Peer Review

Putting High-Impact Practices and Inclusive Excellence at the Center of GE Reform: Lessons from the California State University LEAP Initiative

In 2008 the California State University (CSU) joined the AAC&U’s LEAP States initiative and the Compass project (officially known as Give Students a Compass: A Tri-State LEAP Partnership for College Learning, General Education, and Underserved Student Success). That same year, Chancellor Charles B. Reed responded to a request from the CSU Statewide Faculty Senate and issued Executive Order 1033, making the LEAP essential learning outcomes the framework for general education (GE) and assessment of GE in the CSU system. The challenge was obvious: How to organize collaboration in a public university system enrolling more than 400,000 students on twenty-three separate campuses? How to use the Compass project to support the work?

The steering committee for the Compass project invited each CSU to submit a proposal for redesign of its GE curriculum, with an emphasis on high-impact practices (HIPs) and prioritization of inclusive excellence. Interest was keen; evaluating the competing proposals difficult. Ultimately the steering committee chose one campus at each of three phases in the cycle of curricular reform: early, middle, and late. Their individual stories follow, as told by authors from the campuses.

Early: Sacramento State University

Our experience is significant for several reasons. First, readiness to participate in general education (GE) reform need not include past participation in reform-minded conferences (we hadn’t had the money to send too many to travel too far), widespread local agreement that reform is needed (indeed, we had far more widespread agreement that nothing is wrong), or a strong shared vision of the imperative that we educate our students liberally (our faculty is, to its credit, an army of disciplinarians with terminal degrees from prestigious institutions).

Second, institutional intentionality notwithstanding, the particular faculty who have long been dedicated, passionate advocates for GE on this campus were not convinced that taking away the choices we provide our students is truly the best thing. Many perceived “giving students a compass” as moving toward standardization, external surveillance, and trespass on the curriculum.

Nevertheless, our proposal prevailed despite our dearth of readiness. Fast forward roughly two years, and we have made important inroads into the guts of the GE machine. To date, we have mobilized much of the campus to be aware that our GE with its antiquated design is being updated and transformed.

Our funders—Carnegie and Lumina—wonder how large educational institutions can be made to move, to change, to improve their capacity. If we have learned anything from our experiences, wonder no more. The enactment of what labor leader Joe Hill said as he was led to his death explains the “how”: “Organize.” The one-on-one discussions, the small group “conversations,” the workdays, the receptions, the mini-conferences, the emails, the meetings, the often difficult and emotional talk—these things resulted in the unanimous passage of new Baccalaureate Learning Goals (BALGs) at Sacramento State in November 2009. Now we have a compass and a work plan with a sunset date requiring reconsideration of the GE program.

With the new BALGs in hand, the provost asked that a workgroup design a pilot GE Project for approximately 20 percent of the incoming 2011 freshman class. In accordance with the spirit of the new BALGs, this pilot would make “a coherent and integrated contribution to a student’s total (GE and major) academic experience at Sacramento State, one that is recalled as an important shared experience by future alumni and provides increasingly positive recognition of the University.” In January 2010, the provost called for a twenty-first-century GE that would feature “assessable learning outcomes well connected to our Baccalaureate Learning Goals, affordability, and flexibility for students taking courses and departments planning them and exposure of students to the combined, coordinated, and potentially cross-disciplinary strengths of our best teachers in new substantive and pedagogical structures.” By March, the proposal was developed, reviewed, and submitted to the provost for preliminary approval, then presented to the Senate Executive Committee and the Senate for discussion and debate that continued into fall 2010.

For the first time since the 1980s the curriculum structure was opened up in GE. The students, who had endorsed the first Senate action regarding the LEAP outcomes and BALGs, added a resolution in support of the GE Pilot, calling for new ways of teaching and learning. The groundwork for the actual resolution took every bit of three years. At this point, faculty by and large support an “experiment” in creating and implementing Academic Learning Collaboratives (ALCs) made up of multiple courses—even though they know it introduces larger-scale transformation and calls for teaching in ways they have not necessarily imagined. When implemented, Sacramento State Studies will enable the institution to assess program-level outcomes and track HIPs (who gets them and what sorts) both back to students and forward to their outcomes.

It would be disingenuous to say that all is well in GE-land. The tensions and discontinuities inherent in our ancient “spoils” system of credits and turf, our tendency as faculty to focus on “the content,” and the hesitancy with which all stakeholders approach the learning needs of our students have made the implementation of our new GE slower than we would have wanted. Despite our lack of readiness back then, despite our passionate tensions that still remain, working with the Compass project has opened the door for change. It’s hard to hold back the tide.

Middle: California State University, Chico

California State University, Chico, entered the Compass project determined to redesign its GE program to make its importance more intelligible to students. This decision followed programmatic assessment of GE that documented only modest gains in “skills,” such as writing, oral communications, numeracy, and critical thinking. While course assessment results gave us confidence in the quality of specific courses, it did little to clarify what GE, as a program, was contributing to our students’ education.

Informed by national debates on GE, our revisoning process was positively influenced by several AAC&U conferences that we attended prior to embarking on redesign. As members of the Compass project, we adapted the LEAP essential learning outcomes to our campus context. Making excellence inclusive (MEI) led us to intentionally design curriculum and pedagogy to serve the needs of underrepresented students.

In the course of the design process competing considerations had to be managed, negotiated, and otherwise reconciled, requiring that we balance:

  • outcomes with articulation in the design
  • coherence with exploration in the curriculum
  • design-team leadership with broad participation
  • high-impact practices with severe budgetary pressures

Outcomes versus Articulation

To create an outcomes-based, assessable program that reflected our campus values and vision, we adapted LEAP learning outcomes to our context through a consultative process that produced a GE mission statement, strategy, values, and student learning outcomes (SLOs) that defined a distinctive, outcomes-based GE program. Yet CSU, Chico, is part of the larger CSU, which mandates specific distributional requirements in the GE curriculum—in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences—in order to ensure breadth and enhance transferability. Our redesign reconciles these goals through embedding our SLOs in thematically linked pathways that include courses representing all distributional disciplinary areas, allowing us to provide a strong statement of the intellectual principles animating our vision, while making a distinctive program “portable.”

Coherence versus Exploration

Campus consultations made it clear that faculty and students value the intellectual exploration afforded by a variety of courses across the disciplines in GE. On the other hand, for many, coherence is the “holy grail” (Boning 2007). Our solution was to design pathways through the program: sets of courses, representing the disciplinary areas discussed above, that cohere around intellectual themes such as global studies, sustainability, or health and wellness. Students are not required to complete a pathway, but if they complete eighteen units in a pathway they earn a minor in that field of study, e.g., a minor in global studies. This “value added” aspect of GE has been enthusiastically supported by students, and provides a mechanism that makes GE intelligible to all.

Top-down Leadership versus Broad Participation

A design team is a relatively small group of people who lead a change process. The design team approach can be contrasted with a broad-based “stakeholder” approach where all interested parties have a place at the table. Recognizing the need for broad participation, the design team members took on multifaceted roles: conveners of conversations, providers of initial ideas, resource people familiar with the literature on GE, and diviners of the campus will. We convened five campus-wide open forums, met with twenty departments, consulted department chairs three times, made several presentations to the provost and deans, surveyed students and alumni, and—adhering closely to the campus governance process—participated in five meetings of the academic senate. In February 2010, the new program received unanimous senate approval, fifteen months after the design team began its work.

This broad-based participatory approach to curriculum development contrasts with the Zemsky and Finney (2010) contention that pathways can be devised relatively quickly and easily with little input or debate. We find this contention untenable, especially as we develop the thematic content of pathways several months after passage of the redesign.

High-Impact Practices (HIPs) versus Budgetary constraints

Our redesign occurred during a time of severe budget cuts to California higher education, including the notorious year of furloughs when all personnel suffered a 10 percent pay cut and enforced furlough days when work was not permitted. Our provost’s initial charge to the design team mandated an affordable GE program. Yet we were also committed to Making Excellence Inclusive (MEI)–providing universal access to high-impact practices (Kuh 2008) to engage all of our students. We viewed curricular redesign as a golden opportunity for innovative pedagogies to enhance student engagement. Participation in the Compass project enabled us to cite MEI goals, and focus on providing a high-quality education to historically underserved populations—a central aspect of the Chico State and CSU mission. Our design strategically includes HIPs such as writing-intensive courses, civic engagement experiences (like our nationally known town hall meetings), and a GE capstone experience. These HIPs are strategically placed so that all students experience them, both early in their academic careers, when they are most vulnerable to dropping out, and later as culminating experiences.

Participation in the Compass project catalyzed efforts to re-think GE. The design team frequently cited our participation in the Compass project to legitimate our efforts and link them to national discussions. Compass provided guidance, inspiration, intellectual, and financial resources, as well as a clarion call to be true to our values of inclusive “access to excellence” for all students at CSU, Chico.

Late: San José State University

Helping students navigate higher education is especially daunting with those who transfer from two- to four-year institutions. They are more likely to be economically disadvantaged, first generation, and/or ethnic minorities. Although community colleges and public four-year institutions in California have common lower-division GE requirements to facilitate transfer, these requirements are typically fragmented into a series of unrelated courses. Findings from the 2010 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) show that transfer students are less likely to engage in HIPs like service-learning, undergraduate research, internships, and study abroad.

San José State University (SJSU) and Evergreen Valley College (EVC) embarked on a joint pilot project designed to facilitate the transfer transition, enhance student success, and increase participation in HIPs. It built on an existing partnership that focused on EVC students before transfer—the Hispanic-Serving Institution Transfer project ( The Compass project was intended to bridge both sides of the experience and align institutional messages about GE and liberal education. Our target audience was underserved students planning to transfer to SJSU or another four-year institution, identified through several EVC programs for low-income students and students of color.

The project combined a second-semester English composition GE course, English 1B, before transfer with peer mentoring, advising, and cocurricular activities before and after transfer. We selected English 1B for strategic reasons: it could incorporate liberal education themes through critical reading and writing assignments; it is typically taken near the time of transfer; and it serves as a gateway course for upper-division GE and writing requirements. It also fit with a successful “writing partners” service-learning model, originally cocreated by SJSU English faculty member Catherine Gabor, which pairs college students and elementary school students through letter exchanges. (See

Alexandria White, EVC English instructor, was invited to teach the pilot course. Ms. White is a young, first-generation African-American woman who earned her B.A. at another CSU—San Francisco State University—and her M.A. at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She was excited to work across educational levels and institutional boundaries, resonated with the social justice aspect of service-learning, and, as a relatively novice faculty member, had not become “set” in her pedagogical style. Gabor and White jointly adapted the course syllabus.

The first three class meetings were held at EVC, but the remaining classes were held at SJSU to help students acclimate to the much-larger campus. At the first SJSU meeting, they were welcomed with a pizza dinner hosted by Debra David, associate dean of undergraduate studies. Subsequent meetings included campus and library tours, class visits by representatives of academic advising and the career center, and a writing workshop to prepare students for the required SJSU writing skills test. The two peer mentors were both transfer students; one (Robert Corpus, who wrote the “Reality Check” in this issue) had come from EVC. We wanted the EVC students to feel “at home” and valued at SJSU and to learn about resources and HIPs.

End-of-semester comments written by the EVC students were universally positive. Many said that the service-learning component increased their motivation to engage with course materials.

“The [writing partners] experience was a lot better than I anticipated, and it caused me to take the course, as a whole, more seriously.” The college students gave their partners a glimpse of college life and wanted to prove to them—and to themselves—that they were university-bound. Most felt that the class made them more confident and excited about transferring to SJSU or another four-year institution.

“Not only has this class given me a glimpse of what campus life could be like, it has given me an extra boost of confidence to proceed. I can’t wait!”

“It has motivated me to do better in school now so I can one day transfer to a university like San Jose State.”

White had initially allowed thirty-seven students to enroll, expecting the class size to shrink to twenty to twenty-five students, typical for English 1B classes at EVC. She was surprised and delighted to discover that only two students dropped by the end of the semester. The remaining thirty-five passed the course.

We are cautiously optimistic about its institutionalization, but budget constraints and personnel changes may undermine its long-term continuation. The key faculty, administrators, and staff are convinced of its value, but we plan a more systematic study with comparison English 1B classes at EVC and SJSU to provide stronger assessment evidence. We will also track the progression of the EVC transfer students and their participation in HIPs. The pilot has increased the visibility of issues facing transfer students at both institutions and we are exploring ways to expand our collaboration.

Results AT CSU

In the course of the project, the CSU system has spread the impact of work on these three beta-site campuses in two ways. First, as part of its commitment to Give Students a Compass, the steering committee hosted two statewide conferences, in 2009 and 2010. Leadership from the beta sites brought teams of faculty and students to share their experiences and insights with colleagues throughout the CSU system.

Second, the steering committee itself includes a mix of skills and perspectives:

  • a director of institutional research, whose independent analysis of the relationships between HIPs and student success has helped make the argument for broader, system-wide curricular reform;
  • a system officer, whose statewide perspective facilitated communication and logistics;\
  • two representatives from the statewide academic senate, whose roles on key committees and tireless support have given the Compass project the urgency and legitimacy it needed.

In the CSU system, reforming GE, incorporating HIPs, and making excellence inclusive remain works in progress. But the Compass project has accelerated that work, in large part because of the commitment, resourcefulness, and sheer tenacity reflected in the stories collected here.


Boning, Kenneth. 2007. Coherence in General Education: A Historical Look. The Journal of General Education 56 (1): 1–16.

Kuh, George. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Zemsky, Robert, and Joni Finney. 2010. Changing the Subject: Costs, Graduation Rates, and the Importance of Reengineering the Undergraduate Curriculum. Philadelphia, PA: Institute for Research on Higher Education, University of Pennsylvania.

Ken O’Donnell is an associate dean in the California State University System; Janet Hecsh is a professor in the College of Education at Sacramento State University; Terry Underwood is a professor in the College of Education at Sacramento State University; William Loker is the dean of Undergraduate Education at California State University, Chico; Sara A. Trechter is the associate dean of Graduate Studies at California State University, Chico; Debra David is the associate dean of Undergraduate Studies at San José State University; Alexandria White is an English instructor at Evergreen Valley College.

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