An Interview with John Gardner of the John N. Gardner Institute

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Interstate Passport Briefing
This is one of 6 articles in the July 2020 newsletter.

John Gardner serves as the chair and chief executive officer of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, which works with colleges and universities to strengthen their resolve and processes to undertake assessment and other improvement actions to increase student learning and retention. The Institute focuses its work on the use of a previously non-existent set of aspirational standards for improvement of the first-year experience, the transfer student experience, and the gateway course experiences of students at all undergraduate levels. The Institute was founded October 1999 as the Policy Center on the First Year of College. John is a long-time advocate, initiator and scholar of the American first-year and senior-year reform movements. (Full bio: https://www.jngi.org/full-bio-gardner)

Interstate Passport Chair Emeritus Mike Hillman recently interviewed John Gardner to talk about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on student transfer, how the transfer landscape will change, and the role of Interstate Passport in fostering successful transfer in the wake of such dramatic change. 

Q1. Transfer students were facing an uphill battle to degree success before COVID-19. How does COVID-19 change the transfer landscape?

JG: Before the pandemic and shutdown, transfer student status was a significant component of the unfinished Civil Rights movement. Now everything is uncertain, especially the impact on employment prospects post-college. The lack of employment options and the burden of debt will further affect students’ selection of major, in addition to all their other important personal life decisions. Less money will be available from all sources to support them. It’s likely that most students will not return to a residential campus. Add to that the reduction in the variety of courses to be offered, and it will be more difficult to reach people for assistance. College budgets will have been cut resulting in a disproportionate impact on the availability of staff to support students. Plus students are experiencing a high level of stress from the distractions of protest, unleashed anger, and the negative political state of affairs.

More importantly, however, COVID-19 has potential to change the political balance of power and to elect a new President and Congress—and state legislatures—and thereby to increase the potential for free college movement and lowering costs of college attendance.

Q2. Many colleges have not been very supportive of online education or transfer students in the past. Online education may now be the only option available for large numbers of college students, forcing them into a transfer situation. Does COVID-19 create an opportunity for colleges to take a fresh look at their transfer policies?

JG: Yes, especially for the smaller privates who have empty seats anyway and which could offer real-time instruction as an alternative to online; there is still a huge demand for conventional instruction. But yes, demand for transfer surely is going to increase.

Institutions have to go beyond looking at transfer policies and instead look at policies and especially practices that are more likely to produce successful students. This question points to limitations of the concept of transfer that is inherent in this question—transfer success is not just a matter of policies. It is a matter more fundamentally of academic success. Colleges and universities will have to look at course redesign and alternative pedagogies.

But policies do matter. I would suggest schools conduct a comparison of policies for transfer vs. non-transfer students in the following areas:

  • Financial Aid
  • Housing
  • Deadlines for application
  • Access to internships and on-campus jobs
  • Quality of orientation and elective vs. required
  • Option for transfer student success seminars.

The previous cyclical pattern of community college enrollment has shown an inverse relationship to the health of economy. The problem now is that COVID-19 will likely drive even more students into community colleges, which have been drastically cut during the economic expansion. Now the lack of local municipal and state revenues will handicap the capacity to handle these students appropriately.

Q3. Your new book (The Transfer Experience: A Handbook for Creating a More Equitable and Successful Postsecondary System) will be released next year. Were you seeing particular themes around transfer policy or practice (success or failure) that led to the development of the book?

JG: Here’s what I was seeing:

The equity front had stalled due to setbacks in the last few years. I became aware of gross inequities with respect to priority and policies. Also I see prejudice against transfer students and those who teach them and the institutions that send them. Working with the First-year Experience Task Force especially and even at community colleges showed me the relatively low priority for transfer. There is tremendous institutional ignorance about these invisible students. Transfer students lack advocates.

Also the student success focus is disproportionately placed on first-year students, not at all on incoming transfer students. There are limitations of our conceptual framework for transfer, with an over-emphasis on mechanics of transfer and leadership from enrollment management and not academic advisors.

The impact of my own career, moving from focusing initially on first-year students to now focusing more broadly on “transition” – including transfer students – has brought me to this place.

Q4. Students face major transfer of credit problems even when they carefully plan transfer pathways. COVID-19 is forcing large numbers of students into unplanned pathways at a time when access to person-to-person transfer guidance is often limited. The Interstate Passport provides a faculty driven, outcomes-based structure to support general education transfer.  Can the Interstate Passport provide a useful framework for both students and institutions as students are forced into unplanned transfer situations?

JG: Yes, absolutely. The first question is, how can this option be taken advantage of by even more institutions and more students? Some other avenues to pursue are as follows.

  • The availability of Interstate Passport must be more effectively marketed to both institutions that are not members and to students at institutions that are members. Since the program became operational four years ago, member institutions have learned they need to enhance their own marketing efforts to make students aware of Interstate Passport.
  • Institutions in states with declining demographics and enrollments would especially benefit from the joining the Network, and marketing efforts there should bear fruit.
  • Private and liberal arts colleges are hungry for students. The Network does have a few private institutions as members, and, again, marketing is key in this area, particularly in states in which all system campuses are members.
  • Before we consider recruiting high school students and connecting the Passport to dual credit, we want to ensure that our member institutions – students, academic advisors, registrars, and communications reps – are fully supported and fully operational.
  • Interstate Passport in effect is presenting a national model for curricular components. In many cases member institutions retooled parts of their general education curriculum or their institutional learning outcomes as they assembled their Passport Blocks. The work undertaken by faculty members to create the Passport Learning Outcomes was comprehensive and rigorous, providing a solid foundation for institutions’ Passport Blocks and general education curriculum.
  • Member institutions that have developed pathways within the general education curriculum have incorporated the Passport Learning Outcomes in these efforts. The beginning courses of a pathway often reside within an institution’s lower-division general education curriculum, which includes those courses that make up the institution’s Passport Block. Academic advisors can recommend courses to students on a selected pathway so that they earn a Passport on their way to a degree.
  • If taking courses to fulfill a Passport Block, i.e., lower-division general education courses that impart the Passport Learning Outcomes, is really going to be a means to increase degree attainment, it matters not only what courses are in the Passport but whether or not those courses have been redesigned to meet any pedagogical and design components that could be stipulated and standardized. An examination of institutions’ Passport Block courses for these components might be pursued in the future.
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