[The Montana Professor 19.1, Fall 2008 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Paving the path for transfer: balancing ease of access and assurance of success

Bill MacGregor
Director, Transferability Initiatives
Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education
Montana University System

—Bill MacGreor
Bill MacGregor


Since 1984, when I first accepted a faculty appointment at Montana Tech, I have sought—like most of us in this profession—to make our curriculum more relevant and useful to more students by improving the quality and depth of learning that goes on in my classrooms and on my campus. During my time at Montana Tech, my focus has been on the issues I've been directly responsible for: my discipline, my classes, my department, my students. And after more than twenty years, I've gained considerable pride in, and a sense of ownership of, and responsibility for all these aspects of my institution. Although I've never assumed that either power or authority accompanied these faculty responsibilities, I've been alternately amused and annoyed by the imposition of arbitrary external mandates that threatened my proprietary feelings for my classes, my department, and my institution.

Today, the proverbial shoe is on the other foot. I have moved from a position as a senior faculty member in a small department at one of the state's small four-year and Master's-degree-granting institutions, to being responsible for a high-profile statewide program that affects the entire university system. Moreover, it is a program perceived by many of my faculty colleagues throughout the system as an arbitrary imposition upon, and threat to, their campus-based prerogatives. As Director of the newly created Transferability Initiative in the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, I am constantly aware that the work I've taken on—to help "fix" the state's long-standing problem of transfer of credits from one unit to another—looks to some faculty like a solution in search of a problem (there's no real problem here—only a perception of one); to others it looks like a Machiavellian power grab by the Commissioner's Office, seeking to remove the last vestiges of local control of campus governance; and to others it is merely an egregious waste of resources that could be better spent on higher faculty salaries.

All these objections I might well have voiced as a faculty member at Montana Tech. Yet I chose to take on this new responsibility because the most valuable professional experiences I've had during the past decade have pulled me out of my department, my campus, and even my state, forcing me to alter my perspective about what helps and what impedes student success in higher education. Where I once thought rather narrowly in terms of serving my institution, my department/discipline, my classes, and my students, I now think more contextually. About the time I was asked to undertake my current work, I found myself wondering how my classes fit into the rest of my students' curriculum—not just in a catalog, but in their actual experiences; I wondered about my department's role in the campus's overall course offerings; I tried to understand how the curriculum of my institution compared with the curricula at other postsecondary institutions in the state. Ultimately, when the Montana Legislature authorized and funded the 2007 Transferability Initiative, I saw the program as an opportunity to contribute to academic programs, faculty colleagues, and students throughout the system.

I began this job with a simple assumption about the cause of the "transfer problem" in Montana: because we, as faculty, "own" our curricula, transfer of elements of that curriculum is our problem. The corollary to this assumption is that we are no less certainly the only reliable source of a solution to the problem. Transfer of credits from one site of learning to another requires agreement that those credits represent attainment of some specific domain of knowledge and skill, and the problem is that the very pride with which we cherish our locally defined and developed academic environments has made it difficult to achieve such shared understandings.

Like members of a medieval guild, we choose to belong to our academic discipline—and in turn are chosen by it. Our expertise in our esoteric craft shapes and defines our identities, not just to external acquaintances, but at a more fundamentally personal level. All our training and apprenticeship tends to reinforce our sense of the uniqueness of our field, and success in the professoriate is commonly measured in precisely that way: advancement is achieved by making unique and new contributions to the field. In this atmosphere of striving for difference, we grow acculturated to act as if the academic disciplines which define us must also separate us.

And it isn't only our disciplines themselves that drive us apart. We further differentiate ourselves in terms of our preferred roles within the professoriate as scholar, as teacher, as administrator, for instance. And perhaps most importantly, we associate our faculty cultural identity with a specific place: a department on a specific campus in a particular academic unit of a university system.

To the extent I define myself as an instructor of communication at Montana Tech, I may have drawn boundaries between myself and other communication faculty at Montana Tech who are primarily scholars or administrators. Likewise, I may have drawn mental boundaries between myself and communication programs at MSU-Bozeman, UM-Missoula, and every other place whose curriculum and students I have not dealt with. I almost certainly draw such boundaries between myself and faculty from math or biology or business.

Little wonder, then, that transferring coursework from one campus to another of the Montana University System has never been handled in a simple, clear, or consistent way. To external constituents who expect to see "higher education" behave according to a neat, efficient, and clear set of rules, academic programs and faculty must appear to be the plaque in the arteries of the postsecondary body politic when student credits seek to flow easily throughout the system.

In December 2004, Montana's Legislative Audit Division published a Performance Audit of the Montana University System (MUS) titled "Transfer of Credits." Commissioned in 2003 by the Legislature, the report found that "Transferring MUS credits is adversely affected by a decentralized management approach. This has limited the system in achieving the transferability goals initially outlined during MUS restructuring and resulted in unpredictability for students" (Audit 1). During the fall of 2003 the auditors visited all campuses in the state system, but not the private or tribal colleges. The audit selectively focused on transfers associated with general education and four specific program areas (nursing, engineering, business, and education).

As the two-sentence summary above suggests, the report castigated sectors of the entire MUS—the Board of Regents, the Commissioner's Office, and individual campuses—for our collective failure to provide clear, consistent, unambiguous processes and guidelines for students seeking to carry course credits from one MUS campus to another. The report's litany of criticisms was summed up in a phrase that had been heard earlier as justification for the system's restructuring during the '90s: the MUS needs to begin behaving like a coherent system, not like a mere collection of independent campuses.

The "transferability goals initially outlined during MUS restructuring" mentioned in the summary appear in the following "Resolution Regarding the Restructuring Plan" adopted by the Board of Regents at its March 20 meeting in 2002./1/

On January 21, 1994, the Board of Regents adopted a plan to recognize that while the institutions are unique, they should function as part of an integrated system of public higher education for Montana with the following characteristics:

While the Resolution's statement of principles presents a reasonable array of elements of an "integrated system," the rhetoric of the statement (the diction and arrangement of elements) reveals the Regents' point of view regarding a central controversy associated with both the overall restructuring plan and the specific issue of transfer students—how to balance the interests of individual campuses against those of the entire system.

Although some of the key verbs (share, collaborate, participate, accept, recognize) clearly evoke a commitment that different elements of the system should work together, evidence of restraint is unmistakable in some of these action words when they are compared with often-used alternatives. Bulleted items 3 and 5, for instance, might just as well have said "adoption of..." instead of "participation in" and "use of." Such a choice would have signaled a stronger commitment to a centrally-planned and -managed curriculum and calendar. But the terms actually chosen allow more flexibility of interpretation and application. And the list opens and closes with emphasis on the important contributions to the system of each campus's unique character and identity.

Thus, the fine line the Regents have walked since the Restructuring discussions began in the early '90s involves balancing the need for efficiency and predictability—to have all the elements of the system behave consistently as parts of an integrated system—against the need to maintain the system's strength by supporting the diverse contributions made by its many parts. A fully adopted common core curriculum would almost certainly have required the system to boil down a "core" to its lowest common denominators across the system. Full participation in a common core curriculum, on the other hand, invites campuses to consider unique ways to contribute to the core. This resolution emphasizes the importance of the unique contributions of each campus that enable the integrated system to function as such. It also reflects the political clout of the individual campuses—the power of the community base for each campus—in the balance between central and local control of higher education in Montana.

MUS response to audit

Many throughout the system were skeptical about the conclusions of the report; about the severity and extent of the problem. The data collected at the system office showed that the average transfer student required only nine more credits to graduate than the average non-transferring student—not a huge number, considering how many transfer students are changing their majors at the same time they transfer./2/ A number of campuses had invested significant time and resources in the development of comprehensive transfer and articulation tables; in their mind, there was no transfer problem.

Yet the BOR and OCHE responded to the Legislative Audit immediately by formulating a series of policy changes to address the most obvious and easily addressed problems of process and procedure identified in the audit such as turnaround time for decisions on transfer; tracking and record-keeping associated with transfer decisions; clarification of general education core transfers; and a comprehensive overhaul of PN (practical nursing) and two-year RN (registered nursing) programs to make them consistent across the state. Some of these first policy changes proved more intractable and messy than originally imagined. For example, the objective of consistent and seamless record-keeping and records-transfer through a coordinated data system encountered barriers between the Banner data system used by all campuses within the MUS and several different systems used by the community colleges. Still, the instinctive response from many in the system was to downplay the seriousness of the problem, considering it merely "a perceived (not a real) problem."

One observation found in the audit report hints that this inclination not to take transfer problems seriously may arise from both a lack of information and the localized perspective that encouraged campuses to believe that everything is fine: "Regents do not have the information needed to make informed decisions on unifying the transfer process throughout the MUS." Part of the missing information referred to is associated with surveys of transfer-student satisfaction, and the auditors discovered that very little real information is available from students about their transfer experiences: inconsistent data-gathering yields low response rates and unreliable results. The Regents didn't have that information not because it wasn't transmitted to them from the campuses, but because it hadn't been collected in any comprehensive and reliable way. In short, the audit urges the system to gather more data about how transfer is actually working throughout the system. And gathering this sort of data is not merely important; it's extremely difficult to do piecemeal, as separate campuses. The nature of failed transfer attempts is such that learning about the frequency and character of such failures from unsuccessful transfer students borders on the absurd: by definition, most failed transfers aren't there to survey.

The audit also speaks of the need to establish a "centralized location," and "systems of controls" to manage the information gathering and analysis more consistently, and this language sometimes elicited fearful and hostile reactions from individual campus faculty and administrators, who take pride in the unique character of their institutions and academic programs and felt threatened by what they perceive as an ominous sign of a power grab by the system office.

Indeed, the 59th Legislature, meeting in the spring of 2007, seemed to reinforce this perception by its words and deeds. The Legislature did not deem the "transfer problem" to have been solved by the policies already adopted by the MUS following the 2004 audit. In response to a detailed proposal from OCHE, the Legislature authorized funding for a more comprehensive initiative to address both the centralized data-gathering and coordinating aspects and also the process of faculty engagement in defining what transfers and how.

By actively taking a role in dealing with the transfer problem, the Montana Legislature became a participant in an ongoing national dialogue about commonly understood goals for post-secondary education: student access to and success in higher education and academic program quality. At its worst, this dialogue has pitted one of these goals against the other two in a zero-sum game ("We insist on quality so we limit access and temper our expectations for success; or we believe everyone should have access to higher education, so academic quality or student success measures will have to take a back seat"...and so on). At its best, the dialogue has encouraged higher education to seek new ways of accommodating some of these seemingly mutually exclusive goals, and in that respect, Montana's Transferability Initiative is riding the same waves of change that are sweeping across the national landscape of higher education.

Paradigms lost: portable courses, portable competencies

It isn't only the localized perspective of faculty and institutional culture that impedes systemic solutions to credit transfer. It is also the inherent conservatism of the academic enterprise, which tends to see its role as protecting, preserving, and disseminating (and, one hopes, sometimes developing) essential knowledge. This perspective sometimes makes it difficult to adapt to broad changes taking place in the academy.

Postsecondary education in the U.S. has been evolving in fundamental ways for several decades. Some of those changes directly challenge some of the assumptions about students, faculty, and their institutions:

Any faculty member engaged in post-secondary education today may still live with one or two of these assumptions intact at his or her institution, but collectively these statements describe circumstances that no longer are the norm.

National statistics confirm that students today are different in many ways: for example, 57% of bachelor's degree recipients attend two or more colleges (Adelman 10). Students seek their formal educational experiences from a variety of sources, sometimes one after another, sometimes simultaneously. Sometimes they are looking for the best deal in a course (lowest cost, easiest grade, least work), sometimes the most convenient course, sometimes a particular version of a course or one taught by a particular expert in the field. And given the plethora of institutions and similar courses, and given the availability of quality online educational providers, students no longer feel obligated to take (or to be trapped into taking) all their courses from a single source. Upon entering the post-secondary system, students are likely to bring a wide range of secondary experiences and abilities with them, from GED and marginally passing secondary work to AP, IB, and dual-credit classes taken while still in high school.

Nationally, more and more students are counting on two-year institutions as their gateway to baccalaureate degrees, through either associate's degrees or simple credit and course accumulation. Given the dominance of the workforce-development theme at Montana's two-year institutions, these students contribute to a widely divergent range of student preparation if and when they seek to transfer into baccalaureate programs. It is, however, useful to note that patterns of student transfer involving two-year and four-year institutions aren't simple and they aren't unidirectional. For example Mary Moe, OCHE's Deputy Commissioner for Two-Year Education, and former Dean at MSU Great Falls College of Technology, reports that her institution received more transfer students from some four-year units than it sent to those units while she was Dean.

Of course, at the same time that students are shopping for courses wherever they can find ones that suit them (without regard for the traditional linear pathway from the start to the finish of an academic career), many often expect all their non-traditional choices to fit into that traditional pathway (and its traditional goal, the baccalaureate). They expect, in short, to be able to carry the credits they earn, the competencies they've gained in any of their academic endeavors, toward the sum needed to earn an academic degree. And as we struggle to maintain enrollments in our programs, our behavior as faculty and staff of the higher-education enterprise often encourages this consumerist way of thinking among students. Thus we shouldn't be surprised when the traditional deference to the judgment of degreed and experienced faculty is replaced by a consumer-centric market model (in which "the customer is always right") that encourages students to get everything they can for as little expense and effort as possible. As we scramble to enroll and retain students in our classes we can all too easily find our relationship with students transformed from the traditional professor-student pairing into a vendor-customer model. And while such a mindset is probably necessary for those who are responsible for keeping our institutions financially solvent, yet when we find ourselves as faculty thinking in this way, we shouldn't be surprised if students expect to be treated as customers of a commodity we provide.

Robert Shoenberg makes the case that the source of the problem is another academic paradigm: the credit-hour as the basic academic currency. In an essay about student mobility with a title-question that many of us have heard our students ask: "Why do I have to take this course?" and a more fully explanatory subtitle, "Credit Hours, Transfer, and Curricular Coherence," Shoenberg complains that "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" (2). If as a student your goal is simply to take (and pass) courses until you reach the magic number that will allow you to escape (graduate) from your undergraduate bondage (curriculum), then it shouldn't surprise us as faculty when students are shocked and angry to learn that the courses they paid to take at one institution aren't automatically added toward the total required when they transfer to another institution. "What do those hours mean in terms of the educational intentions of the courses and the connections among them?" observes Shoenberg (3). "Do they cohere in the minds of individual professors and students? When added together, do they comprise a meaningful whole?" Later in the essay, Shoenberg elaborates on this theme.

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. (4)

The "demands for educational accountability" Shoenberg refers to are articulated in "A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education," more commonly known as "The Spellings Report" after Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who commissioned it. The specter of the controversial No Child Left Behind effort to introduce accountability into public school systems hovers in the background of the Spellings Report, causing some to dismiss it out of hand, and others to refer to its approach as "raising standards by lowering horizons" (the latter charge is related to the dominance of easily assessable workplace-type objectives in the report). Yet the Spellings Report's account of problems of transfer of credits echoes the Montana Legislative Audit's concerns.

Barriers to the recognition of transfer credits between different types of institutions pose challenges to students and prevent institutions from increasing capacity. Students too often receive conflicting information about credit-transfer policies between institutions, leading to an unknown amount of lost time and money (and additional federal financial aid) in needlessly repeated course work. Underlying the information confusion are institutional policies and practice on student transfers that are too often inconsistently applied, even within the same institution. (16)

The report's recommendations go further than mere procedural corrections.

Students must have clearer pathways among educational levels and institutions and we urge colleges to remove barriers to student mobility and promote new learning paradigms (e.g., distance education, adult education, workplace programs) to accommodate a far more diverse student cohort. States and institutions should review and revise standards for transfer of credit among higher education institutions, subject to rigorous standards designed to ensure educational quality, to improve access and reduce time-to-completion. (18)

The emphasis espoused here on reducing waste ("time-to-completion") in the educational process reinforces the industrial/consumer metaphor that has come to dominate public consideration of higher education's goals and operations. It isn't just a remote and disconnected Federal Agency that adopts this perspective; it has become a dominant theme in Montana as well, where many, if not most of our elected officials are products of Montana's higher education system.

The tidal wave of calls for accountability in the nation's institutions of higher education is nothing new; every generation seems to have looked across the town-gown divide and found those in the gowns to be irrelevant, arrogant, and too involved, or not involved enough in mundane affairs of the community. This generation's calls for holding postsecondary education accountable are, however, different in degree and in kind from those that have occurred previously.

Today, calls for accountability are more shrill and more overtly political than they have been (with rare exceptions) in the past. They often suggest a fundamental distrust in the social and economic value of higher education, and their approach to measuring higher education's value emphasizes this distrust: the underlying assumption seems to be that postsecondary education is a waste-ridden enterprise, that it is not competent or trustworthy to carry out its functions without close external oversight, and that the threats of institutional sanctions (as modeled by the No Child Left Behind act) are the best way to improve the higher-education system.

To this end, a laudable, unarguable basic principle of education and instruction—teach, and then test whether those being taught have learned what they're supposed to—is being applied as the sole sufficient answer to calls for both institutional and systemic accountability. And although it is quite reasonable and admirable to expect that instructors and their institutions should be able to demonstrate that certain desired student learning outcomes result from the institution's, the student's, and society's investment of resources in the higher-education enterprise, it is quite another thing to prescribe such learning outcomes and then to act as though those measures provide both the necessary and sufficient information to determine how well higher education is meeting the needs of its students and the society which supports it.

Becoming a system, one FLOC at a time

Montana's 2007 Transferability Initiative is instructive in this regard. Responding to concerns within the state political establishment that the Montana University System and its respective units have allowed problems in the transfer of credits among the state's postsecondary institutions to fester and proliferate, the Transferability Initiative is establishing faculty-led consensus about courses that should be thought of as equivalent throughout the state. Following the passage of Board of Regents Policy 301.5.5 at the Board's meeting in November 2007, the Transfer Initiative will label all courses deemed by faculty to be equivalent with common titles, prefixes, and numbers, and then will guarantee that all such courses will transfer freely from one unit to any other in the system. While this "common course numbering" policy, as it is known, is what makes the Transferability Initiative gratifying to the system's external constituencies—the state's governor and legislators, students, parents, and colleagues in the K-12 system—what appeals to faculty and administrators on campus as well as policy leaders within the system is the massive mobilization of faculty in the various disciplines coming together to articulate outcomes for courses that are to be considered equivalent.

These Faculty Learning Outcomes Councils (FLOCs) comprise participants from all postsecondary institutions throughout the state, including tribal and private colleges. Academic leaders on the campuses identify appropriate faculty to represent the various disciplines being considered, and the faculty members then work together with the vast array of courses, to determine which of them are unique and which are equivalent.

In practice, this effort is having several beneficial effects. First, it is achieving an unprecedented level of consistency and clarity in dealing with students and curriculum throughout Montana's institutions of higher education. This will almost certainly leave the system better-managed than it has been in the past. The foundation of such consistency will be the statements of learning outcomes expected of each course, statements which lend depth and specificity to grades on student transcripts and which justify the claims of equivalency among similar courses at different campuses. Moreover, while these councils meet and struggle through their campus-based differences to achieve clarity and consistency about this new, shared curriculum, their efforts are having the effect of creating statewide discipline-based networks that embrace the diversity of all Montana's postsecondary institutions. We did not set out to create such networks, but I'm convinced that this development may be the most important part of the Transfer Initiative—the aspect that ensures the sustainability of statewide transferability of credits. If the Montana University System continues to support these faculty councils by bringing together faculty from different institutions throughout the state who teach in the same discipline, then the kinds of transfer problems pointed out by the Legislative Audit (problems of inconsistency and confusion) will simply not come up.

The central task of these councils, however, is anything but easy and straightforward. Developing learning outcomes statements that are both meaningful and measureable and that apply to courses on several different campuses has challenged faculty to balance a variety of values as they pursue this work. Responding to the pressure to ensure that a course transfers to as many campuses as possible tempts councils to state outcomes in the broadest, blandest way possible. At the opposite pole, council members are often tempted to hold out for the "rigor" and "quality" and "uniqueness" of their individual versions of similar courses by stating learning outcomes in such extremely specific terms that student transfer becomes more difficult, not less so. Meanwhile, campuses that host programs accredited by specialized agencies are appropriately concerned that their programs may lose their professional accreditation if they lose control of deciding what courses transfer into their program.

The single theme that has enabled councils to reach agreement when faced with intractable arrays of such competing values is the underlying question: "What's best for the student seeking to transfer?" This question grounds the dialogue in a shared value that transcends partisan campus attitudes; it doesn't necessarily yield any simple answers or easy agreement, but every council member is committed a priori to doing what's best for students. So this pushes questions about enrollments, FTE, and program and campus prerogatives to the background, and allows discussion to focus on finding the best answer to that question.

The sixteen faculty councils/3/ that began working last fall on determining course equivalencies in their disciplines face an immovable deadline to complete this part of their work. By January 2009 the Regents, the Legislature, and the Governor are expecting to see twelve fully aligned, renamed, and renumbered disciplines as an indication of our will and our ability to treat transferability as a system issue. And they expect to see another ten disciplines completed by the end of June 2009. By January, then, all undergraduate courses in a dozen of the disciplines addressed by the current faculty councils will be classified as either unique or equivalent (equivalent to at least one other course in the system). The master matrix for the discipline—a single list of unduplicated courses—will show students which campuses offer courses that are deemed to be equivalent to the courses they've taken or plan to take. Because course equivalency assures full transferability, students will easily understand which courses are guaranteed to transfer as equivalents, and which aren't.

Yet beyond these looming deadlines, this monumental task will not be completed by next June, and only with difficulty will it be accomplished by June 30, 2011, the target currently set for renumbering all disciplines in the system. A number of other states which have undertaken similar initiatives report having taken ten years to reach this milestone. Moreover, it will require an ongoing commitment of resources to maintain faculty engagement in these dialogues about course equivalency; as new courses are proposed, existing ones change, and old ones disappear, faculty consultation remains essential to assuring the credibility of this elaborate system of course equivalencies.

However, as important as it is to continue to support faculty consultation in this process of aligning individual courses, it is even more important to carry the transfer initiative to its next phase—to developing system-wide agreements about purposes and pathways for patterns of courses; and to developing the ability to identify, assess, and credit students' skills, knowledge, and abilities beyond the confines of the traditional course and the traditional course-credit measures. Indeed, ongoing faculty councils are often dominated by discussions of these variable contexts and conditions of student course-taking patterns and purposes—variations that aren't addressed by the course-equivalency solution.

Thus, laudable as this outcomes-based transfer initiative is in its anticipated benefits to the state and the system, all concerned need to find other ways to supplement this equivalency-based approach by acknowledging those unique attributes of the system and its units which are precisely immeasurable as equivalencies. When, by design, an institution seeks to help its students grow and learn in ways that are different from others in the system, the benefits of easier and more consistent transfer procedures must not be earned at the cost of dismantling or devaluing what the institutions have identified as their unique claims to excellence.

The 2007 MUS Transferability Initiative faces this daunting task: to balance, on the one hand, the public benefits of ease of access, systemic curricular consistency, and improved efficiencies through reduced time to degree completion; and on the other the equally urgent needs within the system to encourage innovation, institutional quality, and those kinds of student success that go beyond our expectations of minimum competency. The problem with transfer has sometimes been a matter of one school not accepting essentially equivalent courses from another, and for these cases, the course-level learning outcomes approach coupled with easy-to-understand common course numbering will suffice admirably. How to handle transfer of credits (either sending or receiving) for those unique student-learning outcomes that a campus associates with its individual programmatic strengths (which often are not even associated with individual courses) remains unanswered: a challenge largely unmet throughout American higher education.

While the challenge is largely unmet, it is not entirely unacknowledged or unaddressed. Several state systems,/4/ for example, the University System of Maryland, are attempting to coordinate their curricula not merely by establishing course-outcomes-based equivalencies but by striving to reach consensus about shared purposes for larger curricular elements (programs and pathways). These systems then build transfer assumptions upon more broadly articulated outcomes, leading to the condition that Shoenberg envisioned in the passage quoted above: "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."

Now, by external mandate and through system-level planning and faculty-led execution, the outcomes-based course-equivalency process is underway. The debate about whether to embrace a system-wide approach to credit transfer is moot. The challenge we face now among Montana's diverse array of postsecondary institutions is to seize the opportunity afforded us by this mandate to start behaving like a system—and to decide in the process what kind of system we will be. Whatever we decide, we must ensure that the parts work well with the whole to enable students to move from one set of academic goals at a given campus to new horizons at different sites of learning within Montana.


  1. This can be found online at http://mus.edu/board/meetings/Archives/Retreat0302ATT3.htm.[Back]
  2. These data, as well as other measures of transfer effectiveness in Montana, can be found on the MUS website at http://mus.edu/data/transfer/Transfer_Measures_5.pdf.[Back]
  3. The sixteen current discipline councils are as follows: Anatomy and Physiology, Accounting, Biology, Writing, Math (and statistics), Psychology, Philosophy, Languages, Chemistry, History, Literature, Computer Science & Information Technology, Political Science, Sociology, Geosciences (geology & geography), and Economics.[Back]
  4. Maryland's system is one of the most experienced in terms of developing system-wide articulation of purposes and learning outcomes in the majors. Its online student transfer portal, known as ARTSYS, has been on the web since 1993, and can be found at http://artweb.usmd.edu/.[Back]

Works Cited

Adelman, C., B. Daniel, and I. Berkovits. Postsecondary Attainment, Attendance, Curriculum and Performance: Selected Results from the NELS: 88/2000 Postsecondary Education Transcript Study (PETS), 2000. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, 2003. Print.

Performance Audit: Transfer of Credits. Legislative Audit Division, Montana Legislature, 2004. Located at http://mus.edu/transfer/TransferAudit.pdf.

Schoenberg, Robert, and others. General Education in an Age of Student Mobility: An Invitation to Discuss Systemic Curricular Planning. Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2001. Print.

A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education. A Report of the Commission Appointed by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 2006. Print.

[The Montana Professor 19.1, Fall 2008 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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