Reshaping the college route for today’s world — and tomorrow’s
By Ruth Landa
It was fall 2011, and Greg Bradford was looking forward to graduating from Brooklyn College at the end of the semester. Over a nine-year period, he had studied at York College, then Borough of Manhattan Community College and then Brooklyn, where he believed he finally had the academic credits he needed for his baccalaureate degree in psychology.
Bradford’s story is not unusual at The City University of New York, where each college has traditionally set its own general education and graduation requirements — deciding which transfer credits to accept — even as CUNY has developed, functioned and been funded as an integrated university. As a result, many students — particularly those moving from CUNY’s community colleges to its senior colleges — have had previously earned credits rejected or downgraded to elective credit at their receiving schools, forcing them to expend more time, and sometimes money, to graduate.
CUNY’s sweeping new reform of general education will change all that. The initiative, Pathways to Degree Completion, will streamline general education requirements and transfers, speed completion of required courses, and enhance academic standards and transparency across the University, where transfer students now account for more than 50 percent of graduates at the senior colleges.
Innovative National Model
The heart of the Pathways reform is a new, University-wide Common Core curriculum that has been hailed by renowned higher-education leaders as an innovative, national model for large public universities. These academics — current and former heads of higher education associations, Ivy League leaders and prominent scholars — say the new framework will raise standards, improve graduation rates, increase efficiency and better serve CUNY’s exceptionally diverse student body, and the city.
“The City University’s new Common Core curriculum is nothing less than a triumph for higher education in the United States,” asserted sociologist Jonathan Cole, John Mitchell Mason Professor at Columbia University and its former provost and dean of faculties. Cole, one of 12 educators whose endorsements were cited in a 12-page CUNY guide to the transformation, Pathways Ahead: Reform & Rigor, said the reform achieves “what most well-informed educators in large public universities have been striving to achieve for decades: a combination of access, opportunity for social mobility through the ability to transfer credit from one college in the system to another, and academic excellence.”
The 30-credit Common Core, plus an additional 6 to 12 credits of College Option general education credits for the senior colleges (decided by the senior colleges) is to take effect in fall 2013.
The 30-credit core, which is mandatory for all undergraduates, consists of 10, three-credit courses that can be combined in a variety of ways by individual campuses, giving colleges and students flexibility in designing their requirements and course content. The 30 credits encompass a 12-credit “required core” — six credits of English Composition, three of Mathematical and Quantitative Reasoning, and three of Life and Physical Sciences — and an 18-credit “flexible core” of six, three-credit liberal arts courses, including at least one connected with each of these thematic areas: World Cultures and Global Issues, U.S. Experience in its Diversity, Creative Expression, Individual and Society, and Scientific World.
Specific Course Outcomes
Critical to the Pathways reform — and to enhancing academic standards across the University — is the insistence that each course accepted for the Common Core satisfy a set of rigorous, area-specific learning outcomes aimed at teaching concepts as well as critical thinking, research, communication, writing, speaking and other skills.
The plan’s built-in flexibility for the colleges distinguishes Pathways from other general education and transfer-policy reforms at other large, public university systems around the country, according to Associate University Provost Julia Wrigley. AUP Wrigley’s report last year on CUNY’s knotty, decades-old transfer problems helped spark the initiative, which was launched by Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost Lexa Logue at Chancellor Matthew Goldstein’s request and approved by the Board of Trustees last June 27.
The new framework brings the University in line with national norms and trends at other public universities by slimming CUNY’s core requirements to 30 at the community colleges and to up to 42 at the senior colleges. Until now, some CUNY senior colleges have required as many as 63 general education credits — a number that places too many barriers between transfer students and advanced work.
Distinguished Professor of Sociology Paul Attewell, a deputy executive officer at the CUNY Graduate Center and a member of the Pathways task force that developed the Common Core, said the reforms are “consistent with best practices around the country,” and would lead to a smoother transfer process and improved “degree completion rates.”
Colleges Working Together
The complex, multi-phased Pathways initiative — from development of the Common Core framework, content and requirements, to evaluation and approval of core courses, to defining new course “pathways” to the largest transfer majors — has engaged top University administrators and hundreds of faculty and staff from every college and discipline at CUNY, as well as student leaders.
The first phase, development of the Common Core, was carried out by the 54-member Pathways to Degree Completion task force chaired by CUNY School of Law Dean Michelle Anderson. The focus is now on selection and approval of courses. A 125-member faculty Common Core Course Review Committee, led by Hunter sociology professor Philip Kasinitz, who until recently headed the sociology Ph.D. program at the Graduate Center, has begun the process of evaluating courses submitted by each college for inclusion in the core — a task that must be completed by December 2012, in time for spring registration for the following fall.
Each college is to choose courses for the core, specify how they meet the required learning outcomes, and submit them for evaluation and approval by the Common Core Course Review Committee via a customized online system. Following acceptance, the courses must be approved by the Board of Trustees. All Common Core Courses must also be approved by the relevant campus governance process.
The Implementation Advisory Committee, including representatives from each campus, is working to ensure that campus offices and CUNY’s central administration coordinate a smooth implementation of the Pathways changes.
Paths for Popular Majors
Meanwhile, the CUNY Pathways Transfer Majors Committees, chaired by Graduate Center President William Kelly, are working this spring to determine University-wide course “pathways” for CUNY’s most popular transfer majors, to clarify and smooth the credit-transfer process. Tenured CUNY college faculty, meeting in subcommittees focused on particular disciplines, are endeavoring to identify three to six courses leading into the most popular majors — including biology, business, criminal justice, English, nursing, psychology, and teacher education — that will be recommended for all CUNY students entering those disciplines and be made available at all colleges offering those majors.
Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the Association of American Universities and former president of Cornell University, said of the new framework, “Students will understand the core courses they need for their education, and they will be able to transfer those courses readily within the system.” CUNY’s plan, Rawlings said, would promote “better educational outcomes produced in a more efficient way.”
‘Momentous Step Forward’
William G. Bowen, president emeritus of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, former Princeton University president and founding chairman of Ithaka/JSTOR, commended Pathways’ “systemwide emphasis on both fundamentals and flexible areas defined by rigorous learning outcomes” as “a truly momentous step forward for CUNY’s dual missions of access and excellence.”
The changes cannot come soon enough for students such as Steven Rodriguez, 26, of Queens. Rodriguez, a City College junior and one of two students on the Pathways Steering Committee, part of the task force that developed the Common Core, said that initially he had planned to transfer from Kingsborough Community College to one CUNY college but opted for City when he found out that at the first school “I was going to have to retake half my courses.”
At City — where Rodriguez is majoring in international relations with plans to attend law school — he has been told he will have to repeat a science course, because when he transferred, the credits from the Intro to Marine Biology course he took at Kingsborough “were turned into electives.”
“I’ll probably have to pay for that out of pocket,” Rodriguez said.
The possibility of having to re-pay for re-taken classes rankles Julie Reynoso, of Queens, whose 22-year-old son may face credit rejections when he transfers from Queensborough Community College to a CUNY senior college this fall. A business and accounting major, who initially transferred from Loyola University to Queensborough, her son has been accepted at Queens College but has also been told by advisers “there’s a chance they won’t take all of his credits.”
“If he’s taking a math class now that Queens College is not going to take, I’ve already paid for that math class,” Reynoso said. “Why wouldn’t they take your credits? It’s the same system.”
Extra costs and deferred graduation also concern Liliete Lopez, a 35-year-old political science/urban studies double major at Queens who said she was informed that two courses she took at Hostos Community College — including an exercise class — don’t have an equivalent at Queens, so she may lose those credits.
As a disabled student, Lopez, who is blind, will be particularly disadvantaged if she has to re-earn credits. The New York State agencies that fund college for disabled students don’t provide the assistance “if it’s a class they already took,” said Lopez, who advocates for disabled CUNY students and knows transfer students who gave up on graduating because their credits were rejected.
“My family doesn’t have the income to pay for me,” said Lopez, who hopes to graduate this fall. “I’m waiting to see what happens, and I’m praying that I don’t have to take these classes. Otherwise my graduation will be delayed.”
Flexibility for Students
Steven Rodriguez sees the choices embedded in the new core as more student-oriented, in that students will have flexibility to select courses to satisfy some of the requirements. At the same time, he says, the new learning outcomes mandated for core courses should reassure the colleges receiving students transferring from other CUNY schools. “When advisers (at receiving colleges) were reviewing transfer credits, it used to be subjective,” Rodriguez said. “With the way it is now, there are certain skills the students will learn.”
CUNY Graduate Center President Kelly called the University’s restructured requirements “an engagement with a national rethinking of general education” that enhances “the range and the depth of a student’s intellectual experience.”
For more than 40 years, Executive Vice Chancellor Logue told the Trustees when they approved the initiative last June 27, “CUNY undergraduates have struggled with having their course credits transfer when they move from one CUNY campus to another,” because in most cases “transfer credit at CUNY has operated on a course-matching system. Courses taken at campus A receive credit at campus B, if campus B judges that it has a course that matches the course at campus A.”
The Pathways reform, by ensuring that students are credited for specific, accepted courses to be determined in advance by faculty evaluators, takes that subjectivity — and uncertainty — out of the process. “With this resolution, the special role of the faculty in determining curriculum will be preserved, and colleges will have considerable flexibility and individuality,” Logue said. “At the same time, the rights of students to transfer — and have their course credits transfer with them — will be protected.
“Students will have clear general education and major pathways, no matter at which campus they start and at which campus they finish,” Logue said. “CUNY students will attend a single, integrated, University.”