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Ask Questions Before You Agree to Agree

Forging articulation agreements takes some doing. Here’s some advice for keeping transfers on track.

By Margo Vanover Porter

Putting an articulation agreement in place requires patience, practical understanding, and perseverance, says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director, external relations, American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, Washington, D.C. “Articulation agreements are extremely difficult to negotiate and sometimes resemble a house of cards,” he says. “The moment you are done negotiating, somebody somewhere changes something and the whole thing begins to collapse. But when agreements are operational, they allow for a seamless process of transfer.” (For more on effective agreements, read “Matriculating Mix and Match” in the September 2010 issue of Business Officer.)

If you are thinking about setting up articulation agreements, you should first weigh your answers to eight questions, say several experts in the field.

1. How many students are involved? “From an institutional point of view, it really becomes a matter of volume,” Nassirian says. He gives the example of an Ivy League institution that last year admitted a total of 16 transfer students. “It's not worth negotiating an articulation agreement for 16 separate students. You need to have an existing feeder-recipient arrangement for it to make sense.”

2. Is your institution committed? Be aware that the costs are front-loaded, but the benefits are back-loaded, Nassirian advises. “Articulation agreements pay off if you can maintain them long enough for sufficient students to go through,” he says. “That's usually the Achilles heel. What might happen is that two institutions carefully negotiate an agreement and—for a nanosecond—there is perfect harmony. Then somebody at the sending or receiving institution decides to change some component of academic policy for perfectly legitimate reasons, and the harmony becomes discord.”

3. Are you familiar with the available electronic tools? “With the advent of software, it's no longer necessary for students to make an appointment with their adviser just to find out the basic facts, such as which math course to take,” Nassirian says. “They can go on these software sites and type in the course number from your institution, and they will see what it maps to at multiple receiving institutions, based on articulation agreements that are in place. The advent of software and technology are helpful because they enable the students themselves to do what-if scenarios and find out as much as they can on their own.”

For example, Jess D. Ray, university registrar, Illinois State University, Normal, finds U.select to be a helpful tool for students who want to create what-if scenarios, such as, “If I get admitted into nursing, what courses will I have left?” or “If I opt for health management, how will that change the mix?”

4. Will students benefit? “That may seem obvious,” says Lee Furbeck, senior associate director, targeted recruitment, University of Kansas, Lawrence. “Of course, it would be beneficial to students. Why else would we be doing it? But I have seen instances at other institutions where an articulation agreement is announced with a big publicity splash and presidents shaking hands, but there are no students in that program and no students interested in that program.”

Her advice: Don't waste your time if it's just for show.

5. Will sending and receiving institutions develop the plan together? “Curricula alignment is important,” Furbeck says. “We want to make sure the courses the student is taking at the sending institution have the same core content as those being covered in the curriculum. We want to make sure they can be successful. What we don't want to happen is for the student to get here after completing prerequisites and fail because the stated content wasn't what was covered.”

6. Will you offer additional perks? For example, Furbeck says, you may decide it makes more sense to sponsor a degree partnership in which the student is dually admitted to both institutions. “Will you have academic advisers working with the student at the sending institution?” she asks. “Will they be able to view information from the receiving institution as far as grades and degree audit? If so, there are privacy issues that need to be worked out.”

Furbeck explains that some agreements allow a student taking classes at the two-year institution to live in the residence hall at the four-year institution and attend its athletic events at student rates. Before making any promises, she recommends that you ensure the two student information systems are set up to share information. “That can be a major hurdle.”

7. Is the language clear? “If you get too complex, the agreement can get bogged down in the state system,” says Mark Allen Poisel, associate vice president for student development and enrollment services, University of Central Florida (UCF), Orlando. “We're talking about institutional and state bureaucracies. Keep it simple. You have to be able to explain the agreement terms to students and advisers. It has to be something they can execute. If you make it so complicated that students don't understand it or advisers can't explain it, it's not worthwhile.”

At UCF, the agreements clearly communicate what the institution is trying to achieve, what each institution is required to do, and what actions students are required to take. “An articulation agreement is really writing a pathway of success for a student—how the students goes from point A to point B,” Poisel says.“It's not just a goodwill detail.”

8. How will transfer students be treated? When negotiating with four-year institutions, Dorothy B. Plantz, director, transfer center, Howard Community College, Columbia, Maryland, asks up front for certain commitments. “We ask the institution to recognize the grade point average as we calculate it on the transcript,” she says. “We also require that students who transfer have the opportunity to register and to receive the services that native students receive. For example, many times students who transfer register later than their peers who are native students. Transfer students then struggle as they organize an appropriate schedule in order to reach their graduation goal.”

That shouldn't be the case, says Jess Ray. “You really want your native and transfer students to be on the same footing. You want to treat your transfer student fairly.”

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Virginia, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.