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.