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Members speak the truth about Pathways

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James Davis, left, and Kevin Sailor presented evidence to the City Council.
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The PSC stood its ground on October 26 before a City Council committee, presenting both data and firsthand accounts from the field showing how the Pathways program, created to meet the fiscal constraints of underfunding, has adversely affected students and faculty members alike.

Pathways is “austerity education,” PSC President Barbara Bowen told the council’s higher education committee. In the spring of 2013, the union passed a resolution of no confidence in the Pathways program with 92 percent of participating voters.

Saying that Pathways reduces “academic richness and rigor” university-wide, Bowen noted that the program “offers students less, rather than more,” and that it is “a means of rationing public education,” creating a “stripped down, just-enough university,” which harms, above all, students of color and students from lower-income communities.

LIKE ‘COMMON CORE’

CUNY’s Board of Trustees created the Pathways program in 2011 to establish a university-wide general education curriculum, a sort of “common core” for higher education meant to make the transfer of credits easier. The union opposed the development of the program from the get-go, as it was created without faculty governance and resulted in the reduction of the core curriculum in order to meet the austerity funding. The union has said the program shows “disrespect for the centuries-old role of faculty as experts in their fields” and a “potential elimination of diverse course offerings from departments not in the common core.”

CUNY Dean for Undergraduate Studies Lucinda Zoe, in her testimony, heralded Pathways, saying, “from Fall 2012 to Fall 2015, the percentage of students who transfer to CUNY baccalaureate programs with associate degrees increased 31 percent” and that “the total number of credits that transfer students have earned and received credit for has also increased.”

Paul Arcario, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at LaGuardia Community College, said that as a result of Pathways he believed “student stress and anxiety appear to be reduced regarding transfer of credits, at least in terms of the general education part of the degree.”

He added, “We have also found that Pathways has streamlined the process of developing articulation agreements with four-year colleges.”
Two PSC members gave impassioned and detailed testimony before the committee to the contrary, as presented in part here:

Kevin Sailor, chair of psychology, Lehman College:

I would like to present some key findings from a study of CUNY students who graduated shortly before the Pathways policies were implemented. This study used both transcript data for a large cohort of students and data on how these courses are evaluated by different campuses from the TIPPS (Transfer Information and Program Planning System) database of course titles.

First, the establishment of a common general education curriculum was an overly broad solution to a transfer problem in a relative handful of courses.

The architects of Pathways argued that articulation agreements were too narrowly focused to fully articulate the huge number of course offerings across CUNY. Analyses of student transcripts indicate that there are very large discrepancies in how often different courses are taken and transferred across CUNY. An examination of the transcripts of nearly 11,000 students who took a class at community colleges revealed that they had taken nearly 6,000 unique course titles. However, just 100 to 120 of these courses accounted for 42 percent of all the credits earned by this group at community colleges. Similarly, 58 course titles at CUNY accounted for 50 percent of the credits earned in classes that TIPPS designated as not transferrable. These patterns indicate that the effectiveness of transfer is largely driven by specific high-enrollment courses.

Second, the reduction of the number of general education credits required by many of the senior colleges was not necessary to facilitate timely graduation.

Analyses of transcript data suggest that the size of the general education curriculum at senior colleges had minimal impact on the overall number of credits earned and the number of credits not accepted during the transfer process. Students who earned a bachelor’s degree at schools with a larger general education curriculum earned less than one credit more than students at schools with a smaller curriculum. Moreover, students who transferred into schools with a larger curriculum actually lost 0.67 fewer credits during the transfer process than students who transferred into schools with a smaller curriculum.

Third, the mandate that popular majors had to establish common “gateway” courses across the university was ill-conceived.

This mandate was based on the belief that transfer students were having to take more credits within their major discipline than students who started at a senior college, because senior colleges were not giving major credits for courses in the same discipline taken at a community college. Analyses of credits taken within a student’s major discipline indicated that transfer students and students who started at a senior college earn approximately the same number of these credits. Moreover, the number of credits taken within the discipline at a community college did not reliably predict the total number of credits recognized at graduation by the senior college. These results suggest that excess credits cannot be attributed to a failure to count credits earned at a community college toward a student’s major.

Fourth, senior college residency requirements, which were not considered as part of the Pathways restructuring, are significant contributors to lost credits.

Transfer students who earned more credits than the maximum number accepted by the senior college to which they transferred lost on average 12 credits compared to just 2.1 credits for students who transferred without exceeding a school’s residency requirements. Analyses suggest that for each credit earned in excess of the residency requirements, a 0.75 credit loss can be attributed to exceeding the cap.

Fifth, the argument that the CUNY associate’s degree policy was outmoded because community college students are choosing to forego coursework at the community colleges to begin a bachelor’s degree program at a senior college was at odds with the credit-earning patterns observed for transfer students.

As a whole, community college students typically accumulate more than the 60 credits required for an associate’s degree. Students who transferred with a degree earned 67.24 credits and students who transferred without a degree earned 59.02 credits on average at a community college. More than half of all students who transferred without a degree did so having earned more than 60 credits. The failure to earn an associate’s degree can have significant implications for the future of a student who transfers, but fails to earn a bachelor’s degree. Pathways does not address this issue.

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James Davis, PSC chapter chair, Brooklyn College:

Resistance to Pathways was widespread among faculty members and I want to share with you the story of why and how Brooklyn College’s faculty resisted its implementation.

Pathways was a solution in search of a problem.

Did the university need to do more for transfer students? Yes, no one disputed that, but the real questions were: What is the scale of that problem? And what are the best remedies? Anyone who placed educational quality as a priority was troubled by the Pathways initiative; it was clearly an expedient way to streamline student transfer. Its chief virtue was that it was cost-effective, but it is actually very costly, because it comes at the expense of the quality of education.

Decisions were made that were divorced from their academic merit.

Consider the limit placed on the number of credits available to the student. If a college had determined, for example, that the best way to teach first-year students college reading and writing was a four-credit intensive composition course, that was ruled out of compliance with the new mandate. If a college had determined that the best way to introduce students to the sciences was to award more than three credits for a course that combined lectures and hands-on laboratory experience, that was ruled out of compliance. If a college had determined that an overall total of 45 general education credits should be required, that was ruled out of compliance with the mandated maximum of 42 credits.

A short-sighted vision of a well-rounded education characterized this initiative.

For example: Should students be required to demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language, a language other than English? That is a debatable question, but the answer across CUNY has been a resounding “Yes.” We’re a university that not only exists in a multicultural city, but one that claims in all of its glossy publicity to prepare students for global citizenship, for an increasingly globalized economy, for engagement in a global community. What could be more provincial, more antithetical to that spirit of preparation for a life beyond one’s neighborhood or one’s city, than to remove foreign language instruction from the general education program? But that’s exactly what Pathways did.

So at Brooklyn College, we refused to cooperate.

The Faculty Council, our elected governance body, is charged with overseeing matters of curriculum and degree requirements. Faculty Council passed two resolutions, one in 2014 and one in 2015, overwhelmingly opposed to approving courses for Pathways. This was a reflection of broader faculty sentiment at Brooklyn College. At an April 2014 meeting of all full-time faculty, a resolution opposing Pathways passed with 298 ayes, 9 nays, and 18 abstentions. On what issue could 300 Brooklyn College professors ever agree? But on this there was near total unanimity; we called on the Brooklyn College and CUNY administrations “to abide by the decisions of local faculty in designing a new general education program at Brooklyn College.” That sparked a two-year, faculty-driven process of revising the general education program. The committees involved were aware of the Pathways policies but did not treat them as a foregone conclusion. In the end, our revised general education program was approved by Faculty Council by an overwhelming majority, but our provost refused to send it forward to CUNY Academic Affairs, in violation of our governance plan. He felt that as it was not fully Pathways compliant, it did not warrant the central office’s review. In the end, after a full year of negotiations and further revisions, our general education program was finally submitted to and approved by the CUNY administration.

Faculty members faced intense pressure to go along.

Department chairs felt that if they didn’t capitulate, they’d be passed over for resources from the college administration. Individual professors were offered stipends to write curriculum for Pathways-compliant courses. The administration pitted departments against one another, noting that those who refused to participate would lose the full-time equivalency (FTE) that comes with offering general education courses (and resources follow FTEs). And the administration pitted professors against students.