The CUNY administration’s Pathways policy is not grounded in empirical research. It misdiagnoses the cause of excess credits, ignores the constructive role faculty governance bodies can play, and does not comport with established best practices. These were some of the conclusions presented at an October 12, 2012 conference at John Jay College, sponsored by the Joint UFS-PSC Faculty Group on Transfer.
Queens College Professor of Sociology Dean Savage and Michael Fabricant, a professor at the Hunter College School of Social Work and the Graduate Center, opened the discussion by taking a closer look at the data behind Pathways.
While the administration insists that Pathways is needed to make it easier for community college students to have their credits transfer to senior colleges, both Savage and Fabricant argued that the reason students compile excess credits has little to do with the transfer process.
Savage said that a student’s transfer status makes little difference in how many excess credits they end up compiling, noting that upon graduation the mean number of credits for those who transfer with 65 to 83 credits is 133 and for those who started with zero to 64 credits graduate with an average of 130 credits.
Savage said students who graduate with more than 150 credits tend to be late transfers, double majors and high credit majors such as geology (150), early childhood education (145) and computer science (144). Students often declare a double major, Savage said, to be able to take a full load of courses and stay eligible for TAP money while they wait for the courses they need to complete their degree to become available. “The great majority of our students don’t have an excess credit problem,” Savage said. “So maybe we should concentrate on those who do.”
“There’s a conflation of excess credit and transfer credit,” Fabricant said. “Community college students do not accrue significantly more excess credits than those who entered a senior college as a first-time freshman.”
Fabricant, who is also PSC treasurer, said CUNY failed to do quantitative research into the transfer problem. Instead, he said the administration held focus groups with students and then ignored the findings in which students highlighted unavailability of courses for a major and the need to remain TAP-eligible – not transfer – as the main reason they end up with excess credits.
“Students take courses that aren’t necessary in order to retain eligibility,” he said.
Fabricant acknowledged that there were localized problems with transferring credits between CUNY colleges but he added, “The question is magnitude and where. We have created…a jackhammer solution to a problem that requires manual tools.”
Two “manual tools” that faculty use to smooth the transfer process are articulation agreements and dual joint degrees. Speaking after Savage and Fabricant, Phil Pecorino, Chair of the QCC Curriculum Committee, said more than 188 articulation agreements currently exist across the CUNY system.
Pecorino acknowledged that there are problems with articulation agreements going out of date or not being honored. He also cited the lack of an appeals process for students denied transfer credits as a problem. Former UFS Chair Sandi Cooper joined Pecorino in expressing support for articulation agreements and dual joint degrees as more focused and effective responses to the transfer problems that do exist. A key factor in the success of articulation agreements, she added, is ensuring regular communication between department chairs at community and senior colleges.
Cooper added that department chairs have long wanted a computer system that allows them to easily ascertain what courses a student needs to take in order to earn a given major – something that neither TIPPS or CUNY First have been able to do.
Cooper also called for renewed respect for another “manual tool” that has been ignored by the CUNY administration: the knowledge and the wisdom of the faculty as expressed through its democratically elected governance bodies.
Emily Tai, Chair of the QCC Academic Senate, told the conference that more than 40 states have revised their general education curriculum in recent years.
Curriculum reform has been carried out in many cases at the prompting of the Lumina Foundation and the Gates Foundation with the stated goals of streamlining the transfer process and saving money.
Tai pointed to a 2009 report by a team of Cal State Sacramento researchers which indicated that general education policies at CUNY community colleges already require fewer credits than community colleges in a number of states.
Talk To Each Other
In her presentation of national trends, Tai singled out Utah as a model for reform. Tai noted that in addition to a 30 to 39-credit general education core, Utah has mandated 18 to 27 hours gen ed breadth requirements beyond the core. Also, the Utah system’s Board of Regents meets annually with the faculty to discuss what is an educated person before implementing any assessment efforts.
While no governance structure is perfect, Tai said, “It does mean that faculty and administrators will talk to each other and learn from one another in and outside the classroom.”
On the same panel as Tai was Ken O’Brien, chair of the SUNY Faculty Senate, who described a rushed, top-down approach to revising general education that SUNY trustees launched in 1998. According to O’Brien, the new plan, unpopular with faculty, was never fully implemented across the sprawling 64-campus SUNY system. In 2009 the plan was revised, substantially loosening the restrictions it had imposed.
The PSC has supported the rights of faculty to make decisions about curriculum throughout the battle against Pathways. In her closing remarks at the conference, PSC President Barbara Bowen criticized Pathways as a “sort of academic Taylorism” that “chops up our role into smaller and smaller, less and less professional pieces” while standardizing everything from curriculum to textbooks and tests. This, Bowen warned, could be the precursor to implementing the kind of assessment agenda that has been used to attack K-12 public school teachers across the country.
“I think it’s really a critical battle for us to make sure that higher education does not find itself in five years or two years in the place that K-12 education finds itself now,” Bowen said.
Bowen said she expected the battle over Pathways to continue for many years. She urged everyone present to support the union’s call for a moratorium on the implementation of Pathways until the kind of detailed research on transfer and general education reform that was presented at the conference can be thoroughly reviewed by the University community.
“We are fighting for the soul of public higher education,” Bowen told the meeting. “And shame on us if we don’t succeed, if we don’t make that fight.”