Give Students a Compass

Nine-Month Interim Report to
The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation

California State University Foundation
“Give Students a Compass”

January, 2012

Summary of objectives – The overall goal of this grant is to increase college attainment and completion rates in California through making the general education (GE) transfer curriculum more engaging, relevant and transformative. Specific objectives are:

  • To support pilot projects involving partnerships between California Community College (CCC) and California State University (CSU) campuses that test strategies in lower-division GE that improve student persistence and learning and reduce the achievement gap between mainstream and historically underrepresented populations. The projects are seeking to embed high-impact practices such as learning communities, undergraduate research, first-year experiences, service-learning, and internships in GE and to assess student progress toward achieving “Essential Learning Outcomes” identified by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) through its Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative.
  • To develop recommendations for reforming GE policy to be presented to the statewide CSU Academic Senate.

Progress – The past nine months have been very productive. Funding from the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation enabled us to hire a project director, select and begin 3 pilot partnerships, and obtain additional grant support for the “Give Students a Compass” (Compass) initiative. Debra David, former Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies at San José State University and project director for a previous Compass pilot program, became project director (half-time) in March, 2011.

Nine CSU-CCC partnerships submitted proposals for pilot projects following a January, 2011, convening in conjunction with the AAC&U annual meeting in San Francisco. Four were initially selected by the Compass steering Committee and were visited by Ken O’Donnell, program director, Susan Albertine, AAC&U national Compass director, and Debra David in May, 2011. One partnership withdrew because of local changes, but three were implemented beginning in July, 2011:

  • CSU Channel Islands and Oxnard College – Tandem sophomore seminars at both campuses focus on multiple student learning outcomes assessed through common assignments and documented in e-portfolios. Students connect through shared service-learning placements, peer mentors, and social networking.
  • CSU Los Angeles and East Los Angeles College – Learning communities on both campuses integrate coursework in chemistry, English composition, and statistics, focused on environmental issues. A joint seminar on the CSU campus includes a community engagement project.
  • CSU Sacramento and Cosumnes River College – Community college students demonstrate achievement of core learning outcomes through an e-portfolio developed in first-year experience and sophomore capstone seminars, peer-mentored by successful transfer students, and continue into an upper division GE learning community.

We were able to leverage Gilbert Foundation support to successfully secure additional grants from the Walter S. Johnson Foundation ($300,000), the James Irvine Foundation ($500,000), and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation ($300,000). Based on our national involvement with AAC&U and its LEAP initiative, we also received funding to beta-test the Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualification Profile ($200,000) and to explore the development of an “Interstate Passport” to facilitate transfer of GE credit based on LEAP learning outcomes ($17,000). These grants have enabled us to add 3 new pilot partnerships as well as 10 smaller networking partnerships, so we now have 11 CSU and 18 CCC campuses involved with Compass.

The Compass initiative’s goals have generated strong support from the GE Advisory Committee of the CSU Academic Senate and from administrators from the CCC and CSU Chancellors’ Offices. The CCC Academic Senate has participated via the steering committee. We hope to engage all key stakeholders in the process of developing recommendations for GE change. A kickoff conference, “Engaging from the Start: Better GE and Transfer in California,” is slated for February 13-14, 2012, at CSU Los Angeles.

The challenges have been mainly due to our success to date: Dr. David needs more logistical support to manage this large and complex project.  Another concern is how to gather compelling evidence of impact on student attainment within a very short time-frame. We plan to seek separate funding for more research, including expanded evaluation of pilot projects as well secondary analysis of existing student data sets. 

Changes – The well-publicized budget challenges affecting public higher education in California have not had a major impact on the project, though they may make it more difficult to sustain and scale changes beyond the project. We are hoping to build evidence for a case that a more engaging GE, including high-impact practices, is more cost-effective than our current policy in terms of student attainment per degree rather than per credit hour completed. The political context in higher education, on both a state and national level, seems to be growing more receptive to the kinds of reform that we seek:  educators, policy-makers, and employers increasingly recognize the need for the essential learning outcomes of liberal education, higher student completion rates, and high-impact pedagogy. But we also know that changing existing structures and cultures will take sustained effort.