August 2, 2011 | CUNY Matters Columns
At the many joyful commencement ceremonies across the CUNY campuses this spring, we celebrated the great strides made throughout the University, including record enrollments, the academic successes of our students, and the award-winning scholarship and teaching of our faculty.
These accomplishments reflect a CUNY-wide determination to prioritize academic quality and to take bold steps to initiate transformational change.
This has been our focus since I became chancellor in 1999, when we enacted a series of changes to reinvigorate the University. We raised academic standards, removed remediation from our senior colleges, and structured the system to give students clear expectations about their college experience and their academic progress. We developed a Performance Management Process, created new schools, hired strong leadership, and built cutting-edge facilities. All of these changes have been driven by our deep commitment to creating an environment in which students understand that hard work and academic quality are valued and expected.
But challenges remain. Across the CUNY system, students are still not able to move nimbly from one campus to another. They are often stymied in their academic progress because of the complexity and inconsistency among the colleges’ general education and transfer policies. The result is confusion and frustration, an accumulation of excess credits with little gain in academic engagement.
In order to take the next step in advancing the University’s academic transformation, we must address a reformation of our general education framework.
This is not unfamiliar ground at CUNY. As far back as 1967, a Middle States report on the University noted: “Articulation between the two-year and four-year colleges is a pressing problem….The goal should be acceptance by the four-year colleges of the entire block of transfer work taken in a university two-year college….”
In the decades since that report, the University has not developed a clear, comprehensive system of general education and transfer—much to the detriment of our students’ progress. As the nation’s largest urban public system, CUNY must function as an integrated system. We owe nothing less to the students we serve.
That’s why the University embarked on the Pathways to Degree Completion initiative. The rationale behind the initiative reflects our longtime work to prioritize the academic experience of our students. The purposes include:
- To raise the quality of content in general education courses across the University, at both the community and senior colleges, by aligning curricula to rigorous, agreed-upon learning objectives. A precondition of student success is to define competencies and expectations, to make clear the outcomes that the University as a whole values. Such a review enables courses to be refined, refreshed, and updated, which is essential to ensuring the value of a CUNY degree.
- To give students more opportunities to explore and take chances, and to study in more upper-division classes than they can now access due to the highly prescriptive nature of current general education requirements. College is meant to be a time of intellectual exploration, of curiosity and inquiry among different disciplines. Ensuring a well-rounded experience is essential, particularly one that includes opportunities to make original choices and discoveries.
- To put CUNY more in line with the number of credits now required by most U.S. universities in their general education framework. College curricula requirements at most universities are roughly divided among one-third general education courses, one-third courses in the major, and one-third elective courses. CUNY’s average number of general education credits is well above the norm, leaving students with little flexibility and a good deal of confusion.
- To remove uncertainty from the process of transferring among CUNY colleges by establishing a University-wide standard: a 30-credit common core of general education courses for all undergraduate colleges, plus an additional 12 credits of general education for use by baccalaureate colleges.
Reforming general education and transfer is a complex process that will take time. Our goal is to be guided not by numbers but by learning outcomes. Ensuring that our students have a rigorous, comprehensive, and cutting-edge college education is our priority, just as it has been since 1999. That’s why the difficult work ahead—defining competencies and reviewing courses—must be faculty driven. We depend, as always, on the expertise of our world-class faculty; it is their collaboration that will make this next step in CUNY’s transformation a success. For the first time in CUNY’s history, faculty from both senior and community colleges will engage in system-wide conversations about the content and standards of general education.
The Pathways initiative is critical to meeting our essential goal of advancing academic quality at the University. We cannot become mired in complacency. Our students deserve an integrated, 21st-century institution that truly supports their academic progress.