Peer Review, Winter 2000

Vol. 2, 
No. 2
Peer Review

"Why Do I Have to Take this Course?" or Credit Hours, Transfer, and Curricular Coherence

It was the fashion among novelists in the nineteenth century to give their books two titles: one catchy and allusive to pique interest, the other more prosaic and explanatory. I've chosen this style of titling because what I want this article to be about-helping students make sense of their college education-and the place to which my chain of reasoning keeps pulling me-bureaucratic arrangements for determining degree completion-seem miles apart. Thus, I need two titles.

I have been working for the past two years with state higher education systems in Georgia and Utah, which are struggling to find cogent and persuasive answers to students' perennial question about general education requirements: "Why do I have to take this course?" But they know they cannot answer the question for students until they can answer it for themselves, until they can agree on a cogent definition of their own curricular intentions. And this is no mean feat, given the structural and bureaucratic realities at hand. Not only must the colleges and universities involved answer to the fiscal and political concerns of state legislatures, respect faculty autonomy, cope with limited tools for assessment, and make sense of a crazy-quilt of student attendance patterns, but they must also arrive at inter-institutional agreements about the purposes of their requirements.

For state systems, the phenomenon of student mobility creates a particularly complicated set of problems. All concerned want, insofar as possible, to make movement within these systems easy and to allow it to be accomplished without loss of credit. The formal mechanisms for creating this "seamlessness" are sets of common core courses and agreements about transfer of credit. But in their zeal to effect ease of transfer, the designers of these agreements often fail to take into account either the variety of ends to which core courses might be taught or the coherence of the general education program or major to which those courses apply. Thus, they tacitly encourage students to mix and match unrelated courses, encouraging them to see these requirements as so many bureaucratic hurdles to be jumped, not as parts of a purposeful and coherent curriculum.

The credit chase
Why is it so difficult to define, with intellectual clarity, the meaning of an undergraduate education and the interconnections of its parts? Why do we have such trouble answering students when they pose the entirely legitimate question, "Why do I have to take this course?"

Our problem can be traced, I believe, to what may seem a rather distant source: the creation of the credit hour as the standard unit of academic currency. Created early in the 20th century, the credit hour was designed to bring integrity to a higher education system then rife with diploma mills. The requirement that students complete a specified number of credit hours worth of courses would assure anyone concerned that holders of a degree had done genuine intellectual work to earn it. Over the years, all kinds of voluntary accrediting associations and administrative structures, strengthened by state and federal legislation, have been created to certify that, among other things, colleges and universities meet these basic requirements for the awarding of a bachelor's, associate's, or other degree.

As long as only a small percentage of an age cohort went on to college and stayed at the same institution for four years, the credit hour continued to serve only its original purpose. However, following World War II, as the number and variety of institutions increased and students became more mobile, we discovered a new use for credits. They now began to serve as a highly effective medium of exchange among institutions. Students could accumulate them like so many dollars in their bank accounts, and they could transfer them from one institution to another. To be sure, this currency came in many different types and denominations: semester, quarter, and course credits; upper division and lower division; general education and the major.... But we have been clever and increasingly well-organized in managing the rates of exchange, so that by now we can pretty well exchange credits at College A for those at College B as effectively as we exchange pounds for dollars.

However, the convenience of the credit hour as common currency has driven out the better but far less fungible currency of intellectual purpose and curricular coherence. How easy it is to define a baccalaureate degree as 120 credit hours (the modal requirement) divided in specified ways, also stated in terms of credit hours; and how easy to plug each course into a formula linking class hours (or laboratory hours, or hours in an internship or practicum) to units of credit. But what do those hours mean in terms of the educational intentions of the courses and the connections among them? Do they cohere in the minds of individual professors and students? When added together, do they comprise a meaningful whole?

The demand for efficiency
As student transfer among colleges and universities has increased to the point where the majority of students receive bachelor's degrees from an institution other than the one at which they began study, demands have grown ever more vocal for efficiency in the transfer of credits. Neither students nor state legislatures want to pay twice for the same course. And many schools, anxious to increase their enrollments, also seek to oblige students as fully as possible.

The result has been transfer agreements between institutions and across state systems that spell out in some detail what kinds of courses will transfer in satisfaction of which requirements. Sometimes a general education transfer package is specified by legislation, as in Florida and Ohio, or by direction of the state higher education coordinating system, as in Texas and New York. In many other states, including the two in our project, the higher education authority has brokered transfer agreements by assembling groups of faculty to reach, under some pressure, a system-wide articulation agreement.

However, none of these transfer agreements addresses in any meaningful way the purposes of the general education curriculum, much less the purposes of a baccalaureate degree. Uniformly they assume a general education program consisting of a loose distribution requirement plus competence in writing, mathematics, and, increasingly, computer use. They give some definition of the content of courses that meet the requirements, but they offer few details as to the goals to be reached through study of that content. As far as these transfer agreements are concerned, all social science or science or humanities courses are created equal. Never mind that the introductory Political Science course at one institution addresses a different set of purposes than the introductory course at another-they are identical in the eyes of the transfer agreement. Never mind that some schools offer a rigorous and integrated general education program while others do not. Any collection of courses from whatever source, no matter how lacking in coherence, must be accepted for transfer if they are in the same subject matter domains.

Florida, for example, has by legislative requirement developed a common course numbering system across its public institutions, specifying that all courses with the same number are entirely interchangeable. A statewide committee determines the credit hour equivalencies, but their oversight does not extend to the purposes of each course, nor to measuring student achievement. Any survey of, say, American History to 1865 is equivalent to any other, no matter that one course drills students on names and dates, while another raises complex questions about the nature of historical inquiry.

The result of these kinds of credit-driven transfer regulations is a lowest-common-denominator general education program, based invariably on loose distribution requirements. And since unique courses of study only serve to make transfer difficult for students, schools have an incentive not to make their own general education offerings too adventurous or challenging.

These practical restrictions are equally frustrating to two- and four-year institutions. The community colleges, which must prepare students planning to transfer to any of several baccalaureate institutions, can ill afford to create general education programs with distinct character. The four-year colleges have somewhat more leeway in designing programs for their native students, but they cannot hold transfer students to those requirements. And when a majority of their graduates turn out to have transferred their general education credits from institutions with quite different goals, what can the four-year institutions (even those with carefully-structured general education programs) say about the integrity of their degrees?

A need for systemic reform
The demands for transfer efficiency not only push general education programs to the lowest common denominator but they also tend to conflict with demands for educational accountability. Since colleges and universities require a heavy investment by students and taxpayers, they are expected to demonstrate effectiveness in achieving the outcomes they promise. In other words, each school must show that its students are meeting its educational goals. But how does an institution measure results against goals if it has no clear educational goals and, indeed, is de facto discouraged from defining them (at least for general education) too precisely, lest they get in the way of efficient transfer?

The solution is to stop treating this as a problem for the individual institution. The only way to reconcile the demands for efficiency and accountability is to come to inter-institutional or, better yet, system-wide agreement about the intended outcomes of the general education program, and then to link those outcomes closely to the transfer agreement. Accountable to a clear, coherent, and common set of purposes, individual schools might then invest in local curricular reforms without having to worry about ease of transfer.

However, no states have as yet built these sorts of curricular outcomes into their transfer guidelines, even where agreements have been negotiated among academics rather than imposed by legislators. Thus, the recent and ongoing work of the state systems in Georgia and Utah promise to set an important precedent, as well as serving to illustrate the challenges at hand.

During the 1998-99 academic year, faculty from these states' public two- and four-year institutions began working with AAC&U (supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education) to develop new system-wide goals for general education, to gain broad faculty and student understanding of them, and to come up with ways to assess them.

Each state already had an existing set of general education requirements, based on the standard English/Math/Distribution model (though Georgia's newly-minted plan is rather more detailed and includes a strong, statewide, faculty-dominated administrative and policy structure). Neither set of requirements, however, included a clear statement of goals for the program. They simply set forth the subject matter areas to be covered and the number of credit hours to be completed in each area, giving no rationale for those requirements. Thus, a student might ask, "Why do I have to take this course?" and a faculty member would be at a loss to give an answer other than, "Because it's required."

Thus the work going on in Georgia and Utah has to be characterized as rationalization after the fact. The requirements already having been established, faculty in these states have to decide what they meant-or more properly want to mean-by them in terms of students' ability to know, do, and understand. Both state systems are driven to this task by firm mandates to assess outcomes and the awareness that they cannot assess outcomes without knowing what outcomes they want to achieve.

With such an arrangement in place, the faculty in Georgia and Utah certainly have their work cut out for them. Consider, for example, the ubiquitous requirement that students complete a college-level mathematics course. Students whose major fields of study require regular use of mathematical skills will seldom question this requirement, but the many who expect never to use anything more than simple arithmetic and geometry frequently wonder why they must take such a course. Leaving aside the vexed question of what constitutes "college-level math," one might argue that "Educated people should be numerate as well as literate." Well, why? And, more trenchantly, what mathematical knowledge makes a person "numerate?" Is it a higher level of mathematical skill than might normally be expected of high school graduates? Is it a greater or different kind of facility with arithmetic and basic algebra? Is it probability and statistics? Mathematical modeling? And how do we increase the likelihood that students will continue to use their new skills, so that they don't forget what they learned as soon as the course is over?

Adapting recommendations from the Quantitative Literacy Subcommittee of the Mathematical Association of America, Utah faculty agreed on a short list of skills that define a "quantitatively literate college graduate." Rather than focusing on the prerequisites for advanced math classes, they reasoned that all educated people, math majors included, ought to be able to interpret and manipulate the sorts of mathematical information that support arguments in a range of fields. For example, graduates should be able to:

  1. Interpret mathematical models such as formulas, graphs, tables, and schematics, and draw inferences from them.
  2. Represent mathematical information symbolically, visually, numerically, and verbally.
  3. Use arithmetic, algebraic, geometric and statistical methods to solve problems.
  4. Estimate and check answers to mathematical problems in order to determine reasonableness, identify alternatives, and select optimal results.
  5. And recognize that all mathematical and statistical methods have limitations.

Such a statement offers guidance in deciding which approach to course content is best suited to a general education course, as well as providing a strong connection between the outcomes of the particular course and the larger purposes of the curriculum. Further, it gives faculty members some basis upon which to answer the question, "Why do I have to take this course?"

Enduring challenges
Of course, the difficulty lies in encouraging all of the system's faculty members, at all different kinds of institutions, to teach to the purposes of the requirement. The lever most likely to shift this heavy weight is assessment, which asks students to demonstrate the requisite competence, and which promises institutional embarrassment if faculty do not teach to the agreed-upon goals. But the fulcrum on which the lever is to be mounted is not yet in place; institutional commitments to assessments of student competency are not yet firm. Nor, for that matter, is the lever itself-the existing collection of assessment strategies-strong enough to lift the weight of custom.

Certainly, some institutions and a few states require students at the mid-point of their baccalaureate programs to pass tests demonstrating general skills and knowledge. Both the Educational Testing Service and ACT have developed such examinations, and they are used with some frequency either to test individual students or to assess the institution's effectiveness in general education. These tests are responsibly developed, but they are, of necessity, geared to the lowest common denominator in order to maximize the number of institutions that can use them. In many situations in which they are used, the examinations do not follow closely what is actually taught, how it is taught, and testing methods with which students are familiar. Thus, the value of test results as an indicator of the institution's success in helping students meet the institutional goals-assuming that it has clear goals aligned to the standardized examination-is highly questionable.

Until outcomes assessment is developed to the point where it seems credible to the majority of faculty, we appear to be stuck with our credit hour addiction. Academia is, however, being pushed to break the habit from a variety of quarters: state legislatures and student and parent constituencies that want to see concrete improvements; re-entry students who come back to school to be certified for specific competencies; professional accrediting associations that are beginning to lean toward outcomes-based accreditation (a notable example is the set of "ABET 2000" standards of the Accrediting Board for Engineering and Technology.); and regional accreditors who are slowly but surely pushing their members in the same direction.

All these forces are at work in Georgia and Utah, leading state systems there to clarify their goals in the manner of the mathematics requirement cited above. As the experience in those states has suggested, reaching this kind of clarity is not as difficult as it looks. Cross-institutional and cross-disciplinary groups of faculty, assembled at the state level, can fairly readily arrive at a mutually agreeable statement of the general intentions that implicitly underlie basic skills and distribution requirements. But these groups are generally made up of faculty members who accept the importance of such understandings. Gaining their acceptance by the faculty back home is another matter. A comparative handful of willing faculty can accomplish the task in the abstract; turning those abstract understandings into concrete actions with real consequences for faculty and students is another matter.

Neither state group has yet gone through this process, and it will require a massive effort both logistically and politically, even in a state with as few higher education institutions as Utah-nine public two- and four-year schools, plus one major private university. For example, the process will have to involve discipline-by-discipline discussions, acceptance of the outcomes of those discussions by large numbers of faculty, the certification of individual courses as meeting the guidelines, and the effort to deal with the fallout when courses are not certified.

Yet, to engage in this work is the only way we can hope to move away from our present habit of simply counting credit hours, with only a superficial look at what lies behind them. Though the majority of college graduates no longer earn their degrees at a single institution, they generally do complete them within a single higher education system. If the integrity of a single college or university's program once guaranteed that an individual student would have a coherent educational experience, it now must be the entire system that provides this curricular integrity.

State systems, and other groupings of related institutions among which students move, need to emulate the long and difficult process of agreeing about intentions that has begun in Georgia and Utah. Only then can we provide a useful answer to the student who asks, "Why do I have to take this course?

Robert Shoenberg is a Senior Fellow at AAC&U.

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