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.
Here is my brief (2.5-minute) podcast, produced by NPR’s The Academic Minute, on the student success advantages of corequisite as compared to traditional remediation, as illustrated by my research with Dan Douglas and Mari Watanabe-Rose: http://bit.ly/2L2h7QC
We have received a new three-year $550,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation to study the leaky pipeline from community college enrollment to bachelor’s degree receipt for students whose academic interests are in the humanities. More information about this grant can be found at https://bit.ly/2l7LGZ7
We are living in a time of substantial curricular reform at community colleges. Multiple approaches are being tested and used to try to increase what have traditionally been low course pass rates and low graduation rates. Nationally, the three-year community college graduation rate is only 38 percent, and the six-year graduation rate for bachelor’s degree students is only 67 percent. It can be confusing trying to distinguish between all of the curricular innovations taking place. This post discusses three such approaches—guided pathways, the Dana Center Mathematics Pathways (DCMP), and corequisite math remediation—including what they have in common and how they are mutually compatible. Guided pathways, DCMP, and corequisite math remediation take a complementary approach to clearing the obstacles to student success, and they can be used together to provide comprehensive reform that maximizes student success.
Three Curricular Reforms
In 2015, Thomas Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins of the Community College Research Center, published Redesigning America’s Community Colleges. This book heralded what is known as the guided pathways approach, which “starts with students’ end goals in mind and then rethinks and redesigns programs and support services to enable students to achieve these goals” (p. 16). The guided pathways approach contrasts with what the authors call the “cafeteria” approach, in which students are offered “an array of often-disconnected courses, programs, and support services that students are expected to navigate mostly on their own” (p. 3). Adoption of a guided pathways approach has been associated with increased student retention and graduation rates. For example, such an approach is at the heart of the curriculum of Guttman Community College, a college of the City University of New York (CUNY). At Guttman, first-year students’ courses are largely predetermined. Subsequently, students’ courses largely depend on their majors, which students declare during their first year. Guttman’s most recent three-year graduation rate is 46 percent, far higher than what is typical for community colleges.
Dana Center Mathematics Pathways
The goal of the DCMP approach, developed by the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, is to ensure that “all students benefit from well-designed math pathways that are aligned to their programs of study regardless of their placement level or type of institution of higher education.” Most colleges require that students take some sort of quantitative course or courses in order to graduate. In the DCMP approach, those courses focus on the type of math (whether it be remedial or college-level) most relevant to students’ field of study. For example, psychology majors take statistics, while physics majors take courses in the algebra–calculus sequence. In this way, the DCMP approach has goals that are similar to those of the guided pathways approach but focused on math courses instead of the entire curriculum. Further, the DCMP model is designed to “accelerate student progress toward completion” and “integrate student learning supports.” Initial examinations by CAPR show that the DCMP approach significantly increases course pass rates.
Finally, corequisite math remediation is a method of structuring courses in which students who have been assessed as lacking some of the math skills they need for college-level work are placed into a college-level class but with extra support. That extra support is carefully designed to help students acquire and use the skills that they need to succeed in the associated college-level course. This has been described as “just-in-time” academic support.
Commonalities Among These Three Approaches
In all three cases—guided pathways, DCMP, and corequisite math remediation—first a student’s academic goal is determined (to graduate, to learn a certain area of quantitative knowledge, or to pass a particular quantitative course), and then a student is provided with academic experiences and supports designed to lead a student directly to that goal. Given these commonalities, it is no surprise that corequisite math remediation is sometimes a part of guided pathways and of DCMP reforms. However, these three reforms differ in terms of the sampling unit of a student’s experience—the student’s whole curriculum, the student’s overall math curriculum, or a single math course taken by the student.
A specific example illustrating how these three approaches can overlap is the randomized controlled trial of corequisite remediation that I conducted with my colleagues Mari Watanabe-Rose and Dan Douglas. The students in this experiment had all been assessed as needing math remediation, and none needed college algebra for their intended majors. These students were randomly assigned to a traditional, remedial, prerequisite course (elementary algebra) or to college-level introductory statistics with additional support (corequisite remediation). Thus, the two treatments differed not only in the absence or presence of corequisite math remediation but also in whether the quantitative course was aligned with students’ academic goals (similar to DCMP). The pass rate for the statistics course was 56 percent, compared with 39 percent for the remedial course, and three years later the graduation rate for the students randomly assigned to statistics was 8 percentage points higher than that of the students randomly assigned to elementary algebra.
Another example of how the three approaches can be applied is PRIME (Project for Relevant and Improved Mathematics Education), a project funded by the Teagle Foundation and involving four community colleges at CUNY. PRIME’s goal is to streamline and align students’ quantitative curricula from remedial courses through introductory college-level courses that require quantitative skills, including natural and social science courses. One participating institution, Hostos Community College, recently developed a corequisite statistics course that adds extra support (including algebra topics as needed) to a traditional introductory college-level statistics course. This course is being offered to those students who have been assessed as needing that extra support. As a next step, Hostos is going to combine this corequisite statistics course with an introductory college-level psychology course, providing students with even more opportunities to connect the material in the different courses and to make significant progress toward their degrees. For students who have been assessed as needing math remediation and whose majors require both introductory statistics and psychology, such a course combination exemplifies elements of corequisite remediation, DCMP, and guided pathways.
How These Reforms Promote Student Success
There are many reasons why these three approaches can enhance student success. First, evidence suggests that students work harder and are more motivated to learn material when the material is aligned with their other interests. For example, in our randomized controlled trial of corequisite math remediation, the statistics students were more likely to form their own study groups and to attend extra workshops.
Another reason that these approaches can enhance student success is that, similar to other animals, humans prefer more immediate rewards. Therefore, anything that makes the reward of graduation seem closer to students will make graduation worth more to them, and will result in students being more likely to choose to engage in actions to obtain that reward instead of choosing to do something else for a different reward (such as taking a time-consuming job for money). A clear path to graduation, with every course taking you one step nearer, makes the reward of graduation seem closer.
Guided pathways, DCMP, and corequisite remediation all (1) work backward from students’ goals in order to structure academic experiences so that they move students most efficiently toward those goals and (2) take advantage of the increased motivation that can occur when academic activities are aligned with academic interests and when students progress clearly and steadily toward the goal line. These three approaches are mutually compatible and applicable, have significant evidence supporting them, and if applied together are highly likely to greatly enhance student success.
The American Council on Education has posted on its blog a piece regarding a panel (titled “Strengthening Transfer Pathways to Improve Student Success”) in which I participated along with John Fink of the Community College Research Center, Chris Mullin of Strong Start to Finish, and Jon Turk of ACE (the moderator) at the ACE 2018 conference.
Free tuition at all public institutions in a state sounds great. Such a message could encourage students to attend college who would otherwise think it unaffordable, and/or could help students to stay in college. However, given the particular policies associated with New York’s Excelsior Scholarship, what the future holds for Excelsior Scholarship recipients may not be all positive. Due to these potential negative consequences, New York State’s funds for this program could be better spent expanding existing services and programs that research has shown work well for low-income and first-generation students at New York’s public colleges.
Here are some examples of how Excelsior’s requirements could lead to harmful consequences for students:
Trying to save money, Student A starts college at a local public community college, living with Student A’s parents. After earning 60 credits in two years, taking five three-credit courses each semester, the number of credits needed to remain eligible for the Excelsior Scholarship, and after obtaining an associate’s degree, Student A transfers to the nearest public college with bachelor’s degrees. But that college will not take some of Student A’s community college credits (a common event; Logue, 2017), so Student A no longer has a continuous record of attaining 30 credits per year, and loses all future Excelsior eligibility.
Student B took and passed high school algebra, but on entering community college, similar to most such freshmen (Okimoto & Heck, 2015), Student B is told to take remedial math as one of five fall courses (a directive more common for students whose families have limited financial resources). However, even if Student B passes remedial math (most students don’t), that course won’t contribute any college-level credits to the 30 that the student has to earn per year in order to remain eligible for the Excelsior Scholarship. Now the only way that Student B can earn 30 credits during that first college year and thus have any future Excelsior eligibility is either to take an overload of courses in the spring (a total of six three-credit courses that semester), or to take at least one summer course. However, the scholarship doesn’t cover summer courses, so if Student B judges that taking six spring courses would be too difficult, Student B will have to pay for the summer tuition out of pocket, in addition to possibly having to cut back on summer employment.
After obtaining a public affairs bachelor’s degree at CUNY’s Baruch College, ex-Student C hears about an attractive, suitable job opening in a non-profit organization just across the Hudson River in Jersey City. Working at a non-profit doesn’t pay much, but the cost of living in Jersey City is significantly cheaper than in any of New York City’s five boroughs. However, if ex-Student C takes that job, and/or lives in Jersey City, Student C’s Excelsior Scholarship, which totaled $22,000 while Student C was in college, will turn into a loan that Student C has to pay back.
Student D gets off to a good start in college, earning 30 credits per year as the Excelsior Scholarship requires. However, as is the case for over 50% of students (Cox, Reason, Nix, & Gillman, 2016), Student D encounters a major life event that interferes with Student D’s academic progress. E.g., Student D or a close relative becomes seriously ill. Will exceptions be made in all such cases to the Excelsior eligibility rule of accumulating 30 credits per year?
Student E gets admitted to a selective private college, but because of the Excelsior Scholarship, which is only for New York public institutions, Student E decides to attend instead a SUNY college. In comparison with the selective private college, this SUNY college has lower graduation rates, limited sections of required courses, and fewer student support services, the college being a victim of continuously decreasing government financial support. However, the SUNY college’s tuition is only $6,670, and all of this college’s tuition will be covered by a combination of the Excelsior Scholarship (which is a maximum of $5,500 per year) and (as part of the Excelsior program) by the SUNY college itself. Many other students make the same choice, swelling the SUNY college’s enrollment. However, note that the SUNY college has to provide the difference between the Excelsior scholarship and the total tuition amount. Therefore the resulting college enrollment increase may make it more difficult for the institution to provide Student E with the access to good advisors and sections of courses that Student E needs to progress and graduate. As has been found in Massachusetts when that state instituted a scholarship only for public institutions, Student E will be less likely to graduate than had Student E attended the selective private college. At best, Student E will take longer to graduate, being forced to take fewer than 30 credits in some semesters, and thus will lose Excelsior Scholarship eligibility, as well as losing one or more semesters of opportunity to earn the higher salary that comes with a degree.
These five examples show how, through no fault of their own, Excelsior participants could easily lose eligibility and/or have to pay back their scholarships and/or not graduate due to credits not transferring, having to take a remedial course, taking the best job available, living as economically as possible, suffering a major negative life event such as illness, or being incentivized to attend a college with an environment not maximally conducive to graduation.
The examples above also show that, even if everything goes well and a student obtains and maintains Excelsior eligibility through four years of college and receives a bachelor’s degree, it is not accurate to describe the Excelsior Scholarship as “free” New York State public college. The Excelsior tuition scholarship (including the CUNY/SUNY-funded portion) does not cover student fees (which can be substantial), books, and other educationally-related expenses.
How else could the funds being devoted to the Excelsior Scholarship be used to directly assist students and promote their success? Following are just two examples.
One example would be to give more financial support to students at the lowest income levels in order to cover their books, fees, living expenses, and transportation to/from college, instead of just paying their tuition. At SUNY Albany, e.g., books and fees total approximately $4,000 per year. Living on campus costs about another $13,000 in room and board. Living off campus saves some of that cost, but results in transportation expenses. Not having to pay the $6,670 in-state SUNY tuition is very helpful, but the $6,670 is a minority of the total expense of attending college. The Petrie Foundation has provided funds for the emergency financial needs of CUNY students for many years and has thus enabled many CUNY students to stay in college rather than stopping out. Such funding could be provided on a preventive, rather than a reactive, basis.
Another possible way to better use the funds being devoted to the Excelsior Scholarship would be to scale existing programs that have already proven to be successful. For example, CUNY’s ASAP program has been shown to significantly increase retention rates, successful movement through developmental coursework, and degree completion rates.
There are multiple ways in which the Excelsior Scholarship constrains students’ behavior in unproductive ways, or fails to support students when factors outside of the students’ control interfere with their education. At the same time, there are alternative uses for the Excelsior funds that would address significant student needs and increase student success.
Cox, B. E., Reason, R. D., Nix, S., & Gillman, M. (2016). Life happens (outside of college): Non-college life-events and students’ likelihood of graduation. Research in Higher Education, 57, 823-844.
Logue (2017). Pathways to reform: Credits and conflict at The City University of New York. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Okimoto, H., & Heck, R. (2015). Examining the impact of redesigned developmental math courses in community colleges. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 39, 633-646.
After graduating from a good private high school in Brooklyn, New York, Ben first attended Berklee College of Music in Boston to study jazz guitar performance. However, soon after beginning college there, he left Berklee with a low GPA.
After working for a few years, Ben knew he wanted to obtain a bachelor’s degree, but his Berklee GPA wasn’t high enough for him to gain admission to a selective bachelor’s-degree college. Cost was also a consideration in his continuing his education.
Ben had heard from a friend who was attending Borough of Manhattan Community College of The City University of New York (BMCC of CUNY) that the classes there were good. BMCC is an open admissions institution. In addition, the cost of attending BMCC is relatively low, and the location was convenient for Ben (he worked in Manhattan and lived in Brooklyn). Therefore Ben decided to try a couple of (nonmatriculated) classes there. The courses went well, so the next semester he matriculated. He was interested in research psychology that could help to improve people’s lives, but BMCC did not have a psychology major, so he matriculated as a liberal arts major. BMCC provided Ben with a second chance at postsecondary education.
From the beginning of his time at BMCC, Ben was thinking about his transfer goal, and was worried about whether or not his credits would transfer. He was concerned that some colleges might not take his community college credits. He went to see a BMCC advisor about this. She pulled out a sheet showing which BMCC courses would transfer to which CUNY senior (bachelor’s-degree) colleges, and advised him to take courses on the sheet (e.g., social psychology) that would transfer for his intended bachelor’s degree in psychology. This was useful information, but it was limited information, was not personalized to Ben’s situation, and did not help him to think about all of the possibilities open to him. For more information, the advisor advised Ben to contact the colleges to which he was interested in applying, a time-consuming and potentially complex and frustrating task that Ben was not inclined to do.
From exposure to people with bachelor’s degrees, Ben knew that many people did not value associate-degree courses (such as are offered at BMCC) as much as bachelor’s-degree courses. Given his ultimate goal of a bachelor’s degree, Ben prioritized taking courses that he thought would transfer to a bachelor’s-degree program over courses that would obtain him the BMCC liberal arts associate’s degree. So, for example, he did not take a required speech course at BMCC, because he was worried it would not transfer.
Nevertheless, Ben enjoyed his BMCC classes and thought that the professors were good. His professor for a writing class, in which Ben was doing well, took him aside and asked “What are you doing here?” Ben told the professor that his goal was to transfer and receive a bachelor’s degree. The professor told him that some of his previous students had transferred to Columbia, and reminded Ben of BMCC’s motto (which is: “Start here. Go anywhere.”).
Ben was interested in transferring to Queens College of CUNY (where his parents attended college) or Stony Brook University (of the State University of New York). But, because of his professor’s advice, he also applied to Columbia University’s College of General Studies (GS, a division of Columbia for students who have had at least a one-year break in their college educations). He was accepted to Columbia’s GS and so decided to attend there. GS students have the same course requirements as students who begin at Columbia as freshmen.
A recent study by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that, on average, students lose 43% of their credits when they transfer. However, there is a great deal of variation. As described in my new book, around the time that Ben transferred from BMCC to GS, CUNY had just been through a contentious period establishing a set of policies (called Pathways) that would guarantee course credit transfer, including for general education and some major courses, among the 19 undergraduate colleges of CUNY. Until then, for example, some courses taken as general education (core) courses at one CUNY college would count only as electives at another CUNY college.
In contrast, when Ben transferred to GS at Columbia University, of the credits that he had accumulated at Berklee and BMCC, Columbia took the maximum that their policies allowed: 60 of the 124 required for receipt of a Columbia bachelor’s degree. In addition, many of these credits were taken by Columbia in fulfillment of its general education and psychology major requirements. So at the same time that students were having trouble transferring courses from one college to another within CUNY, which is a single university according to New York State Education Law, Ben had no difficulty transferring his credits from BMCC to Columbia, an apparent bolstering of the anecdotal evidence described in my new book that, prior to Pathways, it was easier to transfer outside of CUNY than within CUNY.
Unlike transfer students at many colleges, upon transferring to Columbia, Ben was required to attend orientation. He started at GS in the spring, and was in a cohort of a couple hundred new GS students, which he felt added significantly to his making a positive transition to Columbia. There were many other supports available to him at Columbia (e.g. tutoring).
While working expeditiously on obtaining his Columbia bachelor’s degree, Ben, with his interest in research psychology, looked at the Columbia website for good research opportunities. There he came across the Community College Research Center, which is based at Columbia’s Teachers College. CCRC particularly intrigued Ben because of his experience at BMCC. He reached out to CCRC and subsequently began working there part-time while still in college.
Now, after starting his postsecondary experience at Berklee College of Music and BMCC, Ben is the recipient of a Columbia University bachelor’s degree (for which he spent far less money than had he started there as a freshman). And he is working full-time for a nonprofit organization helping to conduct research on increasing postsecondary students’ success.
As Ben made his way along the path from first entry to college to college graduation, he received advice from the several institutions that he attended. However, he cannot imagine having navigated that path successfully if he had not had parents who were college graduates. Students who are the first in their families to attend college have even more challenges to overcome in reaching graduation than did Ben.
In summary, among other lessons, Ben’s experience shows that: (1) some students can make excellent use of a second chance in college, which can involve transferring to a different institution, (2) sometimes credits transfer more easily to more selective, private colleges than to less selective, public colleges (even ones within the same university system), and (3) advice and support can be critical to a student’s success, including a transfer student’s success.
The higher education community is fortunate that Ben made his way through the transfer student maze and is now contributing to the success of other college students through his research.
Change is notoriously difficult in any large organization, and institutions of higher education are no exception. From 2010 to 2013, AlexandraLogue, then chief academic officer of The City University of New York, led a controversial reform initiative known as Pathways. The program aimed to facilitate the transfer of credits among the university’s nineteen constituent colleges in order to improve graduation rates—a long-recognized problem for public universities such as CUNY. In Pathways to Reform, Logue blends vivid personal narrative with an objective perspective to tell how this hard-fought plan was successfully implemented at the third-largest university in the United States. Shedding light on the inner workings of one of the most important public institutions in the nation, Pathways to Reform provides the first full account of how, despite opposition, a complex higher education initiative was realized. Read on to learn more about Pathways, the motivation behind it, and the challenges that had to be overcome.
What is Pathways and what motivated you to develop it?
For 40 years the worst academic problem facing CUNY students was difficulty in transferring their credits from one of the 19 CUNY undergraduate colleges to another. CUNY students, similar to other current college students in the United States, transfer a great deal, and when students lose credits upon transfer, or credits taken to satisfy general education or major requirements are changed into elective credits, it can make it more difficult for students to graduate and their financial aid may run out. These problems were hitting CUNY students particularly hard because their median family income is quite low, almost half are the first in their families to attend college, and almost half have a first language other than English. Therefore, even without credit transfer difficulties, many CUNY students have an inordinate number of challenges to overcome in obtaining a college degree, in a society in which a college degree is increasingly necessary for employment and advancement. In addition, New York State Education Law treats CUNY as a single university, and instructs CUNY to function as “an integrated system and to facilitate articulation between units,” too often the opposite of what was happening with undergraduate curriculum pre-Pathways.
What were the big goals for Pathways?
The immediate specific goal was, after students transferred, to have them lose fewer credits and to have fewer of their general education and major credits changed into elective credits. We expected that result to lead to other important outcomes, particularly increased retention and graduation rates, fewer excess credits (students taking credits in excess of the number needed for their degrees), and a lower percentage of students having used up all of their financial aid prior to graduation. However, we knew that it would take many years before we would be able to determine whether these other results had been obtained. To fully assess Pathways, we would need to assess students who started at one college and then transferred to another, with the total amount of time at the two colleges sufficient to obtain a bachelor’s degree (a total period of up to 6 years). Therefore, our immediate, most important, goal was simply to have credits transfer more effectively. In the effecting of this goal, we also aimed to increase the quality of CUNY students’ education by clarifying and expanding the faculty-specified learning goals that courses were to accomplish, and by adding an additional layer of faculty review to all Pathways general education courses.
Was there a template for the program? Were there other institutions to which you looked for a model?
In the book I discuss how we examined the policies of other systems that had tried to solve credit transfer problems. In particular, we examined what our sibling system, SUNY (the State University of New York), as well as the University System of Georgia had done. However, we examined what these other institutions had done not simply to model them, but to learn from their not-so-perfect aspects. Our goal was to construct transfer policies that were the best in the country.
What did you expect the challenges to be going into the process?
First, the CUNY system is huge (approximately 240,000 undergraduate students in 19 colleges) and complex, which makes any policy change difficult; communicating and effecting changes can be quite challenging. Second, changes to curriculum, as occurred in Pathways, can take years (due to the time needed for multiple levels of approval as well as the time needed for the work on the curriculum itself), so we knew we would have to sustain our efforts over a long period of time. Third, we knew that everyone would not agree that the new policies were an improvement, or even needed, that some faculty would be particularly opposed, and that those faculty would try to stop Pathways. As it turned out, the opposition was even larger than we expected.
Why was the program opposed by faculty?
I spend many pages in the book trying to explain the many different reasons that faculty opposed Pathways. Much of it boils down to the fact that many faculty feel that they should have 100% control over the curriculum—that they are the experts and should make all curricular decisions. However, the difficulty with this view is that faculty’s work lives are significantly affected by curricular decisions, so there is a built-in conflict of interest, and sometimes what faculty want can conflict with what is best for, or helps, students. Therefore, in some cases, someone, in this case the CUNY Board of Trustees, may need to intervene and put some constraints on faculty choice in order to ensure that students’ rights to a high-quality, efficient, education are not violated. We constructed Pathways under the overall principle that faculty and colleges could do whatever they wanted as long as it did not impede students’ progress towards a high-quality degree—the principle that all CUNY students are students of one university, and transferring from one college to another should not cause any harm to a student. In contrast, many faculty wanted no constraints whatsoever on their control over the curriculum.
How can we see, a few years in, that Pathways is making school easier to complete?
Each semester, many thousands more CUNY students are now transferring without losing any credits. In addition, transfer rates from community (associate’s-degree) to senior (bachelor’s-degree) colleges have significantly increased, and the percentage of these students transferring with an associate’s degree has increased 31% (very helpful to students in case a student for any reason doesn’t finish the bachelor’s degree). Under Pathways, community college students know that their credits will transfer to the senior colleges, and therefore they do not have to transfer before finishing their associate’s degrees. Thus even though it is only a few years since Pathways was first established, students are showing better degree progress than prior to Pathways. CUNY Admissions offices are also now using the existence of Pathways in their marketing of CUNY, pointing out to potential applicants that if they come to CUNY, they will be able to switch to different colleges as their needs change, without losing credits.
This is not just a NYC story, how is the issue of credit transfers being handled nationwide? Are these other schools doing it really well?
Credit transfer is a national issue. Over half of the nation’s bachelor’s-degree recipients now graduate with credits obtained from a college other than the one from which they are graduating. Many states, national organizations, and researchers are now working on how to improve credit transfer. Over half of the states already have statewide transfer policies for all of the public institutions of higher education in that state, and some states are even working together to facilitate credit transfer across state lines. However, there is a paucity of data indicating how well any of these policies are working. Many of the policies have large loopholes. I am hopeful that CUNY will lead the way in obtaining excellent evidence as to whether or not its transfer policies are working, and in using that evidence to help future transfer students.
What do you hope administrators, students, and faculty can learn from your book about improving credit transfer systems here and nationwide?
There is much to be learned from my book. First, the book has a great deal of information about why credit transfer can be difficult and about policies that can help. However, more generally, the book contains a great deal of information about how higher education functions and why change in higher education can be so slow, tortured, and sometimes nonexistent. The book also discusses lessons learned as a result of establishing Pathways, many of which can be generalized so as to help facilitate other aspects of change in higher education.
Why did you decide to write a book about what happened in establishing Pathways?
W.E.B. Du Bois said in 1949 that “Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental.” I believe in that right deeply, and I particularly believe in making excellent higher education available to everyone who can benefit from it. Unfortunately, there were many points during the establishment of Pathways at which I felt that the rights of CUNY students to an excellent higher education, the students’ voices, and the facts about what the students needed and how we were trying to address those needs, were all being lost in an overwhelming tide of college and faculty actions, misinformation, and rhetoric. As a result, making the changes that we felt would ensure the rights of CUNY students to an excellent higher education was extremely difficult. I wrote this book to show why the changes needed to effect Pathways were necessary and why they were hard–why change in general is hard in higher education. My hope is that the book will facilitate future change that will help to preserve and enhance higher education for everyone.
What was it like writing about the events that you had lived through while establishing Pathways?
On the one hand, it was wonderful to have the space and the time to explain, in what I believe is a comprehensible, comprehensive, and accurate way, what Pathways is, why it is important, and why it is formulated the way that it is. This is information that should be helpful for establishing good transfer policies everywhere. On the other hand, some of what happened during establishing Pathways was quite painful, and living through those events again was difficult. However, there were moments of pure joy that I also got to relive, moments that are described in the book. For those of us working on establishing Pathways, we could be totally up one day and totally down the next, and this happened over and over for three years. We truly despaired that the process would ever end and that we would accomplish our goal, to the point that we hardly noticed when Pathways was finally effected. I felt all of that again while writing the book. Now that the book is done, I can finally reflect on the benefits that Pathways is bringing to many thousands of CUNY students.
Alexandra W. Logue is a research professor at the Center for Advanced Study in Education at the Graduate Center, CUNY. From 2008 to 2014, she served as executive vice chancellor and university provost of the CUNY system. She is the author of The Psychology of Eating and Drinking and Self-Control: Waiting Until Tomorrow for What You Want Today.
All net royalties received by the author from sales of Pathways to Reform will be donated to The City University of New York to support undergraduate student financial aid.