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Published April 16, 2014, 07:47 AM

College students say changes needed in Minn.'s credit-transfer process

ST. PAUL - Changes to Minnesota's credit-transfer process in recent years haven't done enough to make switching colleges easy, say students who are frustrated with the process.

By: Alex Friedrich, Minnesota Public Radio News

ST. PAUL - Changes to Minnesota's credit-transfer process in recent years haven't done enough to make switching colleges easy, say students who are frustrated with the process.

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system has worked out numerous transfer agreements among campuses, rolled out online planning tools for students and improved access to transfer information.

But too often, students say, they take classes at one campus only to find later that their new campus won't grant them the academic credit they expected -- forcing them to retake those classes at the new school.

The problem lingers 20 years after the MnSCU system emerged – in part to make transfers easier.

"Our students are confused by the complexity of the system, and they're really frustrated," said Jessica Medearis, associate director of the Minnesota State College Student Association.

Tired of the problems, Minnesota students are pushing lawmakers and system officials to simplify the process.

Among those with complaints about the system is Rebecca Larson, of Coon Rapids. Larson, 35, recalls trying to transfer three Century College Microsoft Office classes to Hennepin Technical College several years ago.

Although the courses were essentially the same, and used the same textbook, Hennepin Tech personnel told her the classes at the two campuses were numbered differently and were worth a different number of credits. She appealed, but still had to take two of the Hennepin Tech classes that covered the same material she'd heard before.

Even the final exam was the same, Larson said, adding that she learned "absolutely nothing."

Several years later, Larson said she has yet to receive a decision on her appeal.

Disputes about transferability often boil down to important but subtle differences in what's taught, said Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, who has long dealt with the subject of credit transfer.

For a transfer system to work seamlessly, he said, "anybody who offers calculus has to teach the same exact syllabus, with the same degree of rigor, and based on the same assessment methodology."

Such standardization could lead to a "cookie-cutter" approach to education – one that produced graduates who all had the same perspective on the subjects they learned, said Nancy Black, president of MnSCU's unionized professors.

Student advocates say the current system is falling short.

A recent survey of students indicates about a quarter of transfer students rated their transfer experience as "poor" or only "fair."

Close to 20,000 students transferred within MnSCU last year, and another 13,000 transferred from colleges outside of the system. The dissatisfaction rate doesn't differentiate between the two.

Elliot Schimming, a 43-year-old psychology student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, said Metropolitan State University will not accept any of his nine psychology courses.

Schimming, a sophomore, said several of his classes use the same book that Metro State does – and even the same professor – but carry a different number of credits than the Metro State courses.

Meanwhile, he said, his classes are accepted by the University of Minnesota.

"It's very odd," he said. "It's like I'm having to start my program all over again. If I have to, that’s money out of my pocket."

And that price can be high.

The average student who has problems transferring from a two-year MnSCU college to a university in the system spends $2,000 to $6,000 in tuition to retake courses, Medearis estimated. That doesn't include fees, books or living expenses.

MnSCU has made notable progress in the past few years, student representatives and state legislators say. Satisfaction rates are up, and system officials say they have either met or exceeded improvement goals set by the Legislature in 2010.

But student advocates say too many students still can't understand the system.

To navigate it, they say, students need to check each class they want to take for factors that affect transferability – such as the number of credits it carries and how it fits in their target school’s sequence of courses.

Such requirements will vary campus by campus, degree by degree.

That complexity, Medearis said, makes it unreasonable to think that “the responsibility should just be on the student to figure it out.”

MnSCU associate vice chancellor Lynda Milne acknowledged problems.

But she said the fact that 76 percent of students are satisfied suggests that the process is not too complicated for the average student.

"It's too complicated for those who come in with little preparation," she said. "The student who doesn't have someone to talk to, and doesn't see an adviser, and thinks they can self-navigate – that's where the system is difficult."

Transferring does have some complexity because MnSCU provides students as much flexibility and choice in classes as possible, Milne said.

But the very thing that would arguably serve students best – easy access to consistent, high-quality advising – appears to be in short supply.

Many MnSCU colleges do not have enough academic advisers, Medearis said, and many of the existing counselors aren't well versed on other campus’ graduation requirements.

Schimming said no one ever told him he needed transfer advice. Larson said she skipped advising because waiting two weeks for an appointment with staff she didn't find very helpful seemed like a "waste" of time.

Despite the need for more advisers, college advisers couldn't handle all the requests if students did seek all the advising they needed, said Milne, the MnSCU associate vice chancellor.

Increasing staff to the necessary levels would require tens of millions of dollars, she said.

Nassirian of the American college association said public systems around the country face the same transfer problems.

But solutions have been hard to come by.

Ohio, California, Florida have taken steps to solve the problem – such as through a common course-numbering system. But each attempt has had its own drawbacks, Nassirian said.

Because colleges lack data on how courses at different institutions compare, there are no real national benchmarks to measure how well a college is doing with transfers, he said.

Milne concedes that MnSCU needs to improve how it advises and communicates with students. The advising crunch has prompted the system to beef up its offering of online course-planning tools and look for ways to use its advisers more efficiently.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, has worked with Medearis' association on bill to make it easier for students to transfer courses.

It requires MnSCU to work out a way for its two-year college students to receive full credit for their associate's degrees when they transfer to MnSCU universities that offer bachelor’s degrees in those subjects.

Milne called the proposal "workable." But with so many degrees and campuses involved, she said, it would take years to carry it out.

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