It has been several decades now since the “field” has moved from a focus on increasing access to a focus on success. Suddenly, it seemed important to say, “Getting students into the system is not sufficient. Getting them through is the point as well.” As a result of this insight, the pathway initiative was born. In a nutshell, Guided Pathways is the not-so-revolutionary proposition that classes ought to be lined up and available in a way that allows students to have access to them in order to get through quicker and more efficiently. Other support services should be deployed along the way as well to ensure no loss of momentum. And now, there is a growing light looming on the change horizon: Success at what?
It’s not just getting students through the system that is the point. The question now beginning to formulate is, shouldn’t there be an intentional connection between academic programs and the world of work? Getting the disenfranchised, the poor through the system is not success unless that experience also yields a dynamic entrance into the world of work. This is the new “transfer” challenge. We used to look down our nose at such a sentiment, saying this sounds like “job training” not “education.” Our job, we used to say, was to build character, build critical thinkers, global citizens, as though such goals should not also equip someone with translatable skills for the workplace.
Slowly and painfully, coming to the surface in fits and starts, is a fundamental reappraisal of the nature, point, and purpose of higher education. Previously, higher education prided itself on being an indifferent monolith where students entered one side and came out the other side all the wiser, erudite, sophisticated and equipped with the information, the tools to change the world and to navigate wisely through that world. A world has emerged, however, that requires more information be acquired by more segments of society. This means education is now seen as a practical necessity, not the right of passage for an elite segment of culture. In a word, education is in the process of being radically democratized. As a result, we have tried to study how students successfully get through the monolith, why it matters and what happens when they do.
With varying degrees of success and impact, accreditation agencies (insisting on learning outcomes), Achieving the Dream (“Look at your data; see how many are losing out in remediation cycles!”), Complete College America (“Deploy game changers top down; make things that work state policy!”) along with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation and others have all tried to challenge the status quo of higher education, to reshape the success ratios nationwide and the change the conversation.
Interstate Passport figures in this context as one of the most impactful and important structural changes in all of these discussions around the change initiatives. Co-requisite and Pathway initiatives are needed critical changes regarding how we orient parts and pieces inside a degree; Interstate Passport, however, is a large-scale initiative that takes on one of the most dangerous areas of student activity: transfer is the cliff students fall over more often than even the data show. Earning a Passport accelerates and propels students forward into the next and most crucial part of their journey towards completion. If co-requisite saves students from the gravitational pull of remediation and if Pathways gives a clear charted path forward, a Passport launches the student journey past the most hazardous of all the traps that exist in the first two years of college: transfer. Many important articles have documented and re-documented this dangerous area. In “Jumping the Chasm,” David B. Monaghan and Paul Attewell, for instance, studied a group of community college students with 60 credits and who are on record desiring to earn a BS or BA. Of these, only about 60 percent successfully transfer to a four-year institution. What happened to the others? Jumping the chasm of transfer seems to be the culprit. The other big story here is that of those who do transfer have the crushing experience of not having their credits accepted. This is a wound that eventually translates into walking away from a system that ignored the work students already had accomplished.
The existence of Interstate Passport announces that the work students have accomplished should count and that it carries significant purchase into any other college program in the area of general studies. General education is, after all, “general education.” Faculty in specific discipline areas in 15 states have validated the fact that there is enough commonality in nine areas of lower division general education to warrant this universal transfer mechanism called a Passport. The new currency of transfer, therefore, becomes the 63 outcomes memorialized in the Passport experience.
As the New Year opens, we need to think of the students dreaming to succeed as they struggle with the traps and doors embedded in our various systems of higher education; we must continue to innovate and remove unnecessary obstacles. We need to think of the countless faculty and administrators who are willing to rethink the road these students must travel. The work on Interstate Passport has now spanned several years, almost a decade, from its conception to its implementation. It clearly has caught the imagination of many faculty leading for change in higher education. It has been awarded funding by major funders such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, as well as, a U.S. Department of Education grant. But change in our institutions is hard, as you know, and will require new energy, new commitment and new voices to push this initiative into what constitutes the “norm” of practice. The potential for huge change based on this simple act of acceptance and simplification is monumental to think about. So, we need to rededicate ourselves to the work of innovation and change; a giant leap forward, embodied by Interstate Passport, could become the headline in higher education in 2020. Let’s make it happen together!