Was the Kentucky House of Representatives out of line when it unanimously passed a bill to make it easier for community college students to transfer their credits to four-year colleges? Is the universities’ autonomy threatened by the bill now being considered by the Senate?
So claimed University of Louisville trustee Bill Stone in a story appearing last month in The Courier-Journal. Calling the measure “debilitating and wrong,” he took dead aim at House Bill 160, which aims to improve transferability for postsecondary students in Kentucky.
Faculty and administrators from colleges across the state have chimed in and raised questions of institutional autonomy, saying that the bill’s regulations would reduce their academic freedom by taking away some of their ability to set their own degree requirements. It’s a legitimate concern and an important one. After all, American colleges and universities have for centuries derived their strength from the relative freedom they enjoy from government oversight. Colleges and universities are given considerable latitude to regulate their own affairs so that they may use their autonomy to teach and research without fear of political interference. When the legislature gets involved, it can mean micromanaging issues that would be better left to the faculty, administrators, and trustees of the institution.
But what happens when colleges and universities are not doing their job? What happens when, in the name of institutional autonomy, universities put in place policies that effectively raise higher education costs, impede student success, and detract from the state’s explicit goal of doubling the number of Kentuckians with bachelor’s degrees by 2020?
In these instances, should a legislator remain silent? Or does he have a responsibility to take steps to ensure greater accountability and protect the taxpayers’ dollars?
Can there really be any question?
The sorry fact is: The transfer problem is not new. Indeed, nearly a decade ago, in 2001, the Kentucky Board of Education, the P-16 Council, and the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education raised concerns about transfers and endorsed a framework for so-called “articulation agreements” between two- and four-year institutions. The agreements, among other things, were to lay out clearly which credits would transfer between a community college and bachelor-degree granting college. They were designed to help students save money and time by ensuring smoother transition, not only between one education level and the next but also from school to the workplace.
While some schools have those agreements in place, others still do not. As a consequence, students can take the same class at a community college and receive credit at one university, but not at another.
As a result, the absence of a transparent transfer policy costs students a large amount of money and time. According to the Council of Postsecondary Education, students who transfer from community college into a four-year college accumulate, by the time they graduate, 15 more credits, on average, than those who entered a four-year college as freshmen. Students therefore incur unnecessary costs because of these extra courses.
Even more unacceptable, this burden falls disproportionately upon lower-income and minority students, who are more likely to begin their postsecondary careers in community colleges.
In this challenging economic climate, Kentucky taxpayers deserve to know that the millions of dollars they funnel to the state’s higher education institutions are being used efficiently. They deserve to see that the investment they are making is a good one and that universities are doing all they can to advance student success on the taxpayer’s dime.
The universities rightly want to protect their autonomy. But autonomy entails accountability. If universities don’t want legislators to get involved, there’s one easy solution: Get your own house in order—and do it soon.
Anne D. Neal is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an independent nonprofit dedicated to academic freedom, academic excellence and accountability in higher education.