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Degrees of Confusion

The Senate Higher Education Committee will hold its first hearing of the year on Wednesday, and with debate over higher ed reform cooling (for now, at least), focus has turned to community colleges and a surprisingly touchy topic: transfers.

Sen.Judith ZaffiriniD-Laredo

Next Wednesday, Senate Higher Education Chairwoman Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, will lead the committee’s first hearing of the year, focussing on an interim charge calling for an examination of the system that allows students to transfer from one type of higher ed institution to another — for example, from a community college to a four-year university.

Because of the savings made possible by spending the first two years of higher learning at a cheaper two-year school, the “transfer” issue is a hot — and surprisingly touchy — topic. The House Higher Education Committee, chaired by Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, held a hearing on it in February.

It’s also indicative of the ever-blurring lines between different types of institutions.

Nothing illustrates the changing, increasingly multifaceted nature of the state’s education pipeline than the much-lauded $10,000 degree currently being offered by Texas A&M University-San Antonio. It requires students to earn their associate’s degree by amassing college credit while still in high school, knocking out what would traditionally be considered their junior year at a community college, and then finishing up at the university.

Not all moves from community colleges come so deliberately mapped out. Ensuring that students get credit for the work they’ve put in requires colleges and universities to enter into so-called articulation agreements, which lay out how each course will count toward each degree when a student moves from one institution to another.

Articulation agreements are voluntary and not tracked by the state. Estimates by lawmakers and officials at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board put the number of agreements between the state’s 50 community college districts and its 38 public universities in the thousands.

There is a growing sense in Austin that the dramatic variance in degrees and agreements has grown a bit unmanageable — both for students attempting to navigate the world of higher education and for those who are trying to monitor it.

At the February House hearing, for example, Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes pointed out that an associate's degree can require anywhere from 60 to 72 credit hours, depending on where it is earned. He has called for capping associate’s degree requirements at 60 hours unless there are compelling licensure requirements for a specific profession.

But some higher education administrators worry that efforts to rein in and standardize pathways to a degree may encroach on their ability to determine what’s best for their individual institution.

A significant majority of Texas students begin their post-high school education at a community college, likely because of the increased affordability. So Paredes and others insist that something needs to be done to increase the number of those who transfer to universities — a move currently made by a mere 28 percent community college students.

“I continue to advocate for the equivalent of a Constitutional Convention for higher education in Texas where you get together and hammer these things out,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio.

In lieu of that, the discussion will start in committees like Zaffirini’s and Branch’s  — and will very likely crop up on the floors of their respective chambers next session.

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