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Falling Apart at the Seams: SUNY Seamless is Not What it Seems 2

In Part One of this series, we introduced some of the issues raised by implementation of SUNY’s “Seamless Transfer” (SST) plan, the stated goal of which is to increase student mobility and graduation rates by making it easier for students to transfer from college to college within the SUNY system. Most of you probably encountered SST for the first time when your department reviewed the proposal under consideration by the College-Wide Curriculum Committee (CWCC) for how to accommodate the reduction to 64 credits that SST will require of most degree programs. That document, which represents a tremendous amount of work on the part of those who put it together, outlines an elegant and well-considered response to the SST-mandated credit reduction. However, that document does not place SST in any context larger than Nassau Community College’s degree programs, and so the document does not address the very serious concerns about SST that have been raised SUNY-wide by the Faculty Council of Community Colleges (FCCC), the University Faculty Senate (UFS), United University Professions (UUP), as well as the unions, governance bodies, and even administrators of many other two and four-year institutions. In this post and the posts that follow, we’d like to tell you why we share those concerns and explain why we think it is important for NCC to oppose SUNY’s Seamless Transfer—despite any narrow, short-term benefits that individual aspects of the initiative might bring to students.

Consider first that while SUNY claims to have developed SST in consultation with campus presidents, chief operating officers, and faculty governance leaders, there is no documentation describing who those administrators were or their individual views on the final product. More to the point, neither the Faculty Council of Community Colleges, the University Faculty Senate, nor the Student Mobilization Committee have endorsed SST. The same is true, as far as we know, of every single faculty governance group across the entire SUNY system. Consider as well that despite the potential impact of Seamless Transfer on faculty, both full-time and part-time, no faculty union was consulted during the development process. Finally, note that the term “Seamless Transfer” belies a very slick marketing strategy, raising the specter of an intractable, SUNY-wide “transfer problem”–which, as far as we can tell, does not actually exist–while simultaneously presenting “SUNY Seamless Transfer” (SST) as the best and only solution to that problem. Taken together, these factors not only make it difficult to take at face value SUNY’s claim that SST is motivated solely by a desire to help students; they also suggest that SUNY is working very hard to make sure that SST is seen only through the lens that they are providing. We would like to offer you a different perspective.

Using data culled from the Nassau Community College Catalogue and our campus’ strategic planning documents, we calculated the impact SUNY Seamless would have over the course of one complete student cycle—taking as our cohort, in other words, all the students entering as freshman in a given year and assuming each one graduated at the end of two years. Given that scenario, reducing all our programs to the SUNY-mandated 64 credits for community colleges would result in the following:

  • A potential loss of 61,879 required credits (i.e., courses that students would no longer be able to take), which would translate into $15,576,800 in lost tuition revenue;
  • Losing those credits would take 20,626 three credit courses off the books, a total which represents more than one thousand full-time faculty loads.

Obviously, we do not have that many full-time faculty at NCC, nor is it the case that all students who begin their college education here graduate from here. Nonetheless, we hope these numbers–which represent SUNY’s ideal scenario, i.e., all students who start at a community college graduate from there–suggest the trend line that will begin to take shape across SUNY once SST is fully implemented. Imagine that trend rippling through SUNY over the course of an entire four-year degree, and it’s hard to escape the implication that SST represents an overarching strategy to reduce the number of full-time faculty teaching within the system.

Were this purely a labor issue, it would be bad enough, but SST is no less disturbing when looked at through the lens of its curricular mandates, one of which is that all courses throughout the SUNY system should be transferrable to any other SUNY school. On the surface, of course, this sounds eminently desirable. However, given the limits on course offerings that will be a direct consequence of both the reduction to 64 credits and the standardized general-education curriculum that is another SST mandate, some students will be forced to look elsewhere for the classes they want or need to transfer. SUNY’s solution is to offer them MOOCS, or Massive Open Online Courses, a largely untested means of delivering a single course’s content to many thousands of students at the same time. (Coursera, for example, the private corporation with which SUNY has partnered to deliver its MOOCs, boasts on its website today, October 9th, an enrollment of 5,098,469 “Courserians.”)

We will be writing in more detail about MOOCs in future posts. For now, consider that SUNY Chancellor Zimpher envisions students being able to fulfill up to 1/3 of their degree requirements with such courses. A student could graduate from Nassau Community College, in other words, having taken 21 of her or his 64 credits in online classes that were neither designed nor taught by NCC faculty, that had not been vetted through our curriculum development process, and that–since control over MOOCs would reside with SUNY’s central administration–had not been vetted through any other campus’ process either. Such a change would inevitably undermine each campus’ control over the development and academic integrity of its own curriculum and, for community colleges in particular, it would  weaken our ability to respond to the specific educational needs of our communities—a flexibility that is supposed to be central to our mission.

No one disagrees that students should be at the center of what we do in higher education. Nor does anyone disagree that those of us in higher ed should make it a priority to find ways of making it easier for students to persist in their college education and eventually to graduate. Indeed, we at Nassau Community College, along with our colleagues throughout SUNY, have been doing that successfully for decades. Are there things we could be doing better? Sure. Do we need to figure out how to incorporate the online world more fully into the education our students come to us claim? Absolutely. But the old adage about not fixing something that isn’t broken applies here. Instead of imposing a top-down, cookie-cutter approach that serves corporate and administrative interests more than it does the long-term interests of students, SUNY would be better off making sure that its institutions, and particularly its community colleges, are adequately funded so that we can do the jobs we went into education to do. ((For a generally sympathetic, but nonetheless apt critique of “systemness,” a concept that Chancellor Zimpher has been promoting and that finds expression in SUNY Seamless, read Sara Goldrick-Rab’s essay “The Power of Systemness” in Inside Higher Ed. While Goldrick-Rab sees much to like in Zimpher’s theory of “systemness,” the concerns she raises about how money and authority would be distributed through the system complement in significant ways the concerns we are raising here.))