Maine college transfers are not as easy as two plus two

For years, it’s been billed as one great way to get a higher education in Maine: spend two years at a community college and seamlessly transfer to a University of Maine campus for the final two years.

Save money. Save effort. Earn two degrees; first an associate’s and then a bachelor’s.

Except, it turns out, that highly touted transfer from community college to university isn’t always so easy. Isn’t nearly so seamless. Isn’t a guaranteed two-plus-two.  

“They could end up paying cheap tuition, but it could be wasted tuition if it doesn’t transfer,” said Christy Hammer, associate dean of academic affairs at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College.

Community college and university officials now acknowledge that in too many cases, students buying into the “two-plus-two” idea have ended up paying for classes they never anticipated having to take. Some spent more time in school and delayed graduation because the university system would accept only a limited number of their community college credits or accepted some only as elective courses — or didn’t accept them at all.

Both community college and university officials say they’re working to
fix the problem by advising students earlier, by improving
communication and cooperation between schools and by no longer
promoting transfer as a seamless two-plus-two.

But a University of Maine System task force last week reported that
transfer remains a “tangled web” for students. It wants the schools to do more to fix the problem.


Save money — when it works

Maine’s technical colleges became community colleges in 2003. The colleges started offering a greater number of academic courses, keeping tuition low and student support high. The goal: get more Mainers taking their first steps into higher education.

It worked. Degree-seeking enrollment jumped from 7,500 in 2002 to 12,200 in the fall of 2008.

At the same time, community colleges and the University of Maine System began working more closely to move two-year graduates into four-year degree programs. They started promoting the partnership as “two-plus-two.” New articulation agreements — written pacts to accept transferred courses program-to-program — were swiftly added, and by 2009 numbered more than 100.

Community college officials liked the partnership because it increased enrollment and offered a good way for community college graduates to continue their education. University officials liked it because they got students who might not have otherwise enrolled if they hadn’t started at the more comfortable community college level first. Students liked it because they could save money by doing two years at the less-expensive community colleges.

A lot of money, it turned out, when two-plus-two worked.

This coming school year, community college tuition and fees will average $3,300 for the year. In contrast, the cheapest campus in the University of Maine System, the University of Maine at Presque Isle, will cost twice as much at $6,700. The most expensive campus, the University of Maine in Orono, will cost $9,600, nearly three times a community college education.

But there’s fine print with two-plus-two. And not everyone knows it.

Full-time students generally earn 60 credits in two years at a
community college. They transfer those credits and earn another 60 at a
university — for a total of 120 credits — to graduate with a bachelor’s
degree. But some students believe that if transferring 60 credits — two years’ worth — is good, then more — say, three years’ worth — will be even better.

It’s not.

In general, universities typically don’t like to accept more than 60 credits in transfer. If they’re going to give students a degree, they want those students to have spent at least half their time at their school.

Hammer, who is also associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at Lewiston-Auburn College, sees a handful of students every year who want to transfer far more than 60 community college credits. Some have up to 90 credits, a full year’s worth of extra courses.

“It kills us,” Hammer said. “We try to make it work. We do what we can.”

University officials say they count as many credits as possible, whether toward major courses or electives. But the remaining credits may be useless.

Student Lana Whittemore believes her overabundance of credits have been accepted and will count toward something. She just doesn’t yet know what.

Whittemore graduated from Central Maine Community College in Auburn with two degrees, one in general studies and one in human services, to match her career goals. Drawn by the schools’ articulation agreements and encouraged by a favorite CMCC professor, Whittemore enrolled in Lewiston-Auburn College’s social and behavioral sciences program last year. She brought her CMCC credits with her.

All 84 of them.

Lewiston-Auburn College accepted all credits, she said, but it hasn’t yet decided exactly which courses those credits will count toward. So Whittemore, who started college when she was 16, is having difficulty choosing her next classes. She doesn’t want to waste both time and money by taking a university class that her CMCC credits will ultimately cover. But she also doesn’t want to risk missing graduation by ignoring a class that she needs.

Even after two semesters at the university, the situation still isn’t resolved.

Whittemore said she likes both CMCC and USM and she didn’t walk into Lewiston-Auburn College thinking transfer would be particularly easy. But she also didn’t expect some of the advising problems and other issues she’s encountered.

“At CM, it’s a little bit different. Things were very clear. We had checklists of all the things we needed to graduate,” she said. “You really had a clear idea of what you’d done and what you’d needed. I’m not seeing instruments like that as much at USM.”

CC courses not accepted here

Officials at the USM’s business school encounter students with another transfer problem: community college courses that sound like they’re equivalent to university courses but aren’t.

Intermediate accounting, for example, doesn’t replace intermediate accounting.

“If their version doesn’t match up with our version, then the student may be frustrated and find that that course has to count as an elective or they might have to take it over,” said Jim Shaffer, dean of the school of business. “So there are some situations where a student will have to end up taking more than 120 hours of instruction to get the baccalaureate degree.”

The reason? The university’s course is considered more advanced, and the business school’s accrediting agency won’t let it replace a higher-level university course with a lower-level community college one.

“They have to turn it up a notch if they come here,” said John Voyer, associate dean of the business school.

Business isn’t the only program with such issues. At USM alone — the most popular campus for community college transfers — social work, computer science and electrical engineering programs all have similar issues. Some community college credits may transfer, but only as electives and only until the elective requirement is fulfilled.

Students can appeal if community college course credits are denied for transfer. Generally, they need to submit the course’s syllabus for review.

“Again, that kind of depends on the major,” said Heidi Noyce, who handles transfer affairs for USM. “They don’t always get the credit that they’re hoping for.”

Depending on which community college they’re coming from and how good
their advising has been, some students don’t know their courses won’t count when they get to the university. Others get an inkling from fellow students who have been through it.

Belinda Dubois graduated from CMCC with a degree in early childhood education and then transferred to USM’s social and behavioral sciences program. She felt her transition was easy, even through some of her courses didn’t transfer. She hadn’t been surprised. Although the systems touted two-plus-two, she didn’t expect it to work that way.

“I had heard from other students that didn’t really happen,” she said.

Fixing the problem

There’s no way to know exactly how many students have encountered transfer trouble. Some complain, but only to their professor or adviser or the university worker who’s just told them their credits won’t count. Others don’t complain at all.

But both community college and university leaders acknowledge there have been problems. And say they’re trying to fix them.

“I can assure you, on the community college end we welcome the
opportunity to address it and make it work,” said John Fitzsimmons, president of the Maine Community College System. “We stand absolutely in
complete support of students going on for their baccalaureate degree. We hope more and more do.”

The community college system hired additional student support people, and
its advisers have started telling students to be careful what classes they
take — and how many they take — if they’re planning to
transfer. Some university campuses have started regularly sending their advisers to local community colleges to help students plan for their university careers long before they enroll. And some community college and university professors in complementary programs have started working together to help students prepare for a transfer.

“What we need to do is go beyond the articulation agreements,” said USM president Selma Botman.

But as the schools try to improve transfers, they’re also trying to lower expectations of the once-“seamless” transfer process. Gone is the exaltation of two-plus-two.

“Now we’re trying to talk about 60-plus-60 (credits),” Hammer said.

At least one leftover two-plus-two promotion — located on the a University of Maine System Web page — now contains an asterisk and a footnote: “These 2+2 transfers are possible with careful advising and specific attention to selecting courses appropriate for transfer to USM’s core curriculum and/or major requirements.”

“Careful advising” is in bold print.

Still, a University of Maine System task force this week told the University of Maine chancellor and board of trustees that transfer is still a “tangled web” for students, despite decades of discussions and promises. “Success in the next program cannot be guaranteed, but acceptance of the prior credits ought to be,” the report stated.

By including it in the report, the task force recognized that student transfer is an important issue for the immediate future of the university system. It urged prompt changes, including:

• Guarantee transfers for community college graduates to all University of Maine campuses.

• Initiate a statewide campaign to inform students about all the transfer resources available to them.

• Enhance the services provided by student advisers and other transfer personnel.

• Create a Web-based guide for students planning their academic program.

Students echo those recommendations.

“I think it would be good to iron out expectations,” Whittemore said.

Lana Whittemore transferred from Central Maine Community College to the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College with two associate degrees. Whittemore, who is seven months pregnant, is working on a bachelor’s degree in social and behavioral sciences.

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