The City University of New York in 2010 began an ambitious effort to help students better transfer credits across the system’s 25 campuses, with an overarching goal of creating more efficient pathways to degrees.
The three-year process was anything but easy. Faculty groups pushed back hard on the so-called Pathways initiative, decrying the attempt by CUNY’s central administration to create a slimmer, standardized core curriculum of 30 credits across the large system. Votes of no confidence, lawsuits and lots of news media coverage followed before Pathways crossed the finish line.
Alexandra Logue, then CUNY’s chief academic officer, led the project. In her new book, Pathways to Reform: Credits and Conflict at the City University of New York (Princeton University Press), Logue gives an insider’s look at Pathways, with broad takeaways about how to tackle the transfer problem in American higher education.
Logue, who is now a research professor at CUNY's Graduate Center, recently discussed the book with Inside Higher Ed. The email exchange follows.
Q: In the book you mention growing awareness about problems students face with transferring credits. Do you think the Pathways push would be less controversial today?
A: Unfortunately, I do not believe that Pathways would be less controversial today. The resistance to this initiative came almost entirely from the faculty, and the growing awareness that you mention is among higher education researchers, policy makers and administrators. Only a very small proportion of faculty have higher education as their scholarly focus, and otherwise they are understandably unlikely to make contact with the literature on transfer and related subjects. For example, faculty were, and are, unaware of the fact that most public higher education systems now have a common general education core curriculum for all students in that state’s public colleges and universities. It should be the responsibility of administrators to help faculty learn such information.
Q: Why is it so difficult for universities and systems to revise their general education requirements?
A: There are many reasons, involving both faculty and administrators. At most institutions, faculty create and maintain the general education requirements. Making changes in general education curricula can be significantly slowed, sometimes to the point of not happening at all, by the many approvals often needed from faculty committees.
In addition, having a required course in the general education curriculum is highly desired by departments. Most faculty in any department appreciate and love their disciplines, and feel it is important for students to be exposed to them. In addition to obtaining lifelong useful information and skills from their general education courses, some students may decide to major in one of the general-education-required disciplines, to the well-deserved delight of the associated faculty. Further, when a department provides a general-education-required course, that department receives many more enrollments, and more enrollments mean a larger department budget, including a larger part-time faculty budget and more full-time faculty. With more faculty comes more political power on a campus -- a large department voting in unison can sway collegewide faculty votes. It is therefore not surprising that general education requirements often reflect years of hard-fought negotiation, negotiations about which departments’ courses will be required and which will not, negotiations that many faculty do not want to repeat.
Finally, some administrators, attempting to accumulate clear accomplishments that will help them in their next job search, or wanting to minimize conflict on campus, do not hasten to provide the structures and incentives needed to facilitate modifications to general education curricula, modifications that will take years to effect and will almost certainly involve faculty dissension.
Q: A frequent faculty complaint about Pathways was that it was a top-down initiative. How does the book address this concern?
A: In the end it was a top-down initiative. However, it was either take that approach or continue to harm students. The book describes what actually happened.
For some 40 years, loss of credits upon transfer had been considered by many within CUNY to be the worst problem facing CUNY undergraduates. During those decades, although the faculty, as led by the University Faculty Senate (UFS), had made statements about the problem, they had not proposed any solutions. As the years went on, CUNY was under increasing external pressure to solve the problem.
For two years before we developed Pathways, the central CUNY administration communicated clearly to the UFS that solving the problem was one of our top priorities. However, the UFS showed little interest in this topic. During the following year, we first released a report on the problem which included some general suggested remedies. Next we released a draft of the Pathways policies and asked for feedback. At that point the faculty suggested some alternative solutions, but none of those alternatives would have effectively solved the transfer issues. However, we did, in response to comments, make changes in the original draft policies. Over the next two years, the UFS and the faculty union repeatedly promised to propose alternatives to Pathways. But no new alternatives ever appeared.
Some of this lack of response is understandable. Devising a common general education framework for 19 different undergraduate colleges requires a great deal of knowledge about such matters as how students transfer and how the entire CUNY system is structured, as well as requiring time and effort, all resources that are generally scarce among faculty who are largely, and justifiably, focused on their own teaching and research.
Also, the final Pathways policies gave considerable flexibility to the colleges. Although we set the total credits for the new general education requirements, how those total credits would be divided and what they would consist of were left up to faculty-dominated committees. The CUNY central office did not, as some public higher education systems have done, tell the faculty what courses were to be offered for the general education portion of Pathways. To ensure course quality, we made sure that, with Pathways, CUNY faculty would still choose and devise the courses, approve the courses (by all of the usual mechanisms plus an added universitywide faculty committee), teach the courses, and evaluate and revise the courses. Our goal was to do only what was necessary to ensure that students were not harmed by transferring; in all other respects the colleges and faculty would make the decisions.
Q: You write that criticism from faculty members and others ultimately improved Pathways. How so?
A: There were cases in which constructive, critical input from faculty helped us to make specific improvements in the policies. For example, a natural science faculty member convinced me that courses that are required for the natural science majors should be allowed to count for not only the life and physical sciences category of the Pathways common core, but also the scientific world category. This change enabled natural science majors to have room in their programs to take an additional nonscience course, broadening their liberal arts educations. More generally, the constant stream of comments and criticisms that we received made us examine everything that we did that much more closely, trying to look at the implications of every policy for every constituency, and to devise the policies that would be most beneficial for all. The critiques also compelled us to communicate constantly about what we were doing, and reminded us to regularly consult with all affected parties. Given the volatile atmosphere, we needed to be very precise about what we were doing and why.
Q: While CUNY is somewhat distinctive, what are a couple of the most important lessons for others that you learned from this process?
A: All of us involved in establishing Pathways learned many lessons, including how best to facilitate student transfer, the positive results of always being transparent and correct, and the power of the internet to influence a university controversy. I also learned that it is possible to make significant change, even highly controversial change, but not without the support of many others, and not without incurring a career and an emotional price. If we want to facilitate change that benefits students, we need to provide such support, as well as decrease the price that may need to be paid by the administrators.
Q: Is the transfer issue a crisis? And, in general, do you feel American higher education is heading in the right direction on transfer?
A: There is no question that large numbers of American college students are spending excess time and their own -- as well as taxpayers’ -- money for their degrees due to lack of credit transfer. In some cases, these problems may result in transfer students not completing their degrees.
An August 2017 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office showed that, on average, students lose 43 percent of their credits upon transfer. However, on the positive side, during the past five to 10 years, research on and discussion of the challenges facing transfer students have significantly expanded, and the connections between these challenges and lack of graduation have been elucidated. This attention appears to be resulting in, at the very least, more attempts to establish policies that will facilitate credit transfer. Therefore, American higher education does appear to be heading on the right path. Whether it will reach the end of the path remains to be seen. It is my hope that my book will help.