Transfer News

Time for Change in Higher Education

by Jane Sherman, Passport State Coordinator

Despite the fact that more students start college in the U.S. than in any other nation, only slightly more than half of them (54.8 percent) graduate in six years. (National Student Clearinghouse, Six-Year Completion Rates, 2016). That statistic alone presents a clarion call for not only utilizing different educational practices to increase student retention, but also for placing higher value on, and recognition of, students’ learning achievements early in their postsecondary experiences.

Commonly referred to as an institution’s General Education core, these compulsory areas of early postsecondary coursework generally account for about half of an associate’s degree or a quarter of a bachelor’s degree and cut across many different disciplines.

An emerging national network of colleges and universities called Interstate Passport Network is committed to changing the way we think about General Education, from a disjointed series of standard courses to a critical set of learning outcomes.

The learning outcomes from General Education courses play a critical role in preparing students for their majors, as well as for their lives as employees, entrepreneurs, and citizens. Studies show that employers highly value the knowledge and skills based in General Education, (American Association of Colleges and Universities, Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success, 2015). These skills include, for example: oral and written communication; teamwork skills; critical thinking; creativity; quantitative reasoning; understanding of the sciences and human society; knowledge and insights into other cultures.

Even though colleges and universities all have different courses and course patterns in their General Education requirements, the learning outcomes they want their students to achieve turn out to be very similar, and closely mirror the outcomes highly valued by most employers. Every career pathway necessarily incorporates robust General Education learning, and every university requires lower-division coursework across a broad array of the liberal arts and sciences.

Understanding and using mathematics is an example. Whether it’s calculus for engineers, statistics for political scientists and nurses, or basic math literacy for those in the liberal arts, each math pathway supports specific majors, and all are relevant for understanding the larger world.

In the same vein, basic understanding of scientific concepts and methods is also important. An artist, for example, who starts an art-related business will quickly discover that mathematics, sociology, and psychology are important for marketing, accounting, hiring, and selling. Conversely, scientists with little understanding of history or psychology will be less effective in relating their work convincingly to others.

The broad areas of General Education produce graduates prepared to succeed in our multi-dimensional and rapidly changing world.

Given today’s imperative for broad sets of skills and knowledge, it makes sense to identify a coherent set of learning outcomes that are the foundation of every institution’s General Education core and then provide the learning experiences that allow every student to achieve those outcomes. Once achieved, they can be acknowledged and documented on a student’s transcript as an academic progression milestone.

That’s what the Interstate Passport Network does. It defines learning outcomes and facilitates its college and university members in identifying the courses at their institutions that deliver those outcomes. By doing so, they acknowledge that their students have reached common learning goals that are transferable as a block across institutions and states. For students who transfer from one Network member institution to another, that means acceptance of General Education credits as a block – with no lost credits, courses to take over, or additional expense.

For students, the Passport provides an incentive to reach a first level in higher education and the confidence to continue toward degree completion. It also offers an interim credential signaling academic success and specific learning well before the award of a degree.

For employers, it provides assurance about the actual knowledge and skills that prospective employees have achieved, in ways that a traditional transcript cannot do.

The growing Interstate Passport Network and the idea of learning-based outcomes promise to become a solution for our times, providing a new way of thinking about General Education that will benefit students, employers, and society at large.

For more information on Interstate Passport or how to join visit

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