News from New York

The City University of New York has a lot in common with the California State University.  Both are confederations of higher ed institutions (by coincidence, exactly 23 apiece), each serving over 400,000 students.  Our missions combine access with quality, driving the upward mobility, civic health, and economic vitality of the communities we serve.  And we both try to reconcile deep, sustained learning with student mobility.

Last week CUNY’s trustees adopted a resolution to reform its systemwide approach to general education and transfer.  For the first time member colleges will have to recognize one another’s courses, not just for elective credit but also toward satisfaction of local GE degree requirements.  Colleges are held to a unit maximum of 30 in the lower division, and 12 in the upper.  Since unlike the CSU, CUNY includes some community colleges, the same 30 that move students toward a baccalaureate will also satisfy all GE for the associate degrees.

This resolution has already had an impact.  Most widely reported has been the faculty dismay, first over having so little say in the reform, and second over the prospective loss of their institutions’ separate character and identity.  Administrators are trying sincerely to make up for that now — composition of the implementation task force favors instructional faculty and, per my colleague in their system office, excludes system administrators altogether.  Still, I think CUNY faculty are right to be concerned on both points.

But a couple of other implications appear more promising, and worth study in California.

For one, the resolution makes a tantalizing reference to developing the Common Core (the lower 30) in terms of “learning outcomes.”  The same paragraph goes on to describe units per area, though, so it’s hard to guess where this will end up.  They could get a bloodless distribution model like California’s, so trivializing liberal learning that we facilitate our students’ mobility out the door.

Or they could focus students and educators alike on the relevance and purpose of lower-division GE, and organize transfer around that.  “Show us you’ve met these important learning goals, and your first two years of GE are done.”  It’s a bad time to bet on daring in CUNY:  multiple sources there tell me they haven’t even begun healing the faculty-admin rift over this.  They could be forgiven for playing it safe.

Yet they also tell me this could literally go either way — transfer of credit by learning outcomes, or by seat time.  It’s too soon to tell.

The second promising feature is already a done deal, built into the resolution itself.  They’ve put 30% of their GE in the upper division, so students get the broad versatile learning of the baccalaureate side by side with advanced work in the major, where employers say they want it.  We do that in the CSU, too, but for us it’s closer to 20%, and we don’t do it well.

Some of our 23 universities see their upper division GE as their best foot forward, the one piece of the curriculum they know everyone will take, regardless of major, whether native or transfer.  It characterizes the university, and prepares students for a lifetime of curiosity and meaning.

For too many others it’s just a safe source of student credit hours, for departments with few majors.

CUNY’s implementation task force will have its hands full just navigating the current terrain there, and I wouldn’t blame the members for feeling beleaguered even before they begin.  But in another sense, they’re embarking on the exciting part.

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3 thoughts on “News from New York

  1. Two issues ought to drive this discussion whether the context is administration or professoriate: 1) inequality of learning and 2) inequality of access to the sheepskin. Re: inequality of learning, are we academically adrift in some quadrants of the academic enterprise (Arum & Roska, 2011)? Are our graduates incompetent in the world of work (Spellings, 2006)? If not incompetent, are they underachieving (Bok, 2006)? Does anybody know?

    Though policymakers at the federal level are working on ways to compel the generation of reasonably comparable data across institutions that speak to questions of learning, right now it is the rare institution that can say much, if anything, about what and how well its graduates are learning. Even if everyone agreed or was forced to agree that a list of certain courses summing to 30 units satisfied all transfer and admissions officers, we would still not know. The real question is this: How will New York assure itself and its graduates that these 30 units signify more than sound and fury?

    Inequality of access to the sheepskin has been thoroughly documented recently in Crossing the Finish Line (Bowen, Chingo, and McPherson, 2009). The gap in graduation rates between middle-and upper-socioeconomic students of all varieties and Black males, Hispanics, and low-socioeconomic students not from underrepresented populations is systematic and wide. Will this package of 30 units prepare all students for the rigors of a major? How will New York design the instructional framework together with assessments that will lead to sustained improvement rooted in evidence?

    Discussions of unit allocation are important to faculty who live and die according to the formulas (my colleagues have been trying to weed out the death metaphor from our local discourse but it’s hard to do). But the real work lies in instructional design and professional development with the affordances of technology. Fortunately, in California, we have guys like Ken O’Donnell who bring us projects like Compass and Compass II. Like Ken, we are finding VALUE in the most unlikely places as we search for cross-institutional bridges and sidewalks and freeways.

    How many units does it take to prepare a student for a major? Are we preparing students for a major or for something else? If so, what–real life? Or both? Such questions depend on assumptions about what a unit is, why it exists, for whose benefit?, which major, what life, how activity unfolds within the space of this unit, who does what on the landscape of the unit, and why this unit is configured as it is. When these assumptions are hidden and implicit, any answer to the unit question is suspect. Why 30?

    Is any of this what the Task Force in New York is going to do?

  2. These are such good points. It’s hard to predict what the task force will take on, but I’m guessing not the credit hour and its assumptions. Few of us could.

    Would it be an attainable step forward to stop short of that? To say that each institution gets to design a GE that claims half of the degree in the lower division (that is, 30 units out of 60), and let them design it however they like so long as it hits certain outcomes?

    Could we?

  3. It may be that the gathering currents of unease about the university among young people (aka DIYU)–especially given the ratcheting up of costs with a corresponding flattening out of access and apparently quality–will ultimately force us to examine our assumptions about how we measure instructional time in our formulae. They likely won’t forget their experiences; in many cases their debt won’t let them. And they will eventually find their way to Sacramento and DC, maybe even New York 🙂

    Measuring learning by way of evidence vs. seat time would a giant step forward, though, in a system of incrementalism that seeks refuge in the phrase “baby steps.” But we have to figure out how to do this measurement without damaging opportunities to learn. It could be a nightmare to do away with the concept of the credit hour and replace it with a horrible assessment system.

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