An Interview with Dr. Alexandra W. Logue

Reposted from the blog of Ithaka S+R by permission.

Expanding Pathways to College Enrollment and Degree Attainment

James Dean Ward

Dr. Alexandra W. Logue is a Research Professor in CASE (the Center for Advanced Study in Education) of the Graduate Center of The City University of New York (CUNY), with particular responsibility for research and scholarship concerning college student success. Dr. Logue is a leading expert on remediation and transfer, and her most recent book, Pathways to Reform: Credits and Conflict at The City University of New York (Princeton University Press), is a case study regarding the difficulty of making change in higher education. She is also a member of the ITHAKA Board of Trustees. Ithaka S+R graciously thanks Dr. Logue for sharing her thoughts regarding using policy to create opportunities for the new majority of students.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. As noted in our accompanying policy brief, we define the “new majority” of students as those outside the traditional conceptualization of 18-22 year old students attending four-year residential colleges on a full-time basis.

What role should policymakers play in advancing remediation and transfer reforms, two key issues for improving access and attainment of the new majority?

My opinion on this is shaped by seeing that anything that involves changes in what faculty teach is very difficult to happen from the bottom up even if there is a lot of evidence that changes should happen. I’m not talking about the style of teaching in the classroom, but more structural aspects of curriculum. For example, whether or not there should be standalone prerequisite remedial courses or if courses should transfer from one college to another, because both of these affect what courses faculty may teach. Many people think that anything that has to do with curriculum should be the province of faculty alone, and that changes should originate from them. But when you look across the country, you may see a couple colleges make large-scale changes that way, but most do not when the changes are bottom-up.

So I believe there should be some state intervention that isn’t totally based on bottom-up processes. Texas and California have been leaders in making such changes, particularly in terms of evidence-based remedial reform. In both those states there were well-intentioned people who tried the bottom-up approach without the changes being implemented for years, thus harming students. Now both states have intervened with legislation in order to ensure that the changes happen. This underscores the importance of policymakers for implementing change.

What obstacles may impede the implementation of reforms aimed at improving opportunities for the new majority of students?

Both faculty and administrators, although well intentioned, may impede reforms. Many faculty believe that whatever they are doing is the best for students, and any change would be worse. And we want faculty to believe that what they are doing is the best because when they believe that, they will be more successful teachers. But then when there is evidence that is in conflict with these faculty’s beliefs, their beliefs can make change difficult. Moreover, these types of changes may be against faculty’s self-interest because these changes can impact the faculty’s workload and environment.

On the other hand, administrators should be actively trying to improve opportunities for students, and it is their responsibility to remain up to date on current research and innovative practices. However, administrators who do not understand or communicate the evidence undercut the institution’s ability to work with faculty on changing course structures. Additionally, administrators may be incentivized not to push faculty toward reform. If an administrator develops a reputation of having trouble working with faculty it may impact their future professional opportunities.

Policymakers are in a unique position to bypass these obstacles. By legislatures mandating reforms, cover can be given to administrators trying to avoid conflict with faculty, and at the same time faculty change can be accelerated. The actual implementation should certainly rely on faculty’s disciplinary expertise and administrators’ ability to facilitate institutional change. However, policy mandates can be the catalysts for change.  In addition, it should be stressed that legislative action should not be undertaken lightly. Ideally, higher education is in the best position, with the most relevant knowledge, to manage its own business.  However, when evidence-based change is happening slowly, so that students are being harmed, it can be time for the legislature (or a university system central office) to step in—carefully.  Legislators should recognize that they need to work closely with higher education faculty and administrators in order to craft effective, productive, higher education legislation.

How can state policymakers engage both faculty and administrators to develop better policies around these issues?

This will be context specific and depend on what types of changes are being made and the history surrounding them. Hopefully, policymakers can find a group of informed faculty so that together they can co-develop policies that make sense. Staff members can also aid in this process. For example, with transfer, staff can be helpful in writing policies that reflect the logistical aspects of transfer. Ideally, you want to have good evidence that is presented to everyone so people have the opportunity to have a common understanding.  Administrators don’t necessarily know what’s happening within the classroom, and faculty don’t necessarily know the logistical issues associated with events outside of their departments, such as transfer. You want to build a coalition that involves varied perspectives and thus write a strong policy.

What strategies should states take for ensuring their policies are addressing the evolving needs of their residents?

Policymakers should be keeping up with the research. However, that is easy to say but sometimes difficult in practice. Policy briefs from independent researchers, such as Ithaka S+R, are good sources for policymakers to obtain summaries of important topics. Campus members certainly have an intimate knowledge of what is happening at a particular college, but also may have incentives to describe the status quo as more positive than it truly is. State leaders therefore need to rely on strong data, but the availability of such data will depend on how the state is organized and if it has a strong data system.

How should policymakers balance the need for speed with the need for evidence?

I’m an advocate for co-requisite remediation in math.  There is now a great deal of evidence supporting the increase in student success that accompanies corequisite, as opposed to traditional, prerequisite, remedial math. We’ve seen time and again that, in a college that isn’t offering co-requisite remediation, the faculty may say they want to do a pilot course before offering corequisite remediation at scale. But small-scale pilots may not work because students may not take an optional course and advisors may not want to put a student in a pilot program and have that student be what the advisors conceive of as a guinea pig. This can delay reforms. If pilot programs can be done quickly and effectively, they are helpful. Pilots can be good for building evidence, but once we know what works well, pilot programs may just delay full-scale reform. By ensuring they are up to date on current research, policymakers can balance the need for pilot testing and action. For example, despite many years of effort, in California there was substantial co-requisite remediation at only a handful of community colleges. Based on the substantial evidence on corequisite remediation, the legislature therefore moved to make co-requisite remediation essentially universal via AB 705. Not waiting for pilots deemed successful at each individual college or department allowed the state to avoid wasting years and thus harming large numbers of students by placing them in traditional remediation.

Are there any particular policies that are important for closing equity gaps?

Both remediation and transfer must be addressed. Students from underrepresented groups and poor families are more likely to go to community colleges and enroll in associate-, as opposed to bachelor’s-degree programs, than are other students. Differences in the quality of K-12 preparation for students from different groups, as well as social and economic factors, are largely responsible for these differential attendance rates. The problem is, at community colleges students are more likely to be assigned to traditional remediation. Given that these courses have lower success rates, students are less likely to complete these courses and eventually graduate. We also know that most of the students want bachelor’s degrees, but the issues associated with transfer can be a roadblock and make it more difficult to obtain a bachelor’s degree. What this means is that challenges associated with remediation and transfer essentially discriminate against historically underserved students, and unless we fix these problems, we are complicit in that discrimination.

Are there any states that are exemplars for using policies to tackle these issues?

I have a lot of admiration for California’s policies concerning remediation. There are three systems: the University of California (UC), the California State University (CSU), and the California Community Colleges (CCC) systems. Remediation is not a significant issue in the UC system, but steps have been taken to address remediation in the CSU and CCC systems. In the case of the CCC, the state legislature passed AB 705 to essentially mandate co-requisite remediation. At CSU, the Chancellor issued an executive order essentially banning standalone pre-requisite remedial courses. The initial results from these changes appear to be showing significant success.

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