Student Transfer in the Aftermath of the Pandemic: A Conversation with Pathways Executive Director for the American Association of Community Colleges

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

In late March, Dr. Peter Quigley, former co-chair of the Passport Review Board had an in-depth conversation with Dr. Gretchen Schmidt, Pathways Executive Director for the American Association of Community Colleges. They discussed student transfer and the Interstate Passport in general and how student transfer and mobility are going to be even more important in the immediate future, as students resume studies and schools make plans for the fall semester.

P. Quigley: Where do you see the biggest policy obstacles to transfer and student success with student transfer overall? Where is the accountability finally going to come from?

G. Schmidt: In the coming year or so, I think it will be more difficult to have robust conversations about transfer with any sense of accountability because the enrollment issues are going to be more acute and more profound in the short term, and everybody will be competing for the same students.

This is the conversation I’ve been having over the last six-eight weeks: How do we frame a transfer conversation between community colleges and regional four-year institutions in a time with limited students and limited resources? I think it needs to be about true two-way collaboration built with ongoing sharing of data and some level of accountability. That’s a very different transfer conversation than we’re having now.

PQ: Assuming the short term isn’t short, obviously transfer becomes impossible under current circumstances. One of my complaints about the pathways implementation is that it was state-centric. The current crisis is going to reinforce (the need for) a very regional (national) approach to this. Does Interstate Passport have an increased role in that kind of a profile, in that scenario?

GS: I think the places where you have robust transfer relationships already, those conversations can translate into shared services and successful online transitions and collaborative connections to student support services in a more virtual environment. Holistic supports can be done in a more proactive and productive way for students in those established relationships. In the current crisis I think it’s going to be a larger challenge to start from scratch to build anything beyond very rudimentary course articulation agreements in an online delivery environment. When things stabilize, institutions can then address the necessary student supports needed to have a positive impact on the transfer student experience in a virtual setting.

I do think that more and more the structure of Interstate Passport is vital. As we start to revisit transfer again and talk about mobility in a different way, whatever happens in the next 18 months to two years, the model of basing transfer on learning outcomes instead of general education course articulation is the most viable way to give students the greatest benefit. If we can stop the course-by-course horse trading and base the agreements on learning outcomes, in a way that is faculty-driven and administratively supported with a level of accountability, student mobility will be maximized. That is what Interstate Passport has been all along. Trying to develop individual course equivalencies at scale across states is just not productive. It doesn’t work for students, it doesn’t work at the state policy level—plus it results in these expansive course equivalency guides that are complicated for students to navigate and require constant updating as curriculum changes at individual institutions. 

PQ: That’s a great new way to think about what we’ve been trying to do. We’ve had these conversations inside Interstate Passport (leadership) about course equivalency as a real murky area when it comes to transfer.

GS: We have to get over all these stereotypical barriers that the learning outcomes at a community or a regional college, even from a regional four-year to a selective four-year are somehow inferior – who’s to say? If the learning outcomes are the learning outcomes and students are achieving the learning outcomes, and these institutions are accredited by the same accrediting organizations, then I think this goes back to being about territory and enrollment. It has very little to do with students and students’ accumulation of knowledge and demonstration of proficiency.

This should be an academic conversation instead of a process conversation that registrars and admissions offices have. Students too often have the false belief that transfer credits are universally accepted and applied by receiving institutions. This is the acceptability vs. applicability conversation. We do acceptability in transfer just fine, we accept a lot of courses, students have the perception that their courses transfer to the receiving institution, which they do, for the most part. But if they transfer but don’t all apply to meet requirements for their program of study, what purpose is there for the students to take these courses?

We’re not transparent. If we were transparent, we would say, okay you want to take this Psychology of the Law class because you are interested in the content and it applies as an elective at the community college, but it’s not going to transfer and apply at your receiving institution. Knowing this, if you still want to take the course, then absolutely take it! But know, before you take it that the course is only going to be general elective credit when you transfer and will not apply toward your program of study requirements.   

That’s fine, I have no ethical issue with it. But we often don’t do that. We just put everything on a check sheet or articulation table that’s very flat and not interactive. So students, particularly those with the least amount of social capital, assume if a course is included in a transfer degree then it’s going to transfer and apply when they go to their receiving institutions. We have to communicate to students more effectively about transfer requirements from the point of entry at the community college.

PQ: If you recall, the data that was so revealing about remediation showed that students who avoided remediation but were tagged for remediation did as well if not better than students who were placed in 100(-level) courses legitimately. Where is the data that shows that the course-by-course horse trading actually has an empirical benefit for students?

GS: My strong suspicion is that it doesn’t exist within states much less across them, and this is about territory and enrollment as we discussed above. The National Student Clearinghouse continues to expand their research and our colleagues from the Aspen Institute, HCM and SOVA are expanding on the work done by Aspen in their Transfer Playbook. This is outside the bandwidth of most institutions’ institutional research capacity and data sharing agreements that don’t often exist among institutions. This is critically important data, and we hope that the organizations I mentioned continue their excellent work exploring such issues.

PQ: You summed it well earlier: agree on the outcomes, transfer the outcomes. How do we start to get people to actually move on the outcomes-based piece and get away from the horse trading and credit hour focuses?

GS: I’ve worked on transfer policy for a long time. Even with statewide accountability it’s a tough nut to crack. Accountability very rarely has a lot of teeth built into it. It’s more of a slightly shaming function than a true accountability function. At the community colleges, we have to be better about not building academic plans in programs of study for transfer students that include courses that do not transfer and apply to their receiving institution of choice. That requires advising in a much different way. You need to know the student’s intent during the on-boarding process, you have to record what program a student selects and make changes in the system if the student changes her mind, you need to know very early on which institution she wants to transfer to, and you have to monitor her progress – if she takes courses off her plan, there needs to be a trigger than explains the consequences.

I do think that Interstate Passport is different because it operates across states, many with rural institutions in places that do not have densely populated areas with large numbers of higher education institutions. Interstate Passport provides students a level of institutional mobility across state lines that they would not have without it. It sets a baseline for acceptance and applicability of credit that provides a level of assurance for students and opens the doors at institutions that the student may not have considered had Interstate Passport not been in place.  

We must ask ourselves what lessons from Interstate Passport work can be applied within states and also across states. Even when the presidents and leadership teams across institutions agree to a transfer policy or sign an articulation agreement, the execution is very much dependent on the mid-level leaders and front-line faculty and staff who are evaluating student transcripts. A state, regional or local transfer policy may exist that says the institutions are going to prioritize seamless transfer, but the implementation and the efficacy of the policy often falls to the person who is evaluating the transcript in the department – the dean or the department chair reviewing the application of the program-level courses to the program of study – and that’s where it all can break down.  

Dr. Gretchen Schmidt serves as the Pathways Executive Director for the American Association of Community Colleges.  Her tenure at AACC began as the lead of the three-year grant initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation designed to create a national model for scaling guided pathways reforms.  The outcomes of that project and the work of those original 30 institutions has provided the knowledge base and resources for guided pathways projects across the country.  Dr. Schmidt continues to work alongside national pathways partner organizations to develop, refine and adapt resources to assist colleges as they reform using guided pathways as the framework for institutional transformation.  She just completed a subsequent national pathways project, called AACC Pathways 2.0, with a cohort of community colleges in 10 states that included urban, suburban and rural institutions.  She is considered a national expert on institutional transformation and has led single- and multi-day events at hundreds of community colleges in the last decade.  Prior to her time at AACC, she was a program director for Jobs for the Future’s Postsecondary State Policy team. Before JFF, she spent five years in the Virginia Community College System—first as educational policy director, then as assistant vice chancellor for academic and student services. She also served on the staff of state college boards in Arizona and taught undergraduate and graduate courses in Virginia and Arizona.

Dr. Peter Quigley is a Professor of English, University of Hawaii at Manoa and was the University of Hawai’i System Community Colleges’ associate vice president for academic affairs for 10 years, and past the co-chair of the Interstate Passport® Program. As associate vice president, he was responsible for academic program planning, evaluation and assessment; course and program articulation; regional accreditation; federal higher education and workforce development issues, and collaboration with external agencies. He has also served as interim vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and chancellor at Leeward Community College. His latest book is The Forbidden Subject: How Oppositional Aesthetics Banished Natural Beauty from the Arts.

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