Students in New England take increasingly varied pathways to a degree. They are highly mobile and move among two-year colleges and four-year public and private higher education institutions (HEIs), among four-year and two-year colleges and back, and transfer in-state and out-of state. Four in 10 students who begin college at a New England institution transfer from one institution to another at least once in their academic careers.
While most stay in the state where they began college, 10% transfer to another New England state, and 13% transfer outside the region, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
One result of this mobility is the loss of credits, time and money. Although many states in the region have initiated “transfer pathways,” the fact remains that, for New England college students, no interstate transfer compact crosses the six states’ borders.
In the West, a new transfer compact has emerged relying not on credit hours, but on the learning outcomes students have achieved in lower-division college courses. Under the leadership of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), Interstate Passport focuses on lower-division general education as the common denominator among most institutions. Students attending one institution can transfer courses to another institution in a cross-border “block,” rather than through individual course-by-course matches.
The Interstate Passport framework consists of nine knowledge and skill areas, including oral communication, written communication, natural sciences and critical thinking, among others. These areas are based on the Essential Learning Outcomes developed by the Association of American Colleges & Universities as part of its Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative, and on research conducted by WICHE into the general education expectations of HEIs in the region. For each knowledge or skill area, the core of the program is made up of the Passport Learning Outcomes (PLOs).
How were the Passport Learning Outcomes developed?
For each of the nine knowledge and skill areas, two-year and four-year faculty members with expertise in that area from each of the seven original states (CA, HI, ND, OR, SD, UT, WY) comprised a team that met in-person and by conference call. Each team member also consulted systematically with other faculty members in that state, resulting in a lengthy and wide-ranging negotiation by which the Passport Learning Outcomes were agreed upon. In several areas, the interstate faculty teams’ deliberations were also informed by the recommendations of their respective professional academic associations.
The early results for the Interstate Passport program are beginning to come in. As of February 2017, 21 institutions in six states were formal members of the Interstate Passport Network. Institutions in an additional 10 states are exploring or preparing to apply for membership. A total of 9,082 student passports were issued in fall 2016—the first term they could be awarded.
Interview with Pat Shea and Jane Sherman
What are the benefits to students and states in being part of the Interstate Passport Network?
For students, lower-division general education (LDGE) transfers as a completed Block of courses, with all credits intact. Students know that ahead of time, which means fewer lost credits and no additional LDGE course requirements after transfer, resulting in greater motivation to continue, faster time to graduation, lower costs and fewer foregone earnings.
For institutions, more and faster completions mean improved accountability metrics. Aligning student learning outcomes, rather than course titles, descriptions or syllabi, means less arduous articulation arrangements and greater curricular autonomy for each institution or state. Offering a guarantee of completed LDGE to students from other Interstate Passport Network member institutions—i.e., institutions with aligned learning outcomes—will mean attracting more, and better prepared, transfer students.
What was the previous nature of interstate transfer among Western states?
Most states had done quite a bit of work to smooth transfer within their borders. But across state lines the story was very different. Too often students were required to complete additional general education requirements after transfer—sometimes only a few courses, sometimes many—when the specific disciplines, courses or numbers of credits didn’t match.
What is the biggest accomplishment so far of the Interstate Passport?
Without a doubt, the biggest accomplishment so far is the very real shift in focus from courses—titles, descriptions, syllabi and credits—to student learning outcomes with the level of proficiency that faculties expect of students who complete a quality general education program. Of course, at this stage, there is reassurance for the receiving institution in knowing that the Passport is undergirded by courses and credits at the sending institution, but there is no need to delve into each course or credit; the Passport is accepted as a whole.
Are there any states outside the West participating in the project?
Institutions in states in the Southern and Midwest regions are currently exploring the Interstate Passport, either as individual institutions or as part of a system or statewide effort developing their Passport Blocks. These states include Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Virginia.
How were they recruited?
Most of the current Interstate Passport states were initially reached through their regional Commissions and Compacts—WICHE, SREB and MHEC. Other interest has come through numerous conference presentations and articles in higher education publications.
Can you offer concrete examples of the “Blocks” of credits on which interstate transfer is based?
Lower-division general education programs tend to range between 30 to 40 total semester credits, with the majority at 32-38. And most cover very similar sets of disciplines. You can find a sampling of institution’s Passport Blocks at http://www.wiche.edu/passport/membership/network_members.
What lessons have been learned so far in the project to accomplish seamless transfer across state lines?
We have learned that arrangements to smooth transfer within states are highly varied—all are helpful, and none are problem-free. Very few states or institutions have worked on transfer across state lines.
The assignment of responsibilities–both formal and informal–for policy development and implementation for transfer also varies widely from state to state. Consequently, how each state approaches new initiatives has been unique.
On the other hand, there is a high level of agreement among faculty about what lower-division students should learn in general education, and faculty members find it highly rewarding to work on this program with faculty in their own and other states.
Overall, we have learned that the Interstate Passport—due to its focus on learning outcomes—appears to provide both an academic focus and a larger perspective on transfer of LDGE within which a great deal of organizational and curricular variation can be accommodated.
In addition to the current Interstate Passport Network of institutions, do you envision more states and institutions will join?
Yes, definitely. The more states and institutions that join the Interstate Passport Network, the greater the benefit to students and institutions.
If New England states or institutions were interested in joining the Interstate Passport Network, how would they join?
Project consultants are available at no cost to talk with or meet with interested institutions or states. Faculty members and administrators from early adopter states are also available to talk with their counterparts in other states. In order to join, institutions review the Passport Learning Outcomes for consistency with their own Lower Division General Education learning outcomes; identify their courses that allow their students to achieve the Outcomes; agree to both award the Passport to their students and recognize the Passport of transfer students whom they admit; track the retention and GPA of Passport holders for at least two terms after transfer; and advise students about the Interstate Passport.
All nonprofit, regionally accredited, public and private, two-and four-year institutions are eligible to apply at http://www.wiche.edu/passport/membership. For more information contact Stafford Peat at firstname.lastname@example.org or Pat Shea at email@example.com or 303.541.0302
Is there a fee or other costs to join the Interstate Passport Network?
So far, all the work of developing and implementing the Interstate Passport has been covered by multiple foundation and federal grants. In the future, there will be a modest annual fee, scaled to institutional size, to cover administrative costs of the Network.
Looking down the road, what is the future of the Interstate Passport Network?
Current member institutions and states envision a broad-based, nationwide network of two- and four-year institutions leading the way in a student-centered approach to transfer based on student learning outcomes. There is much interest in developing a Passport tailored to STEM majors, and eventually to other pathways as well, as resources become available.
Stafford Peat is a senior consultant at NEBHE. Patricia A. Shea is director of Academic Leadership Initiatives at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE). Jane Sherman is the Passport State Coordinator at WICHE’s Interstate Passport Network.