I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around higher ed.

We’re doing some innovating of our own here at The Edge. Each week I will share my latest thinking on the people and ideas reshaping higher ed, alternating between my own reporting and my picks for thought-provoking and useful stories and resources from other organizations. I’ll also mix in some quick takes, noteworthy quotes, and stats that catch my eye, as well as occasional contributions from my colleagues.

This week I examine what’s propelling — and hindering — a promising model to smooth the transfer process. I’m also gearing up for the ASU+GSV Summit in San Diego next week.

Who will accept a transfer “passport”?

The attention right now on efforts to improve transfer is heartening. In the last two weeks alone, I’ve seen the release of a new “playbook” of strategies to smooth transfer between community colleges and four-year private colleges and some key revisions to the Phi Theta Kappa Transfer Honor Roll program. It all comes none too soon. Even before the pandemic, growing “swirl” was costing many students too much time and money when their credits wouldn’t transfer from one institution to another. The disruptions to enrollment in the last two years have only heightened the need for simpler transfer pathways.

Those are just some of the reasons I’m fascinated by the Interstate Passport, a project of 72 colleges across 21 states that promises improvements but has yet to realize its potential. To me, the current phase illustrates one of the frustrations of innovation: Real-world obstacles often keep good ideas from taking off. That said, organizers have just announced ambitious plans to expand.

So what’s the good idea? A network of two- and four-year colleges each accept up to a year’s worth of general-education credits from other member institutions, no questions asked. Well, no questions as long as students have passed the courses that include the learning outcomes and proficiencies that all members have agreed upon. Each institution can decide on its own which of its courses satisfy the requirements.

The project has a lot going for it, educationally and otherwise. Four features stand out to me.

  • As the name notes, members aren’t just in one system or state. That’s an unusual feature for transfer agreements, and it means that students can enjoy greater flexibility should they relocate or opt to complete their studies online at an institution far from home. (In Alaska, Hawaii, South Dakota, and Utah, all public colleges are members.)
  • The passport is built around recognized educational fundamentals — nine of them — including oral and written communication, quantitative literacy, and the natural sciences. All are drawn from the Essential Learning Outcomes developed by the American Association of Colleges and Universities. In an era when some colleges merely accept a lot of transfer credits as a way to build enrollment while calling it a clearer pathway, it’s nice to see a project grounded in academic principles.
  • Faculty members sit at the core of the network. Initially, teams of professors from several states collaborated on the learning outcomes. Now, as new members come aboard, faculty members there decide what courses will satisfy which outcomes.
  • The passport’s emphasis on the knowledge and skills that students acquire along the way fits well with the current societal focus on recognizing people not just for their credentials, but for their capabilities.

Still, even the folks at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which manages the Interstate Passport, acknowledge their frustration at its fledgling state after five years of operations. Wiche expected membership to be around 200 colleges by now, Sarah Leibrandt, director of academic leadership initiatives, told me earlier this month. Some 70,000 students secured passports between the 2017 and 2021 academic years, but Wiche’s data on how many students have used the passports for transfer are incomplete because not all members are consistently reporting.

To be sure, the disruptions of the pandemic are partly to blame. But some admirable features of the passport are also time-consuming. In 2020 and early 2021 especially, Leibrandt said, it was hard to galvanize administrations and faculty senates to take on one more thing while they were already struggling to keep courses and programs going. And while reports from a few institutions show that transfer students with passports had higher GPAs than transfers over all, uneven and limited reporting means Wiche can’t say for sure how the project is playing out, Leibrandt said: “We don’t have a good grasp of the outcomes.” She began overseeing the project a year ago.

To improve its trajectory, the governing organization recently agreed to simplify members’ reporting requirements. And some in the network will share their student-information systems’ coding so that others can more easily satisfy those reporting requirements.

The group also set a goal of adding 60 new members by the end of 2022 — a notable leap from the typical 10 to 15 a year so far. Until now, members have paid their membership fees with grants from the U.S. Department of Education, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and more recently the ECMC Foundation. The first of those memberships expires in May, and several more follow next year. Even if fees are relatively low — $2,500 to $7,500 a year — that could be another bump in the road for this project.

The passport will focus its membership drive on a group of minority-serving institutions already identified as active in sending and receiving transfer students. It has deliberately moved beyond the West to the South, where more minority students are enrolled. When it comes to transfer, Leibrandt said, “students of color are often left behind.”

Members are also planning to raise awareness of the program on their campuses: Students who see a passport symbol in course catalogs will better understand its potential value. Up until now, the kind of internal marketing that projects like this often need has been missing.

The passport continues to attract benefactors like the National Science Foundation and ECMC, which is supporting the project as part of its $4.5-million Catalyzing Transfer Initiative. Saúl Valdez, the ECMC program officer who oversees the membership grants, told me he’s still confident about the passport’s potential: “This effort is 100 percent simplifying the transfer process.” The friction to date reminds him of the dynamic pressure on a rocket right before it hits “max Q.” (Yeah, I had to look it up too.) Once it reaches that, he said, it can really take off.

Will it? I hope so. If, as planned, the network nearly doubles in size, the value proposition increases considerably. Unless the forces of day-to-day distractions and competing priorities ground the effort.

See you at ASU+GSV?

After a two-year absence, I’ll be back in person at the ASU+GSV Summit next week. This year Sara Lipka, my long-suffering editor on this newsletter and a Chronicle assistant managing editor, is among the colleagues who will be joining me. If you’re planning to be there, we’d love to say hi and hear what’s up. So please ping me ahead of time, or look for us in the sessions, the lobbies, and, well, maybe some receptions, too. I’ll be the one (still) in a mask — and a sling. Hope to see you there!

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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