STARS shouldn’t fall in AlabamaPublished 1:04am Saturday, December 7, 2013
By Dr. Mark Heinrich and Dr. John Schmidt
Nearly 20 years ago, a team of Alabama legislators, university officials and two-year college leaders collaborated to form a star in the academic arena. This program, called STARS for Statewide Transfer and Articulation Reporting System, is largely taken for granted, despite having saved Alabama college students nearly $1 billion. Today, it is under-funded and in peril of collapsing.
If STARS fails, students in Alabama will no longer be assured they will receive credit for classes they take prior to transferring, or they may have to duplicate unneeded classes, despite considerable expense. To remain healthy, STARS requires an infusion of legislative financial support and a renewed spirit of commitment by the team who created a program that has become a model for other states.
Before STARS, two-year college students in Alabama who wanted a university degree navigated in a virtual minefield of costly duplication and academic inefficiency. For example, standard English, math and biology courses taught at the two-year level were not accepted by most universities, resulting in students having to pay for costly credit hours to retake courses. If we suffer a repeat of this due to the collapse of STARS, the cost to Alabama college students will be steep.
The STARS program was created in 1994 to facilitate credit transferability among all state two-year colleges and universities. To ensure academic quality and validate future course transfers, legislators also created a 10-member policy committee of two- and four-year college representatives called the Alabama Articulation and General Studies Committee, or AGSC. Finally, an 8-10 member full-time staff was established with a $1.2 million start-up fund to manage daily functions. Due to its earlier partnership with the community college system, Troy University was selected to host the AGSC/STARS operation and assist in its development and coordination.
So what has the STARS program meant to students and the state?
For starters, over 20 years, the $1.2 million initial investment has resulted in savings to Alabama taxpayers of almost $1 billion in tuition, books, and room and board. Transfer guides, enabling two-year college students to avoid duplication of unneeded courses, have numbered over 1 million copies. Further, the Alabama STARS program has become the model for states such as Texas, Michigan, Kentucky and Mississippi.
However, trouble looms for the program. STARS is now struggling with new demands, changing technology and, in particular, a lack of adequate funding. The STARS staff consists of two full-time employees, down from the initial 10. Funding is $125,000 less than the optimal budget of $500,000, the state appropriation in 2007-2008. In the following years (2008-2009 and 2009-2010), STARS eclipsed all-time annual usage records, providing transfer guides for more than 175,000 students. Staffing during these years consisted of four full-time and two part-time staff members.
As leaders responsible for the sustained success of STARS, we urge a renewed legislative focus and funding for this program. STARS simply cannot continue at current funding levels. It’s critical that lawmakers work with educators to return STARS to its stature as a model of higher education efficiency in Alabama and beyond.
Dr. John Schmidt is senior vice chancellor of Troy University and past chair of the STARS program.
Dr. Mark Heinrich is chancellor of the Alabama Community College System and chair of the STARS program.