I realize that yesterday’s post about the role of ecosystems in realizing Paul LeBlanc’s vision for CBE is a bit abstract. Luckily, Providence provides. Today’s Inside Higher Ed brings us an article entitled “What Faculty Know (and Don’t Know) About Transfer—and Why It Matters” by Vita Rabinowitz, Yoshiko Oka, and Alexandra W. Logue of CUNY’s Transfer Opportunity Project (TOP). I mentioned transfer as a potential area where competencies could plausibly become the survival measure that drives evolution. I also made a point of calling out the role of faculty in traditional universities as critical actors in the ecosystem. This article brings these two points together.
The invisibility of the transfer problem
Let’s start with the very basics of understanding the problem with this beautifully written passage by the authors:
“To the best of your knowledge, about what percentage of the graduates of your primary college every year are vertical transfer students?” bachelor’s program faculty answered “don’t know” 70 percent of the time, and they were twice as likely to give the wrong answer than the right one: that more than 50 percent of those graduates are vertical transfer students. If bachelor’s program faculty have no idea that many and often most of their students—including their majors—started their college careers elsewhere, then they may make faulty assumptions about vertical transfer students’ prior learning and level of preparedness. They may also be less likely to recognize the challenges that many of their transfer students face in getting good advice about course taking, securing the right academic supports and finding community and a sense of belonging.
At bachelor’s-granting institutions at CUNY and across the nation, there has historically been a particular focus on first-time, full-time freshmen that has rendered transfer students nearly invisible. That makes it very difficult for anyone—faculty or even administrators—to have good information about transfer students. One of us was already provost of CUNY’s Hunter College for several months before realizing that fully two-thirds of the graduates she would celebrate at Hunter’s commencement were transfer students.What Faculty Know (and Don’t Know) About Transfer—and Why It Matters
My own daughter transferred to Berkeley after getting an associate’s degree at a community college. I doubt most of her professors knew. She was older and more mature than a typical straight-from-high-school student. She got good grades and performed well. The point the authors are making is that students like her don’t always thrive. They have different needs and challenges than straight-from-high-school students. The challenges of these students are invisible because they themselves are invisible. They are not known as transfer students. Academics, by and large, do not know how prevalent these students are and therefore how differently the professionals need to think about supporting such a substantial percentage of the students in their care.
Separately, the authors write,
…[F]aculty were asked to agree or disagree with the statement “Students who transfer after having received an associate’s degree have more of their credits transferred to bachelor’s degree programs than students who transfer without an associate’s degree.” The correct answer is “disagree.” Only 6 percent of associate program faculty and 5 percent of bachelor’s program faculty answered this item correctly; 42 percent of the associate program faculty and 24 percent of the bachelor’s program faculty answered incorrectly. Fully 50 percent of associate program faculty and 70 percent of the bachelor’s program faculty answered “don’t know.” Moreover, only 7 percent of all faculty who reported ever having had formal roles gave the correct answer to this item, compared with 5 percent of faculty who reported never having had such roles. [Emphasis added.]What Faculty Know (and Don’t Know) About Transfer—and Why It Matters
This point and the previous one are related. Faculty are largely ignorant both of how many transfer students they have and of how credit transfer problems impact them. Who decides what is transfer-worthy?
Faculty (usually) decide
In a separate Inside Higher Ed piece, “Who Decides on Transfer Credit?“, reporter David Moltz writes about the 2011 controversy at the CUNY system when the administration tried to establish rules about credits transferring from two-year to four-year CUNY schools. The proposal deeply divided the faculty. The opposition was clearly and vehemently articulated by the chair of the system-wide University Faculty Senate:
Sandi E. Cooper, chair of the system-wide University Faculty Senate and a history professor at the College of Staten Island, said she believes the broad changes being proposed by CUNY’s central administration are a “transparent attempt to ensure faster graduation” and that while “citing student complaints about the problems of transfer,” it is “proposing a cure that threatens the entire validity of the four-year degree.”
The administration has proposed a general education model in which all two- and four-year institutions would hold 36 credits — with courses distributed across disciplines — in common; then, each college would be able to designate up to six additional credits for the general education requirement that are specific to its institution. Cooper argues that asking colleges to trim their general education requirements, some of which currently consist of more than 42 credits, “dilutes quality” and the “rich range” of disciplines students may encounter in their higher education.
“An administration which pays for ads on the sides of buses, for billboards and for all manner of commercials demonstrating its commitment to quality, is now asking its baccalaureate institutions to bend to the limited educational attainments of transfer students who may have barely touched the menu of course work,” Cooper wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. “What should be eliminated? Languages? Lab science? History? Courses that are too tough — math?”Who Decides on Transfer Credit?
At many universities, faculty decide what transfers. And those faculty—including the ones who have direct roles in deciding which credits transfer—are staggeringly ignorant of the concrete impact on students.
In Students First, Paul LeBlanc writes,
As Michael Horn and Richard Price wrote in a recent essay, transfer students typically lose 43 percent of the credits they bring with them. That is, the new institution refuses to accept those credits, and studnets lose ground while paying more for their degrees. Transfer students in California pay on average “an extra $36,000 for their bachelor’s degrees, if they can get them at all,” Horn and Price noted.Students First
So faculty are making decisions that cost transfer students, which are often students of modest financial means, an average of an extra $36,000. Not because they don’t care. Sandi Cooper is clearly a passionate advocate for quality education. She cares about her students. But according to the CUNY TOP study, over 90% of CUNY faculty who are involved with making transfer decisions don’t know how dramatic an impact their decisions may have on college affordability for these students. Moreover, while they care, they are not responsible. Cooper clearly feels that it is her job, her personal responsibility, to ensure that students receive a quality education. While she likely cares about affordability, nothing in her statement indicates that she feels it is her personal responsibility to be a guardian of affordability.
This is not a failure of Sandi Cooper. It is a failure of the ecosystem. Professors in general are overwhelmingly ignorant of transfer and its impact on affordability because it is not part of their professional identity to be guardians of affordability. It is not in their professional genome (or meme-ome, if you want to be cute). And it’s not there because nothing in their ecosystem encourages them to feel responsible or empowers them with knowledge, data, and tools to meet obligations to quality, affordability, and viable paths to student success.
Competencies as an answer
As Paul points out in Students First, competencies are a potential answer to this conundrum:
Universities do not trust competencies[….] When students seek to transfer from one institution to another, they provide their new institution with a transcript. But because learning, teaching, and rigor are so variable; grades so untrustworthy; and perceived institutional quality so uneven, universities are often reluctant to grant full credit for learning the students have done at other institutions. For the 37 percent of students who transfer between colleges at least once, this failure to fully count credit hours adds considerable cost the compleition of a degree, often for those who can ill afford it.Students First
He suggests that competencies are a better framework for establishing a trust framework. He reminds us,
These are the two fundamental questions at the heart of a competency-based education:
• What claims do you make for your students interms of what they will know and be able to do upon graduation?Students First
• How do you know?
If the answers to these questions are rigorously defined, which Paul takes great pains to explain are no easy tasks, then one of the many benefits is that transfer credits become simpler, more objective, and more predictable for students. If we agree on the competencies and assessments, then a student passing the agreed-upon assessment should receive credit. Little discussion or judgment should be required.
Cultivating the ecosystem
This approach is not entirely without precedent at scale. For example, the state of Texas has a patchwork of initiatives that move in this direction. They have a core curriculum, an accompanying set of competencies, and a common course numbering system. These pieces together seem to increase the likelihood of credit transfer. (If anybody knows of studies on the impact of these efforts on credit transfer, please point me to them.) Texas even has an “automated transfer equivalency system,” which is a step in the direction that Paul advocates for when he talks about interoperability standards in the context of an ecosystem.
A step in the direction, but not all the way there. The “automated transfer equivalency system” is a database where students can look up which courses will transfer to which schools. In the world that Paul envisions, such a database would not be needed because competencies would be well-defined and would transfer automatically. The problem for students would largely go away.
A provost in a two-year Texas college who happens to be a friend shared bits of information about how the system works in the course of a conversation on another topic. He gave the state credit for establishing these initiatives while pointing out that the competencies were “not great,” by which I believe he meant they were not rigorous in the sense that Paul is advocating for. They did seem to establish incentives for college administrators, department heads, and individual educators to feel personally responsible for weaving those competencies into course designs and assessments. And as Paul argues in the book, the faculty seemed to have room to be creative in how they fulfilled these competencies.
It seems to me that credit transfer is an effective pressure point for establishing a working ecosystem. First, everybody can understand the impact of adding $36,000 to the cost of an education that comes from forcing students to retake courses they have already taken. Second, by tying transfer to the definition and assessment of student learning in specific courses, then the course designers—whether they are individual educators, department committees, or curriculum development teams—will feel personally responsible for thinking about quality in a way that directly impacts affordability. And in doing so, the natural imperative among these champions of educational quality will be to advocate for rigor in competency definition and testing. This drive will be balanced by the need to arrive at the consensus required to achieve the goal of easy and transparent credit transferability. So cultivating a productive ecosystem will require facilitating conversation and a decision-making process among the stakeholders that will enable them to arrive at an initial iteration and improve it over time.
Once the drive that shapes natural selection and the pathways by which evolution can take place have been established, the ecosystem will grow. For example, the development of interoperability standards will be a natural outgrowth of a working system in which competency credits are being transferred at scale. Trying to create one in its absence will likely fail to achieve its goals. But putting one in place after the evolutionary imperatives have been established will both make the task of defining practical, working technical interoperability vastly easier and act as an accelerant for the evolutionary forces that are already in place.
Evolution happens over time
This change, as hard as it would be, would still only meet one of the two criteria for CBE. It doesn’t eliminate seat time. But once the ecosystem is driven by competencies, the blockers for eliminating seat time increasingly become about practical barriers rather than battles over principle. These challenges are still daunting. Outdated laws would have to be changed. Administrative systems and faculty professional responsibilities would have to be rethought and embraced.
Nor are deeper considerations eliminated. For example, I worry about maintaining the evidence-supported practices of peer learning and broader network building in a self-paced environment. I also worry that, for a variety of reasons, the pace of evolution toward instructional quality does not seem as rapid as it has been in assessment and advising in some of the CBE-focused institutions I have observed. These may be solvable problems but there is still work to be done. We need time and space to experiment at scale, work out the kinks, and figure out the tradeoffs.
The more important point in this post, though, is that if one wants to drive large-scale educational reform of any kind, the key will be ecosystem thinking.