GE Plus

A couple of weeks ago a hundred or so Compass Project participants met on the campus of CSU Los Angeles to check in with the pilot sites and plan next steps.  Toward the end of the second day I was talking with two CSU faculty about what might emerge.  They’re on both the project steering committee and GEAC, so their musings are more influential than most, but I don’t want to present this as the future.  It’s more like the idle chat you enjoy while cleaning up after a party.

But there are enough good ideas in here that I don’t want the conversation to evaporate.

Call it “GE Plus,” the third California pathway after IGETC and CSU GE Breadth.  (The other two options stay available.)  How they compare:

IGETC (CSU variety) CSU GE Breadth CSU GE Plus
39 semester units 39 semester units 1.  30 semester units
Golden Four are courses Golden Four are courses 2.  Golden Four are proficiencies across all coursework
anyone can teach anyone can teach 3.  ongoing faculty development and certification
no high-impact practices no high-impact practices 4.  two high-impact practices required along the way
articulation by credit hour articulation by credit hour 5.  articulation by block certification of Essential Learning Outcomes


1.  The 30 units are ten courses each meeting GE Plus criteria.  That means they each develop the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes, adopted in the CSU’s GE Executive Order, and are taught by authorized faculty.  (More on those criteria below.)  Beyond that, what goes into them is up to the offering institutions.  As far as the CSU’s concerned, students can take any ten they want, because they all develop our GE outcomes.

2.  Under the current system, the Golden Four courses are those a student needs for transfer admission to the CSU:

                Written Communication

                Quantitative Reasoning

                Oral Communication

                Critical Thinking

Each has traditionally been taught as a stand-alone course.  But they appear as well in the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes, so if we hit those we hit these.

3.  Any reform along these lines has to include a provision for large-scale and ongoing faculty development.  This is so key that we’d want to restrict the teaching of this curriculum to those faculty (whether full-time or part-time, tenure-track or contingent, college or university) who’ve been trained to do it.  And if we can’t find the resources to make this meaningful and continuous, then the rest of the scheme really isn’t worth pursuing.

But the leaner “GE Plus” approach could save the state three courses per certification, or nine units times a million or so students.  That savings could fund some serious pedagogical tune-ups.

4.  Two High-Impact Practices reach every student following GE Plus.  The faculty development gets everyone teaching to the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes, but also establishes a shared understanding of the most pervasive HIPs, probably to include learning communities, internships, peer mentoring, and service learning.

5.  Block certification by Essential Learning Outcomes may come some day, or never.  In the short term, we keep articulating by counting courses, just fewer and simpler.


In the beginning, students would want GE Plus because they get out faster.   Later on it may also earn positive word of mouth.

Faculty and sending institutions free up nine units and provide more flexible and distinctive local general education.  This could ease creation of class schedules and STAR Act degrees.  (The downside is they can’t offer it until they have some certified faculty.)

The state will want it if we can demonstrate the value proposition, that is, that the up-front investment in faculty development and cost of instruction is offset by increased degree production and reduced achievement gaps.

What it would look like (friends in Academic Technology call this the “use case”)

Fred is an at-risk student at Fresno City College.  FCC has a local GE that reflects the strength of its faculty in — of all things — American lit.  He’s skeptical this’ll have anything to do with his life after college, but it’s close to home and they had room for him.  FCC has come up with supplemental instruction that pulls remedial students like Fred up through credit-bearing courses from the start.

These are GE Plus courses, relating the novels of John Steinbeck to contemporary problems in the Central Valley, with a service learning component.  The lit has more relevance than he expected, and to his surprise he finishes the course.

But things being what they are, Fred swirls.  He ends up at Monterey Peninsula College only nine units into his lower-division college experience.  Here the focus isn’t American lit at all; instead MPC uses its proximity to the ocean and its strong science department to encourage low-key undergraduate research experiences in marine biology, as one of its signature High-Impact Practices.

Even though the local flavor is different, Fred recognizes the same Essential Learning Outcomes that his education pointed him toward at Fresno City.  His GE Plus coursework continues to embed oral and written comm, quantitative reasoning, and critical thinking, using familiar concepts and vocabulary.

As he prepares for transfer, with GE Plus courses indicated on his transcripts from both MPC and FCC, Fred (and his advisors, if there are any left in California) won’t need to slot them into Areas and Subareas, as they would now.  Instead they just need to collect any ten.  In other words, we still have what’s currently called “pass along,” it’s just easier to implement.

That’s as far as we got.


10 thoughts on “GE Plus

  1. The pass-along idea – we need to find a sponsor to fund an ePortfolio system in a region where much swirling and transfer occurs so that artefacts can be readily identified. Also Fred needs to be able to identify those pieces with recognizable “tags”.

    Today I had a conversation relating Robert Frost’s “Good Fences make Good Neighbors” to border policy… Literary themes and politics in a critical thinking exercise.

  2. A friend remarked that it’s a good thing irony is still left out there. I will add that chemists who get Frost’s irony are real treasures! We have to try a different way to understand “pass along.” If faculty can agree on the “tags,” we have nothing to lose and students everything to gain.

    1. Thanks to both of your for these reactions, and yes, ePortfolios seem like a ready-made setting for an approach like this. I like the idea of trying it out regionally first, under some kind of sponsorship, before committing.

  3. Well written and highly motivating post, Ken.

    I love that this proposal shifts the focus away from bureaucratic articulation constraints and on to student-centered learning and improved pedagogy.

    It seems to me that if this is going to have legs, you’ll need to further investigate funding issues related to implementing a wide-scale professional development effort. Your value proposition makes a logical argument for rechanneling GE course savings into professional development, but I’m not sure how you pull the right levers in Sacramento to make this happen. Also, it would be good to know if other states or community college districts have successfully rolled out similar professional development campaigns so you could learn from their experiences.

    1. I have the same feeling, Jeff — just moving money around makes sense on paper, but it’s a hard case to make when the revenue and cost centers are so separate, and generally inscrutable. I haven’t heard of other states making a case like this, but it would help to uncover one.

  4. It’s the best idea I’ve ever heard for encouraging innovative, engaging, and effective changes in our all-too-often suffocating (for students and for faculty who desperately want to reach those students in new ways) transfer models. In fact, I sense a cool, refreshing, and collegial breeze just reading the blog! But I’d suggest setting up pilots that could triangulate both quantitative (e.g., completion rates) and qualitative (e.g., ELO assessment using VALUE rubrics and ePortfolios) data to really understand and continue to develop the HIPs being implemented and improve student learning. We’d need also to understand those results in comparison to control group studies, especially in the qualitative assessment area, to sell the model to students, faculty, counselors, and administrators. Even though there’s a cost and time savings in the 9 units (for students and institutions), I’d argue that (bottom-line, here) improving student learning requires more work on the part of both students and faculty and uncomfortable change all over the institution. I’m pretty sure that GE+ , if well executed, would do just that, improve student learning–as well as engage and retain students–but we will need to document the gains convincingly. The pathways of IGETC and CSU GE Breadth may seem “easier” just because they are well-worn, but in fact they may also end up requiring less effort for all concerned and delivering less in terms of student learning. So GE+ pilots need to be studied intensely to become all that they seem to promise. I’m so excited at the prospect of such change, perhaps within my lifetime!

    1. Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Jean, and the encouraging words. Thanks in particular for the reminder that learning is effortful, practically by definition. We will need to document the upside.

  5. What’s the “short list” of “essential skills” students ought to possess in order to be determined “college ready?” Is there anything that applies to each of the major CSU campuses, regardless of major? Anything that defines essential prerequisites for “bachelor’s level” work?

    If so, what artifacts could illustrate performance of these skills at an acceptably high level? What specific THINGS would comprise the contents of the “ePortfolio” people have mentioned?

  6. Some thoughts on Katrine’s important questions: Though I’m not in the CSU system, I suspect that many if not most of the campuses have engaged in a process to identify student outcomes both for the GE curriculum and for the majors. As a LEAP system, the CSUs have considered the signature Essential Learning Outcomes of the LEAP initiative and are aware of the VALUE rubrics, which offer a means of beginning to consider how student work could be assessed at various levels of expected achievement. With such shared ideas in place and communicated well to students, the eportfolios become a way for students themselves, working with their faculty in specific courses and through their own varied learning experiences, to select “artifacts” to illustrate the skills and knowledge they’ve gained. Although suggestions and guidelines should be offered to help students make those decisions, part of the point of an ePortfolio is that it allows great creativity and flexibility in demonstrating accomplishments. I love the ones that surprise me, going far beyond the requisite assigned papers, to demonstrate learning that was important to the students. Assessment of the ePortfolio becomes a process that feeds back into what we as faculty members do in the classroom, showing us what assignments and curriculum are most effective in generating the outcomes we want and what isn’t working as well as we hoped. I think the ePortfolio can be a driver of change as well as a repository of what has been learned.

    1. Yep. I think our current assessments for college readiness — like the SAT, ACT, and the CSU’s systemwide “Early Assessment Program” (details are at are all good first steps toward what Jean’s describing, and what Katrine is asking about. They address Katrine’s question about a common understanding of “ready for college” across the major CSU campsues, and so they’re a good foothold for future work. But these days we may not need to define learning so reductively.
      Thanks to you both for weighing in.

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