Improving Transfer with Interstate Passport: A Project Every Institution Should Know About

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The US Department of Education has awarded multi-million dollar “First in the World” grants to 18 colleges, universities, and organizations that are innovating to solve critical challenges with access, recruitment, retention, and student success. At AI, we have interviewed each of the recipients to learn more about the projects these institutions are pursuing, how their approaches are unique, and what other colleges and universities can learn from these new efforts.

2015 was the second year of the First in the World grants. You can read our interviews with the 24 institutions that received 2014 grants here.

Although the process of transferring general education credits between institutions has improved in recent years, it has not improved enough to keep up with an increasingly mobile student population. Students are often required to repeat courses at their transfer institution, slowing time to graduation and adding to student debt. Recently, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) has been working on a solution: an Interstate Passport.

The Interstate Passport incorporates lower-division general education requirements as a whole, allowing students to receive credit for the entire lower-division gen-ed block rather than simply for individual courses — and eliminating the need to repeat courses after their transfer. “This is a way to streamline transfer. It’s a way to solve the issue at an early point in a student’s studies where we lose so many students out of the pipeline,” explains Patricia Shea, WICHE director of academic leadership initiatives.

WICHE has been creating the framework in stages and is due to complete the second phase this spring. Now with the help of a $2.99 million First in the World grant, they will work to scale and enhance the project by building a more robust and automated national data collection and student tracking infrastructure. We talked to Shea to learn more about this next stage of the Interstate Passport project.

How the Passport Simplifies Transfer

A growing number of students transfer colleges during their education, and more than a quarter of those transfer to an institution in a different state. The Interstate Passport offers a way to ease the transfer process for students by allowing them to demonstrate their mastery of a set of lower-division general education learning outcomes. Once the Passport has been achieved, the Passport allows a student to transfer to another participating institution with their lower-division gen-ed completed.

The Passport framework includes nine content areas that form the basis of lower-division general education:

Foundational Skills

  • Oral Communication
  • Written Communication
  • Quantitative Literacy

Knowledge Areas

  • Natural Sciences
  • Human Cultures
  • Creative Expression
  • Human Society and the Individual

Cross-Cutting Skills

  • Critical Thinking
  • Teamwork and Value Systems

Each institution decides which courses offer learning outcomes that their students must achieve in order to achieve a Passport. For example, one institution might specify one required course and two electives for a student to achieve a learning outcome in written communication, while another institution would have a slightly different set of requirements for the Passport. Once a student achieves a Passport, however, a student could transfer between those institutions and receive full credit for their gen-ed requirements.

The work of creating learning outcomes and proficiency criteria for the Passport is done by faculty who teach those lower-division gen-ed courses, Shea explains. Because the Passport is based what the student knows and can do and ways students have demonstrated their achievement level with the learning outcomes, it can work in tandem with existing state systems. It can also serve as a bridge between institutions that use a credit-based approach and those relying on a competency-based approach.

The development of the framework and proficiency outcomes took place during the project’s first two phases. Phase II, which wraps up this spring, continued framework development, expanded Passport participation, and began the process of automating data collection and student tracking. The First in the World funds will support the project’s third phase, which includes:

  • Working with the National Student Clearinghouse to build an automated national data collection and student tracking infrastructure
  • Modeling the mapping of critical assignments to Passport learning outcomes
  • Scaling Passport participation among institutions
  • Assessing the impact of the Passport on transfer student retention and graduation rates.

Twenty-four institutions in seven states are involved in the development of the learning outcomes.  In December, institutions in six more states joined in reviewing the learning outcomes and testing the process of constructing Passport Blocks.  With the addition of the institutions in the three mapping pilot states (described below), there are now institutions/organizations in 16 states involved in some facet of Passport development activities.

Tracking Transfer Student Success

Historically, tracking student performance as students transfer from institution to institution has been challenging. “Currently, many institutions don’t know how well their students perform when they transfer to another institution,” Shea explains, so WICHE has been working with registrars and institutional researchers to design a tracking system..

They will track students and evaluate the effect the Passport has on student success several ways:

  • Students who transfer to another institution will be tracked for two terms after transfer, and the information will be shared with students’ original institution for continuous improvement efforts.
  • The performance of Passport transfer students will be compared to students who transfer to a participating institution without a Passport
  • Passport transfer students will also be compared to non-transfer students at participating institutions

WICHE is partnering with the National Student Clearinghouse for the project because 95 percent of institutions use the NSC’s student tracking service. They will create two services:

  • Passport Verify: a system that allows institutions to immediately check whether incoming transfer students have a Passport, and where and when it was awarded.
  • An Academic Progress Tracking (APT) service to track the academic performance of Passport students.

“Otherwise students are relying on an intake staff person at the receiving institution to go through all their student records and their transcript and see that they’ve achieved the passport and make sure they get credit for it. This will really streamline that process so that students are more likely to get that recognition immediately.”
Patricia Shea, WICHE

Thanks to the NSC partnership, there won’t be additional charges to participating institutions for processing their tracking data or verifying Passports. This partnership will also make it easier to scale the project because new participating institutions won’t see additional costs.

Mapping Critical Assignments to Passport Learning Outcomes: A Pilot

Because the project is outcomes-driven, another key element is making sure that assignments critical for learning outcomes are effective. WICHE will partner with six participating four-year and two-year institutions for the mapping pilot. Faculty at those institutions will create a passport block and look at critical assignments in those courses, while the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems will create two rubrics–one to score critical assignments (assignments students must pass in order to achieve learning outcomes) and the other to score de-identified student artifacts responding to the critical assignments.
Faculty will score samples of the critical assignments and responding student artifacts from their home institution. Then faculty from each of the five other institutions will cross-score the samples. NCHEMS will compile all the data and create a customized report for each institution on the findings.  Additionally, NCHEMS will report to the Passport Review Board about the experience with recommendations on whether this tool should be made available in the future to candidate institutions for Passport status.

Looking Ahead

The primary key to the project’s success is that it was a grassroots initiative, first suggested by chief academic officers in the WICHE region who were concerned about transfer students having to repeat courses, Shea notes. In addition, the project components are being designed those who are directly affected. Faculty are creating the learning outcomes and proficiency criteria, while institutional researchers are designing the tracking system so it works for them.

“Learning outcomes: that approach is the wave of the future,” Shea adds. “We’ve been doing transfer based on course-by-course articulation for such a long time, but there is a movement now towards identifying learning outcomes and using learning outcomes and competency-based education.”

The Interstate Passport holds great promise both for streamlining student transfer, but also for achievement based on outcomes whose benefits are proven through transfer students’ success at subsequent institutions. We’re intrigued to watch this project unfold and see what story the numbers tell.