisit the issue?”
Fabianke said the administration stands by transfer degrees, saying they’re the best option for students.
The discussion did not lead to a vote because the decision does not require board approval.
Trustees are expected to discuss degrees again at the next regular board meeting 6 p.m. Dec. 16 at the Killen Center 201 W. Sheridan.