New England needs interstate transfer compact for college students

Stafford Peat, who asked the questions and put together this piece, is a senior consultant at the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE.org), on whose Web site this piece originated. Her questions are directed to Patricia A. Shea is director of Academic Leadership Initiatives at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) and Jane Sherman,  the Passport State Coordinator at WICHE’s Interstate Passport Networ

Students in New England take increasingly varied pathways to a degree. They are highly mobile and move among two-year colleges and four-year public and private higher education institutions (HEIs), among four-year and two-year colleges and back, and transfer in-state and out-of state. Four in 10 students who begin college at a New England institution transfer from one institution to another at least once in their academic careers.

While most stay in the state where they began college, 10 percent transfer to another New England state, and 13 percent transfer outside the region, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

One result of this mobility is the loss of credits, time and money. Although many states in the region have initiated “transfer pathways,” the fact remains that, for New England college students, no interstate transfer compact crosses the six states’ borders.

In the West, a new transfer compact has emerged relying not on credit hours, but on the learning outcomes students have achieved in lower-division college courses. Under the leadership of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), Interstate Passport focuses on lower-division general education as the common denominator among most institutions. Students attending one institution can transfer courses to another institution in a cross-border “block,” rather than through individual course-by-course matches.

The Interstate Passport framework consists of nine knowledge and skill areas, including oral communication, written communication, natural sciences and critical thinking, among others. These areas are based on the Essential Learning Outcomes developed by the Association of American Colleges & Universities as part of its Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative, and on research conducted by WICHE into the general education expectations of HEIs in the region. For each knowledge or skill area, the core of the program is made up of the Passport Learning Outcomes (PLOs).

How were the Passport Learning Outcomes developed?

For each of the nine knowledge and skill areas, two-year and four-year faculty members with expertise in that area from each of the seven original states (CA, HI, ND, OR, SD, UT, WY) comprised a team that met in-person and by conference call. Each team member also consulted systematically with other faculty members in that state, resulting in a lengthy and wide-ranging negotiation by which the Passport Learning Outcomes were agreed upon. In several areas, the interstate faculty teams’ deliberations were also informed by the recommendations of their respective professional academic associations.

The early results for the Interstate Passport program are beginning to come in. As of February 2017, 21 institutions in six states were formal members of the Interstate Passport Network. Institutions in an additional 10 states are exploring or preparing to apply for membership. A total of 9,082 student passports were issued in fall 2016—the first term they could be awarded.

Interview with Pat Shea and Jane Sherman

What are the benefits to students and states in being part of the Interstate Passport Network?

For students, lower-division general education (LDGE) transfers as a completed Block of courses, with all credits intact. Students know that ahead of time, which means fewer lost credits and no additional LDGE course requirements after transfer, resulting in greater motivation to continue, faster time to graduation, lower costs and fewer foregone earnings.

For institutions, more and faster completions mean improved accountability metrics. Aligning student learning outcomes, rather than course titles, descriptions or syllabi, means less arduous articulation arrangements and greater curricular autonomy for each institution or state. Offering a guarantee of completed LDGE to students from other Interstate Passport Network member institutions—i.e., institutions with aligned learning outcomes—will mean attracting more, and better prepared, transfer students.

What was the previous nature of interstate transfer among Western states?

Most states had done quite a bit of work to smooth transfer within their borders. But across state lines the story was very different. Too often students were required to complete additional general education requirements after transfer—sometimes only a few courses, sometimes many—when the specific disciplines, courses or numbers of credits didn’t match.

What is the biggest accomplishment so far of the Interstate Passport?

Without a doubt, the biggest accomplishment so far is the very real shift in focus from courses—titles, descriptions, syllabi and credits—to student learning outcomes with the level of proficiency that faculties expect of students who complete a quality general education program. Of course, at this stage, there is reassurance for the receiving institution in knowing that the Passport is undergirded by courses and credits at the sending institution, but there is no need to delve into each course or credit; the Passport is accepted as a whole.

Are there any states outside the West participating in the project?

Institutions in states in the Southern and Midwest regions are currently exploring the Interstate Passport, either as individual institutions or as part of a system or statewide effort developing their Passport Blocks. These states include Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Virginia.

How were they recruited?

Most of the current Interstate Passport states were initially reached through their regional Commissions and Compacts—WICHE, SREB and MHEC. Other interest has come through numerous conference presentations and articles in higher education publications.

Can you offer concrete examples of the “Blocks” of credits on which interstate transfer is based?

Lower-division general education programs tend to range between 30 to 40 total semester credits, with the majority at 32-38. And most cover very similar sets of disciplines. You can find a sampling of institution’s Passport Blocks at http://www.wiche.edu/passport/membership/network_members.

What lessons have been learned so far in the project to accomplish seamless transfer across state lines?

We have learned that arrangements to smooth transfer within states are highly varied—all are helpful, and none are problem-free. Very few states or institutions have worked on transfer across state lines.

The assignment of responsibilities–both formal and informal–for policy development and implementation for transfer also varies widely from state to state. Consequently, how each state approaches new initiatives has been unique.

On the other hand, there is a high level of agreement among faculty about what lower-division students should learn in general education, and faculty members find it highly rewarding to work on this program with faculty in their own and other states.

Overall, we have learned that the Interstate Passport—due to its focus on learning outcomes—appears to provide both an academic focus and a larger perspective on transfer of LDGE within which a great deal of organizational and curricular variation can be accommodated.

In addition to the current Interstate Passport Network of institutions, do you envision more states and institutions will join?

Yes, definitely. The more states and institutions that join the Interstate Passport Network, the greater the benefit to students and institutions.

If New England states or institutions were interested in joining the Interstate Passport Network, how would they join?

Project consultants are available at no cost to talk with or meet with interested institutions or states. Faculty members and administrators from early adopter states are also available to talk with their counterparts in other states. In order to join, institutions review the Passport Learning Outcomes for consistency with their own Lower Division General Education learning outcomes; identify their courses that allow their students to achieve the Outcomes; agree to both award the Passport to their students and recognize the Passport of transfer students whom they admit; track the retention and GPA of Passport holders for at least two terms after transfer; and advise students about the Interstate Passport.

All nonprofit, regionally accredited, public and private, two-and four-year institutions are eligible to apply at http://www.wiche.edu/passport/membership. For more information contact Stafford Peat at speat@nebhe.edu or Pat Shea at pshea@wiche.edu or 303.541.0302

Is there a fee or other costs to join the Interstate Passport Network?

So far, all the work of developing and implementing the Interstate Passport has been covered by multiple foundation and federal grants. In the future, there will be a modest annual fee, scaled to institutional size, to cover administrative costs of the Network.

Looking down the road, what is the future of the Interstate Passport Network?

Current member institutions and states envision a broad-based, nationwide network of two- and four-year institutions leading the way in a student-centered approach to transfer based on student learning outcomes. There is much interest in developing a Passport tailored to STEM majors, and eventually to other pathways as well, as resources become available.


Richard Freeland: Integrating the liberals arts and professional/vocational education

Via The New England Journal of Higher Education (see nebhe.org)

My talk is about experiential education and liberal learning. This topic has been on my mind ever since I graduated from a liberal arts college many years ago and began my first real job, whereupon I discovered—to my surprise and at some cost to my ego—how much I did not know about putting my ideas to effective use in the world beyond academia. But in addition to my personal interests, the relationship between liberal learning and effective action has become increasingly important for educators in the U.S. over the past several decades, although we are far from anything like consensus on this matter among liberal arts educators. I have chosen this topic for this conference for chief academic officers, because I believe the academic leaders of our colleges and universities have a critically important role to play in what I call the “necessary revolution in liberal education.”

Experiential education, of course, has its roots in occupational and professional education, which in turn, grew from the tradition of apprenticeships. Within the professional context, experiential education has taken many forms, from clinical work in health and medical education, to practice teaching for future educators, to cooperative education in engineering and business. In all these fields, the value of experiential education is obvious: The purpose of occupational and professional studies is to prepare students to work in non-academic settings. Common sense tells us that classroom study can take students only so far in equipping them to perform surgery or build a bridge or manage a sixth-grade classroom.

Employers confirm this obvious point. College graduates whose programs include some form of experiential education are far readier for the workplace than those whose preparation is limited to classroom study.

Liberal education, in contrast to professional studies, has its roots in the education of gentlemen and historically had almost nothing to do with preparing students for useful activity of any sort. Indeed, one of the foundational texts of liberal learning, Cardinal Newman’s famous essay on “the idea of a university,” is in some respects an attack on practical education, arguing at eloquent length that “knowledge is its own reward” and that the goal of a university education is to “raise the intellectual tone of society … and refine the intercourse of private life.”

As liberal education developed in the U.S., however, it did come to be seen as foundational for advanced professional studies in a wide variety of fields, but champions of the liberal arts continued to draw a bright line between liberal learning and preparation for the workplace. I remember the contempt that faculty at my undergraduate college conveyed toward any suggestion that our education had anything to do with preparing for an actual job. This attitude is still, I think, quite common among faculty in the liberal arts and sciences.

Intellectual qualities outside academy

There is, however, a problem with the way we've been characterizing liberal education, a problem that becomes evident the moment you read the mission statement of virtually any liberal arts college. Such statements almost never stress purely intellectual qualities in the manner of Cardinal Newman. Such statements almost always insist that the college is focused on developing the capacity to act effectively in the world after college, both in the workplace and in civic life. The proposition offered by champions of traditional liberal education, therefore, is that a curriculum focused entirely on nurturing intellectual qualities in classroom settings is also the best possible preparation for effective action outside the walls of the academy.

I will be the first to acknowledge the truth in this proposition. It is surely the case that intellectual skills associated with the liberal arts and sciences—critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, effective communications, a generalized adaptability—are vitally important for effective practice, especially in a world where the demands of the workplace are constantly changing. I would also argue that the intellectual context provided by liberal education—an understanding of different perspectives, an appreciation of history, a grasp of psychology and social structure, an awareness of ethical traditions—is also tremendously helpful in informing wise decisions in the nonacademic world.

Granting all of that, I would still argue that the argument that liberal learning in the traditional form that I experienced it in the 1960s is the best possible preparation for action in the nonacademic world is deeply flawed and, to the best of my knowledge, unsupported by empirical research. This is a topic to which I will return more explicitly in a few moments.

It is important to note at this point, however, that, despite the history of distance, and even some antagonism, between the traditions of liberal and professional learning, the boundaries between these two halves of the academic walnut have become blurrier in recent years. On the professional side, most accrediting agencies now insist that the programs they certify include a substantial component of liberal education. On the liberal side, most colleges of arts and sciences have adopted programmatic practices that have roots in professional education. Indeed, most now offer some professional majors, or at least courses in applied fields.

Some are using pedagogical practices first developed in professional fields—things like simulations, case studies and group projects focused on problem-solving. In addition, most liberal arts colleges now offer some form of experiential education, typically in the form of internships, or civic engagement opportunities, or service-learning courses—although these experiences often do not carry academic credit and are mostly on the margins of the basic curriculum.

Convergence of liberal and professional education

Why is this convergence of liberal and professional education occurring? I believe the reason is that, in one way or another, students are demanding it. The unchanging reality is that a large percentage of young people in the U.S., including those attending liberal arts colleges or majoring in a liberal arts fields, seek to improve their qualifications for employment and, more broadly, to prepare themselves to act effectively in the world after graduation. Most will not go to graduate school. Most wisely want their undergraduate years to include some attention to practical skills and some experience in the nonacademic world. Colleges—needing to maintain their enrollments—have come to understand this reality.

This coming together of liberal and professional education has brought us to a fascinating moment in the history of undergraduate studies. Historically, we have had two just two main categories: liberal education and professional education, each with distinct goals and traditions. But now a third category seems to be emerging based upon an integration of the two, with experiential education playing an important role. This movement remains fragmented, even inchoate. It does not yet have a name. I once tried to label it “practice oriented education” but that title did not stick. Still the movement is evident in undergraduate institutions all across the country.

The most impressive example of the trend toward combining the strengths of liberal learning and practical studies is the LEAP project of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The acronym L-E-A-P stands for Liberal Education and America’s Promise. It represents a massive effort by the AAC&U to build a new model of liberal learning that makes sense for our country’s highly democratized system of higher education in the 21st century. The centerpiece of the LEAP initiative is a statement of the goals of liberal education in the form of 15 specific outcomes developed through wide-ranging consultation with faculty and employers. Amazingly, the AAC&U achieved a remarkable degree of agreement in support of the LEAP framework. Colleges and universities all over the country are using it as the basis for their own undergraduate programs of liberal studies.

There are many interesting things about the LEAP construct. I want to focus on its insistence that liberal education include an emphasis on practice. One category of LEAP outcomes, for example is “intellectual and practical skills” and one of the outcomes listed in this category is “teamwork and problem solving.” Another category is “personal and social responsibility” and two of the outcomes listed under this category are “civic engagement” and “ethical reasoning and action.” In addition, an overarching principle of LEAP is an insistence that the knowledge and skills and responsibilities it seeks to nurture must be demonstrated through “application … in new settings and complex problems.”

This emphasis on action, on teamwork, on problem-solving in new settings seems to me to represent a fundamentally different notion of liberal education than the one to which I was treated so many years ago. Nothing in my undergraduate education was about application except insofar as application meant producing a paper. There were exceptions around the edges, like lab work in the sciences or studios in the arts, but at its heart, this education was about the intellect, about cognition, about thinking and analysis and the mastery of challenging material—all hugely important and all essential to effective action in the world, but all one very large step short of actually applying these intellectual qualities and skills to real problems in authentic settings.

The LEAP framework does not make explicit reference to experiential learning. but it doesn't take much imagination to see how the two are linked. Indeed, some years ago I organized a conference at Clark University in Worcester,  on the connection between liberal education and effective practice. The conference included educators from liberal arts backgrounds as well as professionals—business executives, lawyers, government officials—who had attended liberal arts colleges. A central focus of the event was the role of experiential education in promoting the capacity to act effectively in the world. Conference attendees—both educators and practitioners—were unanimous in the conclusion that experiential education should play a central role. As the president of Wellesley College put it, noting overwhelming evidence of the benefits of experiential education, “one wonders why everyone doesn’t just do it.”

Making liberal arts experiential

Having agreed without difficulty on the value of experiential education, the Clark conferees quickly turned to the political challenge of getting this kind of experience included in the undergraduate curriculum of a liberal arts college. At this point the Wellesley president acknowledged that she and her dean had spent three years conducting a carefully managed and richly resourced process to persuade her faculty to make experiential education an integral component of the Wellesley curriculum and had failed.

The resistance was too deep, the commitment to established disciplinary norms too powerful, the aversion to learning a whole new pedagogical approach too daunting. After three years of discussion and experimentation, experiential education at Wellesley remained what it had been at the beginning: available in a few courses because of the interest of individual faculty and widely available in the form of non-credit experiences, but mostly disconnected from the curriculum.

This is, in my view, a sad story, amusing perhaps in the predictability of its outcome, but deeply sad in terms of what it says about liberal education today, at least at one of the country’s elite liberal arts institutions. As the Clark conference confirmed, and as the AAC&U LEAP initiative demonstrates, we are at a moment when there is wide agreement that linking undergraduate studies in the liberal arts and sciences with the capacities of effective practice is an important goal. We are also at a moment when there is wide agreement that the capacities of effective practice involve more than the intellectual qualities traditionally associated with the liberal arts and sciences, qualities like self-direction, discipline, perseverance, imagination and the ability to work in groups and across boundaries of difference.

Many institutions are wrestling with the question of how to turn these general ideas into programmatic reality. At Clark, a particularly ambitious and interesting effort along these lines has developed (with strong faculty involvement) a category of goals within its liberal arts curriculum labeled “capacities of effective practice,” which include exactly the kind of non-intellectual qualities I have just mentioned. The evidence that experiential education can play a critical role in developing these qualities in students is, as the Wellesley president noted, overwhelming. It is without question the single most powerful pedagogical device I have encountered not only to nurture essential non-intellectual capacities but also to deepen a student’s intellectual grasp of the ideas they are studying in the classroom.

But, as the Wellesley experience makes clear, it is a hard sell with a liberal arts faculty whose members tend to believe that undergraduate education comes in only two flavors, with liberal education on one side and practical studies on the other. The third category that draws on the strengths of both may exist in fact but not yet in theory. This is what I meant a few moments ago when I spoke of the “necessary revolution in liberal education.” We are an industry that advances by fostering broad agreement, not by executive action. We need to help our faculty colleagues get beyond an instinctive aversion to explicitly practice-oriented components within their overall curricular structures. Chief academic officers, the people gathered in this room, are ideally positioned to lead in this effort.

Push for more

I end this morning with a plea that you take this challenge on in whatever form makes sense when the opportunity arises in your individual institutional settings. Your presence at this conference suggests an openness to the ideas I have been discussing. Engaging this challenge with the faculties you lead, however, will be difficult and risky. The temptation will be to pull back, admit that the resistance is too strong, and settle for marginal gains. We need to push for more. Our students deserve more. I urge you to play a leadership role in what I believe is truly a national movement with historic significance.

I wish I had some formula for advancing this cause that can ensure success, but I do not. The best I can do is summarize a long discussion about this matter at the Clark conference. The academic administrators among the conferees agreed that efforts to directly confront the biases of liberal arts faculty against adding practical experiences to the curriculum were not likely to be effective. The most hopeful approach seemed to have three essential components.

First, we need to engage the faculty in a discussion of goals and outcomes—get them talking not about their disciplines but about how they want the curriculum to empower their students. Such a discussion, just like the typical college catalog, will quickly range beyond purely intellectual outcomes to a discussion of equipping young people to act effectively in the world beyond college.

The second component involves promoting a culture of assessment—fostering an atmosphere of openness to looking at evidence, at research on pedagogical outcomes in relationship to goals. Such an exploration comes naturally to academics and will, I am confident, point toward the power of experiential education as a powerful means to accomplish the goals being sought.

The third component of the process is to provide faculty leaders and volunteers with the space and support to experiment with new pedagogical approaches. That will take time and money but the investment of both is more than worth it.

John Dewey taught us over a century ago that it is impossible to separate deep learning form experience. Liberal education has spent the intervening hundred years ignoring that fundamentally obvious insight. We are now at a moment when we can recover that truth to the great benefit of the next generation as well as the country. I urge you to be part of that effort.

Richard Freeland is a distinguished professor at Northeastern University, where he was president of from 1996 to 2006, He was Massachusetts commissioner of higher education  from 2009 until 2015. This piece is drawn from Mr. Freeland's April talk to the WACE Chief Academic Officer Colloquium.