Sunday, March 9, 2014
The link between a college education and succeess in adult life is much discussed and much documented.
So is the fact that Maine lags not only the national average but also the rest of New England in the percentage of the adult population who have a college education.
That's why it's so commendable -- and so critical -- that the state is addressing a longstanding obstacle to earning a college degree in Maine.
A measure passed this spring gives the Maine Community College System and the University of Maine System until the fall of 2014 to set up a uniform and seamless credit transfer process.
The mandate is only one provision in a wide-ranging bill, but it addresses a perennial problem. Both Maine community college students and Maine taxpayers lose out when students can't transfer credits to one of Maine's seven public university campuses. And the cost not only to our economy but also to students' enthusiasm and hope for the future is far too high.
DRAGGING OUT THE QUEST FOR A DEGREE
Transferring from a Maine community college to one of the state's universities has been widely touted as a sure path to a bachelor's degree. The idea of saving money on a four-year-degree program by spending one or two of those years in community college appeals to students. But in reality, the transition hasn't been seamless.
When community college students apply to a university system school, too often they find the university won't accept credits they earned at the two-year school.
For example, the University of Southern Maine's School of Business doesn't award transfer credit for community college business classes. Why? The agency that accredits USM's business school doesn't allow it because it doesn't consider the community college classes to be as rigorous. The result? The student winds up having to repeat the course -- a situation that some community colleges have avoided by offering outreach programs on what students need to do to succeed at a four-year school.
Research has shown that the difficulty of transferring credits is a big reason why students in the U.S. stay in college so long. According to the advocacy group Complete College America, it takes the average full-time student 3.8 years to get a two-year associate degree and 4.7 years to get a four-year bachelor's degree.
A DRAIN ON THE WALLET
A credit transfer system that doesn't offer a clear route from the community colleges to a four-year degree is an inefficient use of state funding. It also drives up the cost to students who are already pinching pennies.
Eighty-two percent of people enrolled full-time in Maine's community colleges get financial aid. Community college students who transfer to the university system are likely even more cash-strapped, considering that a year at the University of Maine, the system's flagship school, is more than three times as expensive as a year at a Maine community college.
The average age of a Maine community college student is 27; they are adults who need the academic credentials to qualify for higher-paying jobs so they can more easily support themselves and their families.
The need for a smoother transfer process will only grow. Enrollment in Maine's community colleges is burgeoning -- it nearly doubled between 2002 and 2012 -- and an increasing number of those students are looking to transfer to the University of Maine System.
CRAFTING BEST PRACTICES
And while the state appropriation hasn't kept up with the boom in enrollment, finding a solution to the credit-transfer problem doesn't necessarily involve spending a lot of money.
Other states have faced the same issue, giving rise to the community college student success movement and policies and programs supported by education foundations. They should serve as a useful source of information as Maine strives to make it easier for students to move between its community colleges and its public universities.
Maine students already face a number of barriers to getting a college degree. The state needs to work as hard as it can to make sure that its own policies don't make the process even more difficult.