Alexandra Logue: Pathways to Reform

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.

 

LogueAlexandra 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.

Alexandra Logue: Not All Excess Credits Are The Students’ Fault

This post was originally published on Alexandra Logue’s blog

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.

LogueAlexandra 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 Pathways to Reform: Credits and Conflict at The City University of New York.