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.
The transfer experience of a recent college graduate named Ben illustrates well some of the points made about college credit transfer and the experiences of transfer students in my new book, Pathways to Reform: Credits and Conflict at The City University of New York.
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.
Reprinted by permission from the Princeton University Press blog (http://blog.press.princeton.edu/2017/09/25/alexandra-logue-pathways-to-reform/)
Alexandra Logue: Pathways to Reform
September 25, 2017 by
Change is notoriously difficult in any large organization, and institutions of higher education are no exception. From 2010 to 2013, Alexandra Logue, 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.
In my forthcoming book, Pathways to Reform: Credits and Conflict at the City University of New York, as well as in my recent piece in The Evolllution, I write about the many reasons that, despite good evidence for change in higher education, change does not occur. My new book discusses this topic within the context of facilitating credit transfer between colleges. The Evolllution piece uses the example of math remediation reform. Although there has been rigorous evidence supporting math remediation reform, any resulting changes, as well as reforms designed to facilitate credit transfer, have been slow. Why?
As described in both my new book and the Evolllution piece, the usual explanation given is faculty. I give some of the many reasons that the faculty may be slow to adopt change. But the faculty aren’t the only reason that change doesn’t get made at colleges and universities. Again in both publications, I discuss the many reasons that administrators also may not support change. Further, I make the point that, if there is clear evidence for change, and the faculty will not initiate that change, then it is up to the administrators to effect that change.
But before things reach that point, it is first the responsibility of administrators to make sure that everyone, including the faculty, who would be involved in a change, knows about and understands the evidence supporting the change. If administrators do not themselves have the expertise or the time to understand and explain the relevant evidence, then the administrators should find one or more people who do.
Throughout my academic career I have been repeatedly appalled at the inadequate transmission of information from the administration to the faculty. This began when I was a new full professor (and an associate dean) and heard my department chair—incorrectly—tell the department’s faculty that they were teaching more students per faculty member than were any of the other departments. The department’s faculty were then, understandably, loath to make the dean’s requested changes in the department’s teaching output.
Many years later, when I worked in the CUNY system central office, I learned that one of the 24 CUNY college presidents was allowing only his deans and vice presidents to have access to their college’s performance data (compiled by the CUNY central office), encouraging the faculty to think that their college’s retention and graduation rates were higher than they actually were and discouraging those faculty from believing that any change was necessary. I subsequently instituted a policy making all of these data publicly available. Then at least when we discussed what did and did not need changing, everyone was basing their arguments on the same evidence.
A few months ago, I attended a conference whose attendees consisted mostly of administrators. In one session about remediation, a speaker first asked everyone in the small audience to say where they were from. Two people sitting together said they were both deans in the Florida public college system. The speaker then said, how interesting, I’ve been wondering what are the results of the recent remediation changes in Florida (2013 legislation has given students, assessed as needing remediation, the choice as to whether to take traditional remedial courses or not). The two deans immediately said, oh we don’t know, it’s too soon to have any results yet. However, despite being in New York, I knew that, in the two years prior to the conference, there had been several publications on the results of the change implemented by the Florida system. So I raised my hand and told everyone some of the results (the percentage of students passing certain college-level gateway courses has gone down, but because more students were now getting to take those courses, more total students are passing those courses).
I don’t know why the two Florida deans, supposedly interested in and/or involved in remediation or they wouldn’t have attended the session in the first place, did not know about these publications. But what I do know is that if deans working in this area don’t know critical information, then it is likely that their faculty won’t know either, and the deans can’t be helpful in transmitting the information. In the meantime, the Deans’ faculty may be suffering with lowered pass rates, worrying those lower rates will hurt their reputations as teachers and miserable at having to fail more students. Any encouragement these faculty might have received from knowing that, nevertheless, more students are being enabled to stay in and graduate from college, is not available.
For all of this I hold administrators responsible. Good choices depend on having good information, and administrators have both the opportunity and the resources, and thus the responsibility, to obtain and distribute good information to all appropriate personnel. Only with that information will faculty, administrators, and other staff be able to fulfill their obligations to their institutions and to their students.
In connection with my new book, Pathways to Reform: Credits and Conflict at The City University of New York, I have added many resources to my website concerning transfer. Suggestions regarding changes in any of these materials are most welcome. My hope is that these resources will provide assistance to all those interested in improving student transfer.
Clicking on my website’s home page top tab titled “New Book…” reveals a drop-down menu listing all of the different resources available. There you can find:
- General information about the book
- The book’s table of contents
- Supplemental (key documents) and digital (photos, videos, and an audio recording) content associated with specific book chapters
- Information on how to purchase the book
- Comments and reviews about the book
- A list of nonCUNY websites, organizations, key data reports, and best practices concerning student transfer
- A bibliography of articles and books that discuss college student transfer
- A list of publications and broadcasts that refer to transfer at CUNY and, more specifically, CUNY’s Pathways initiative (a set of policies designed to smooth student transfer from one CUNY college to another)
- Examples of uses of the words Path and Pathways, including:
- Plays on the Words Path and Pathway made during CUNY’s Pathways Project (2011-2013) by CUNY supporters of Pathways, by the PSC (the CUNY Faculty Union), by the UFS (CUNY’s University Faculty Senate), and by outside media
- Examples of higher education’s use of the words Path and Pathways other than CUNY’s Pathways initiative
- A few of the many aphorisms and quotations using the words Path or Pathway
A recent article in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis reported on an investigation of policies punishing students for graduating with excess credits. Excess credit hours are the credits that a student obtains in excess of what is required for a degree, and many students graduate having taken several courses more than what was needed.
To the extent that tuition does not cover the cost of instruction, and/or that financial aid is paying for these excess credits, someone other than the student—the college or the government—is paying for these excess credits. Graduating with excess credits also means that a student is occupying possibly scarce classroom seats longer than s/he needs to and is not entering the work force with a degree and paying more taxes as soon as s/he could. Thus there are many reasons why colleges and/or governments might seek to decrease excess credits. The article considers cases in which states have imposed sanctions on students who graduate with excess credits, charging more for credits taken significantly above the number required for a degree. The article shows that such policies, instead of resulting in students graduating sooner, have instead resulted in greater student debt. But the article does not identify the reasons why this may be the case. Perhaps one reason is because students do not have control over those excess credits.
For example, as described in my forthcoming book, Pathways to Reform: Credits and Conflict at The City University of New York, students may accumulate excess credits because of difficulties they have transferring their credits. When students transfer, there can be significant delays in having the credits that they obtained at their old institution evaluated by their new institution. At least at CUNY colleges, the evaluation process can take many months. During that period, a student either has to stop out of college or take a risk and enroll in courses that may or may not be needed for the student’s degree. Even when appropriate courses are taken, all too often credits that a student took at the old college as satisfying general education (core) requirements or major requirements become elective credits, or do not transfer at all. A student then has to repeat courses or take extra courses in order to satisfy all of the requirements at the new college. Given that a huge proportion of students now transfer, or try to transfer, their credits (49% of bachelor’s degree recipients have some credits from a community college, and over one-third of students in the US? transfer within six years of starting college), a great number of credits are being lost.
Nevertheless, a 2010 study at CUNY found that a small proportion of the excess credits of its bachelor’s degree recipients was due to transfer—students who never transferred graduated with only one or two fewer excess credits, on average, than did students who did transfer. Some transfer students may have taken fewer electives at their new colleges in order to have room in their programs to make up nontransferring credits from their old colleges, without adding many excess credits.
But does this mean that we should blame students for those excess credits and make them pay more for them? Certainly some of the excess credits are due to students changing their majors late and/or to not paying attention to requirements and so taking courses that don’t allow them to finish their degrees, and there may even be some students who would rather keep taking courses than graduate.
But there are still other reasons that students may accumulate extra credits, reasons for which the locus of control is not the student. Especially in financially strapped institutions, students may have been given bad or no guidance by an advisor. In addition, students may have been required to take traditional remedial courses, which can result in a student acquiring many of what CUNY calls equated credits, on top of the required college-level credits (despite the fact that there are more effective ways to deliver remediation without the extra credits). Or a student may have taken extra courses that s/he didn’t need to graduate in order to continue to enroll full-time, so that the student could continue to be eligible for some types of financial aid and/or (in the past) health insurance. Students may also have made course-choice errors early in their college careers, when they were unaware of excess-credit tuition policies that would only have an effect years later.
The fact that the imposition of excess-credit tuition policies did not affect the number of excess credits accumulated but instead increased student debt by itself suggests that, to at least some degree, the excess credits are not something that students can easily avoid, and/or that there are counter-incentives operating that are even stronger than the excess tuition.
Before punishing students, or trying to control their behavior, we need to have a good deal of information about all of the different contingencies to which students are subject. Students should complete their college’s requirements as efficiently as possible. However, just because some students demonstrate delayed graduation behavior does not mean that they are the ones who are controlling that behavior. Decreasing excess credits needs to be a more nuanced process, with contingencies and consequences tailored appropriately to those students who are abusing the system, and those who are not.
Last fall, an article in Inside Higher Ed authored by Judith Shapiro, President of the Teagle Foundation and former President of Barnard College, made the following statement:
“For the most part, however, faculty members have simply been missing in action when it comes to dealing with campus upheavals around race and racism.”
I agree with this statement, but I would expand it to say that faculty members have frequently been missing in action with regard to all kinds of controversial issues. At many (most?) institutions, faculty are rewarded with promotions, raises, and tenure first for their research (largely based on their individual efforts), second for their teaching (again, largely based on their individual efforts), and only third for their service, which would include working together with others to make their colleges congenial and productive places for the colleges’ diverse inhabitants. The faculty who produce the most work of direct benefit to themselves are largely those faculty who keep to themselves, focus on their own work, and stay out of the way of college conflagrations. Consistent with this statement, research has shown that faculty do not feel safe expressing views with which others may disagree until they have had the final promotion to full professor (not, as some people think, until they have tenure).
An example of these tendencies concerns credit transfer among the 19 undergraduate colleges of The City University of New York, at which approximately 10,000 students transfer each fall alone. Credit transfer is a controversial subject, just one reason being that whether the receiving college counts the credits or not can directly affect the college’s, as well as a department’s, funds, and whether faculty members have sufficient enrollment to teach certain courses. Although ensuring that credits transfer can benefit students, it can also mean depriving faculty and/or a college of something desirable to them. Thus it is no surprise that, although for over 40 years problems with credit transfer were seen as the worst problems for CUNY students, and although the faculty issued some statements about those problems, the faculty took no actions to solve the problems. When the central administration finally instituted a system (known as Pathways) that guaranteed credit transfer for some courses, and thus directly affecting some faculty’s courses, only then did some faculty spend significant amounts of time on the credit transfer issue, with most of those faculty objecting to Pathways, including filing law suits against it. This prompted one CUNY Distinguished Professor, in his testimony at a public hearing on Pathways, to say to the faculty in the audience: “Where have you been? Where have you been for 40 years?”
Although there is nothing wrong with working hard to benefit oneself, we also need to provide clear incentives for faculty to work together for the benefit of students, as well as for the rest of the higher education community.
There is more about these issues in my forthcoming book: Pathways to Reform: Credits and Conflict at The City University of New York, to be published early in the fall by Princeton University Press (https://www.amazon.com/Pathways-Reform-Conflict-University-Education/dp/0691169942/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1494093848&sr=1-1).
“Nudging” (consisting of text and/or email messages sent to students about tasks that they should perform) and “early alert” systems (including messages to students whose performance is inadequate or at risk of being inadequate) are gaining popularity in higher education. A blog entry by Matt Reed in Inside Higher Ed points out that, if students receive unpleasant messages, such as unpleasant nudges and early alerts, they will stop reading them, and asks how to counter that.
Here I will not address the technological or other practical aspects of how to deliver messages that get read. My purpose is only to review some of the findings from the field of behavioral science that help to inform what should be done to make these messages as effective as possible.
First, Reed is correct about the effect of aversive stimuli such as bad-news texts. We avoid the sources of negative communications (including when one such source is your professor or boss, and such avoidance can cause all kinds of problems). Therefore, in general, when possible, the messages that we give to students should be about increasing what they are doing that is right, rather than decreasing what they are doing that is wrong—what is known as catching someone doing something well.
We also know from behavioral science that, in order to increase a behavior of a particular person over the long term, the feedback should be:
- Targeted to the specific behavior that we want to increase (it should not just consist of an amorphous “good job”)
- Delivered as close in time as possible to the occurrence of that behavior
- Accompanied by the delivery of something (praise, points, food, etc.) that is of value to the particular person emitting the behavior, i.e., it should be accompanied by a reward (and, no, that will not cause problems by ruining the person’s internal reward system, whatever that is)
- Not delivered after every instance of the particular behavior, but on an irregular pattern (if every instance is rewarded, then if reward ceases, the behavior will dissipate more quickly than if reward delivery has been irregular)
Some years ago, Hostos Community College of The City University of New York, developed a points system that had many of these attributes. The Hostos administration reasoned that there were many behaviors that they wanted students to engage in for which there were no immediate rewards such as grades, behaviors such as filing the FAFSA or filling out a college survey. Hostos therefore awarded students points for these behaviors and then held lotteries in which students could win real prizes. The more points a student had, the more chances that student had to win. Although I never saw any data about the results, I was told that this reward system worked well.
In conclusion, when nudging or using early alerts, we should try to send messages that are positive, not just negative, and our positive messages should be targeted to specific behaviors, be timely, be rewarding, and be irregularly delivered.
Traditional mathematics remediation has been described as the largest single academic block to students graduating in the United States. Most new college students are assessed as needing it, and the majority of those students never complete it—most of the students who take it do not pass, and many students avoid taking it at all. Without completing assigned mathematics remediation, students usually cannot satisfy many of their college-level required courses, and so cannot graduate.
In 2008, when I became the chief academic officer of The City University of New York system, which includes 10 colleges that offer mathematics remediation (and 9 that do not), mathematics remediation was a big business. At that time, CUNY was spending over $20 million per year on remediation, with the majority being on math remediation. In recent years, I believe that figure has increased to over $30 million.
In 2008, CUNY was mostly delivering mathematics remediation as traditional courses. These were courses covering only remedial material that were taught in a sequence. Students could not take the next course in a sequence until they had passed the prerequisite course. CUNY colleges offered two, and sometimes three, levels of math remediation that a student had to pass or test out of before being allowed to take many college-level courses.
However, research reports on various methods for delivering math remediation were appearing. Some of those reports concluded that being exposed to traditional remedial courses increased a student’s later college success, and others concluded that new methods such as placing students assessed as needing math remediation directly into a college-level course with extra support were more helpful. Some of this research used what are known as quasi-experimental analytical techniques. But it was hard to know what to make of the research as a whole. As an experimental psychologist, it appalled me that there was insufficient evidence guiding us in these huge expenditures of funds about programs that affected the lives of many thousands of students.
Therefore in 2013, along with Mari Watanabe-Rose and later Dan Douglas, I conducted a randomized controlled trial using over 900 students assessed as needing elementary (remedial) algebra. We randomly assigned these students to traditional remediation, that course plus a weekly workshop, or introductory, college-level, credit-bearing statistics with a weekly workshop. Twelve faculty each taught one section of each course type. The results showed that there were significantly higher pass rates in the statistics course, and 2.5 years later, 8% more of the statistics students have graduated than the traditional remedial course students, and fewer of the statistics students have dropped out of college. The students who were assigned to statistics have shown that they did not need to pass elementary algebra to pass statistics, nor did they need to pass elementary algebra in order to satisfy their college-level natural and social sciences requirements.
While we were following the ongoing performance of the participants in our experiments, the research literature on remediation had become large enough, including research conducted with rigorous methodology, that research reviews became possible. Two such recent reviews have both concluded that the weight of the evidence now shows that traditional remediation, in general, makes it more difficult for students to advance in their academic careers.
Thus, in contrast to the state of the research in 2008, we can now conclude, with a fair degree of certainty, that placing students into traditional remediation, in most cases, is not the best path for them in terms of helping them to pass their college-level courses. Tying math remediation to college-level courses when that remedial work is specifically needed to understand the college-level course material, streamlining and aligning required quantitative material, all seem to be more effective methods for helping students progress with their college-level requirements.
In the most recent previous entry on this blog (March 13), I described an articulation agreement between a community college and a university in New Jersey, an agreement that seems to be founded on decreasing the competition for transfer students and instead promoting their transfer to one particular bachelor’s-degree institution.
However, there are also attempts in process by others to increase competition for transfer students, which should be to the benefit of those students. An organization named Affordable College has developed an app, as well as other resources, for students seeking to transfer. Bachelor’s-degree colleges pay a fee to participate with Affordable College. Then Affordable College presents information about those colleges to students at community colleges who want to transfer. The community college students can use the information from Affordable College to find out how their credits would transfer to each of the participating bachelor’s-degree colleges. By participating, these colleges make sure that they’re in the mix for obtaining transfer students, and thus for increased enrollment and revenue. In this way, assuming community college students actually use Affordable College, there is an incentive for bachelor’s-degree colleges to pay the fee to participate and to state that they will transfer many credits. The community colleges, in turn, receive a “share of the revenue for each successful transfer,” thus providing them with an incentive to participate.
Such incentives work well in benefitting potential transfer students if those students have several possible destination colleges among which they can choose. But at my institution, The City University of New York, choices are in fact often much more limited. The 12 bachelor’s-degree colleges of CUNY do not all offer the same majors. So, for example, a student can only receive a Bachelor’s in Actuarial Science from Baruch College.
Another constraint on CUNY transfer students is geography. Although the 19 undergraduate colleges of CUNY are all located within the five boroughs of New York City, it can take up to two hours on public transportation to go from one part of the city, and from one CUNY college, to another. For CUNY students, who are more likely than not to be Pell Grant recipients, and who often must live with relatives and work in order to make ends meet, a very long commute to and from class, home, and/or work can be prohibitive.
Then, too, some of CUNY’s bachelor’s-degree colleges are very selective, including for transfer students. Just because a student applies to transfer to a particular CUNY college doesn’t mean that that student will be admitted.
Thus, the choice of a destination college for a CUNY transfer student can be quite limited.
Benefitting transfer students by fostering competition among the destination institutions will only be effective if transfer students truly have choices as to where they will go. Unfortunately for many students this is not the case. Therefore we need additional mechanisms to help such students, including ways to help them transfer as many of their credits as possible.