It’s All about “Me,” but Does It Have to Be?

Those of us who work in higher education are pretty good at conceptualizing, organizing, and creating useful ideas and plans based on years of study, multiple reports, and mounds of data. It is how educators with advanced credentials are trained to identify and respond to issues. It is part of our identity as professionals and scholars. The data we collect include the number of courses we teach each term, our publications and presentations, our promotion decisions, and the number of students we teach. Virtually all this evidence is about “my work.”

Yet, confidence in higher education continues to decline as the percentage of students not completing a credential—but incurring heavy debt—increases; costs continue to rise in relation to return on investment; institutions and departments face competition that challenges the bottom line; and educators find it harder to avoid the unbundling and outsourcing of their jobs. These factors are very personal to those affected by them.

Individually, there seems to be little that can be done to reverse the pressures, models, and practices that support higher education’s current work. So, if individual efforts are not making much difference, one obvious alternative is to work in collaboration with others to effect change.

This issue of Peer Review provides examples of collaboration through pathways across institutions, departments, and programs in the pursuit of enhanced student success in obtaining a credential. Making the pursuit of student success “our work,” rather than just “my work,” is built on evidence that working together can enhance effectiveness (if not always sustainability), especially if the focus is on the quality of learning rather than simply seat time and completion.

In 2011, the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) was developed as a framework to measure student success in terms of the learning needed and attained by students as they entered and progressed through their educational pathways (Lumina Foundation and NILOA, n.d.). It was a framework that allowed success to be parsed from any set of specified courses and listed requirements by focusing on the demonstration of the expected learning apart from the instruments used to measure progress. The DQP was modeled on the tuning process developed by disciplinary organizations in the European Union (EU) that facilitated student transfer among and across institutions throughout the EU.

The DQP was followed in 2015 by a national task force that examined factors affecting general education programs in colleges and universities. The task force’s connection of higher education credentials to employer surveys of twenty-first-century skills and abilities, and reports of diminishing support for college degrees and higher costs, led to a series of recommendations and guidance on what general education—a uniquely American contribution to undergraduate curricula—could do to address the rising challenges. Entitled General Education Maps and Markers: Designing Meaningful Pathways to Student Achievement, the report articulated five principles for GE programs essential for student success: proficiency, agency and self-direction, integrative learning and problem-based inquiry, equity, and transparency and assessment (AAC&U 2015). These principles cross content and disciplinary boundaries and can create sense and meaning for students and faculty across general education programs, especially in curricular designs that are often cafeteria-style or haphazard course menus.

During this same time (2011–16), the Association of American Colleges and Universities was engaged in the Quality Collaboratives initiative involving twenty institutions across nine states (AAC&U, n.d., “Quality”). These two- and four-year institutions formed dyads with already established transfer agreements for their students. Each dyad agreed to collaborate on how their multiple existing transfer practices could be transformed into approaches focused on the quality of student learning rather than checklists of courses completed. The collection of pre-existing transfer agreements resulted in basic considerations and steps that supported truly collaborative interactions and conversations based on faculty and transfer administrators linking their progress to student success and incorporating learning as an essential component of transfer credit (AAC&U, n.d., “Tuning”). These cross-institutional collaborations functioned well for general education programs and a variety of majors.

Faculty from two- and four-year institutions talked to each other about both the content and the level of learning expected for transfer by examining the assignments from courses approved for transfer and samples of student work produced in response to those assignments. The faculty discovered several important areas where transfer issues and student preparation could be enhanced. For example, faculty in biology at one four-year research institution found themselves reassessing their assumptions and attitudes when they found that the community college transfer students performed as well or better than their own first-year and sophomore students (Wolfe 2016).

A rich flow chart emerged (included in this issue on page 24) by mapping a framework based on how interactions, the cooperative alignment of assignments, content coverage, and expectations for performance levels can support student development and enhance their success. Sets of case studies were developed to illustrate the variety of positive benefits from focusing on quality learning as institutional coequal partners committed to student growth and achievement.

In short, we do not lack evidence and examples of what works and how student success through transfer can be implemented. What we lack is will. Guided pathways have been shown to help students, especially students who are unfamiliar with higher education. However, limiting course options and creating articulated paths through the curriculum to achieve a degree or credential are not enough. It is equally critical to develop and scaffold essential learning skills and abilities at increasingly complex and sophisticated levels in diverse settings. And this is equally possible, as the research continues to demonstrate (Bombardieri 2019).

Higher education could address several of the ongoing criticisms from outside our institutions related to lost credits, rising costs, and wasted time by simply acting on what we know could blunt those critiques. A curious aspect of this phenomenon is that we already spend a lot of time as educators working out detailed course lists for student progress through programs and across campus boundaries that keep in place systems perpetuating the same practices that have led to little change thus far. The evidence that supports alternatives to predominant practices has been the result of faculty and other educator creativity, not something imposed from outsiders. We find ourselves in a moment where shared governance could produce benefits for faculty effectiveness, student success, and institutional health if we have the courage to act together from top to bottom within a single program or institution, as well as with our partner programs and institutions, to accomplish something that is not simply a time- or grant-limited project but is sustainable and responsive over the years. But only if we have the courage to act together.

 

References

AAC&U (Association of American Colleges and Universities). n.d. “Quality Collaboratives: Assessing and Reporting Degree Qualifications Profile Competencies in the Context of Transfer.” https://www.aacu.org/qc.

———. n.d. “Tuning Educational Resources.” https://www.aacu.org/node/16044.

———. 2015. General Education Maps and Markers: Designing Meaningful Pathways to Student Achievement. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Bombardieri, Carmella. 2019. “How to Fix Education’s Racial Inequities, One Tweak at a Time.” Politico. September 25, 2019. https://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2019/09/25/higher-educations-racial-inequities-000978.

Lumina Foundation and NILOA (National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment). n.d. “Degree.” Lumina Foundation. http://degreeprofile.org.

Wolfe, Martha. 2016. “Connecting Project Efforts to Statewide Workshops,” in Action Steps for Advancing Transfer Student Success, edited by Rebecca Dolinksky, Terrel L. Rhodes, and Heather McCambly, 18–19. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.


Terrel Rhodes, Vice President for Quality, Curriculum, and Assessment and Executive Director for VALUE, AAC&U

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