Partnering for Transfer

Getting 37 institutions to agree on new student transfer pathways isn’t easy, but the Minnesota State system seems to have accomplished it.

November 14, 2017
 

After a few years of development, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system has unveiled four transfer pathways to better help students transition within any of the system’s 30 two-year institutions and seven public universities.

The four pathways -- in biology, business, theater and psychology -- are the beginning of an effort to establish 27 transfer pathways for the system’s more than 375,000 students.

“We’re really trying to make this happen across multiple relationships, and if we don’t have faculty, staff and students in the center of the conversations, this just won’t happen,” said Kim Lynch, senior system director of educational innovations for Minnesota State.

And so far, there’s been very little controversy over how the system is creating its pathways.

The project began after the state in 2015 mandated that the system create transfer pathways for students. According to state data from 2013, nearly 20,000 students transferred within the system and more than 13,200 students transferred into it.

Lynch said that instead of the system putting together pathways to please the Legislature, it brought faculty, students and administrators together to avoid creating a plan from the “top down.”

“Throughout the conversations, as transfer pathways were developing, we asked, ‘How do these prepare students adequately for a baccalaureate major?’” Lynch said, adding that the system created space in general education course work to give campuses and students more flexibility.

The system’s framework established a certain amount of required general education credits as well as number of elective credits, regardless of the specific pathways students choose, she said. However, there are some exceptions, particularly in the sciences, where faculty members didn’t necessarily want students to complete general education within the two-year institutions, but instead wanted those requirements stacked throughout the four-year degree plan.

“So, it was about giving some control to those working in the disciplines to make the general frameworks that make sense for specific programs,” she said.

Getting administrators and faculty members to agree on the content and size of general education requirements isn’t easy. Individual colleges tend to have their own general education requirements that have been developed over decades. A department that has a guaranteed course in general education is also guaranteed to get students enrolled in it, said Alexandra Logue, a research professor in the Center for Advanced Study in Education of the Graduate Center at the City University of New York.

“If you’re not prepared to make general education huge and make it for everyone, there will be a lot of upset people,” Logue said. “We got through it, but it was pretty awful, and there were multiple lawsuits.”

Logue was the chief academic officer in 2010 when CUNY began its controversial efforts to create transfer pathways across 25 campuses. Faculty groups in CUNY pushed back with votes of no confidence and lawsuits.

“Some of it is not self-serving, but just people who love their subject matter, which is a good thing, and they want all students to have their subject,” she said.

But Logue said few systems voluntarily create transfer pathways without state legislatures intervening, and that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

“I don’t think it’s good for the Legislature to get involved with what’s happening on college campuses, in terms of curriculum,” Logue said. “But the incentive systems are designed in such a way for these institutions that it’s close to impossible to change on their own, in regards to transfer.”

K. C. Deane, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, said state policy is rarely the tool that solves transfer problems.

“The biggest role state policy can do is really bring institutions together and say, ‘Here’s what we need to accomplish,’” she said.

More states and institutions are starting to embrace transfer pathways, especially when states include transfer in performance-based funding metrics, although Deane said there’s inconsistent evidence that performance funding itself changes institutional behavior. More states also are creating transferability matrices that evaluate which general education courses transfer across all institutions and are then challenging those institutions to bring people to the table and find solutions.

By allowing the four initial pathways to be in different subject areas, the Minnesota system is examining what works, what doesn’t and what happens when students don’t always follow the perfect pathway, Lynch said.

“So many times students get left out of transfer,” Deane said, adding that a department head at an institution can make a course change that alters what credits actually transfer for students already on the program path.

Any number of things can go wrong with transfer for students, Logue said, which is why institutions have to maintain communication even after the pathways are created.

“There’s so much potential to increase achievement rates and add opportunities through transfer,” Deane said. “It’s about time we started looking at this and improving it critically.”

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