The Interstate Passport: Improving the Transfer Intersection on the Road to a Four-Year Degree
Imagine that you are traveling in another country where you have never been before. You are unfamiliar with some of the language and you have no GPS or road map. You know where you want to go and some general idea of which direction you need to head, but the terrain is alien to you, the road signs are confusing, and your vehicle is running low on fuel. You come to an intersection and you have to choose a direction. You make that choice and hope that it takes you to your destination without any detours so that you arrive within the time you have allotted before you are out of fuel.
If you are lucky, you arrive at your destination without incident. If not, it may take you twice as long to get there, or you may be forced to turn around and start over at the intersection, or even abandon the trip altogether because you have exhausted your time and fuel. What started out as a wonderful new adventure filled with promise and excitement is now a big disappointment that has drained your resources and may prevent you from ever reaching your original destination.
For many-low income and first generation students today, the road to a four-year degree must seem a little like this scenario. With the high cost of tuition, many of these students start their education at a more affordable community college, knowing that they will have to transfer. Indeed, research by Alstadt, Schmidt and Couturier tells us that 8 out of 10 community college students say they intend to earn a four-year degree, but only two out of 10 transfer, and only one completes in six years.
Why is the transfer rate so low? Why is the success rate for community college students after transfer only 50 percent? Attewell and Monaghan’s 2014 study tell us that 28 percent of students who transfer lose between 10 and 89 percent of their credits, and 14 percent of these students lose even more. For some low-income students who could barely afford to take some of these courses the first time, being told they have to repeat courses ends their journey.
Although many states are working to improve transfer within their borders, it is simply not enough for our increasingly mobile student population. Nearly 15 percent of the 2014 bachelor’s degree recipients had prior enrollments in other states, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
The goal of the Interstate Passport then is to eliminate the unnecessary repetition of learning already achieved by streamlining the transfer pathway and doing so with a focus on quality—by making learning outcomes the new currency for transfer. The Passport can also be used to facilitate transfer within a state.
The Passport’s framework, developed by faculty at institutions in multiple states, calls for block transfer of lower-division general education based on a consensus set of learning outcomes—what a student should know and be able to do—in nine knowledge and skill areas: oral communication, written communication, quantitative literacy, creative expression, human cultures, natural sciences, human society and the individual, critical thinking, and teamwork and value systems. The 64 Passport Learning Outcomes for these areas are published on the Passport website, informing students about faculty expectations for general education, why it is important, and how it fits into the college learning experience. No more guessing for first-generation students about what general education is about.
Faculty at each institution constructs its Passport Block—a menu of courses and/or learning experiences by which it prepares its students to demonstrate proficiency with the learning outcomes. A student who demonstrates proficiency with a minimum grade of “C” or its equivalent in each course/learning experience earns a Passport. If the student transfers to another participating institution, he will not repeat any learning in the Passport’s nine areas to meet lower-division general education requirements even though the courses, learning experiences, or number of credits may be different. Through the National Student Clearinghouse, Passport transfer students’ academic progress will then be tracked and reported back to their sending institutions for use in continuous improvement efforts.
This approach produces greater curricular flexibility for sending institutions and a more efficient transcript evaluation process for receiving institutions. The most important results of this friction-free transfer zone, however, are that Passport students will know in advance of transferring to another participating institution that their learning will be recognized, and fewer unnecessary or duplicated courses will mean greater motivation to complete, faster time to degree, lower cost, less debt, and lower foregone earnings for these students.
The Passport’s development has been funded to date by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Lumina Foundation, and a First in the World grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
Beginning July 1, 2016, regionally accredited, not-for-profit, two-year and four-year institutions across the nation can apply for Passport status. As the Passport Network grows, we expect to see more students persisting on the road to a degree as they achieve a Passport and transfer prepared to continue their studies.
Students benefit. Institutions benefit. Our nation benefits.
Click to learn more about the Interstate Passport.
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 Alstadt, Dave, Gretchen Schmidt and Lara K. Couturier. (2014). Driving the Direction of Transfer Pathways Reform: Helping More Students Achieve Their Baccalaureate Goals by Creating Structured Transfer Pathways “With the End in Mind.” Jobs for the Future.
 Attewell, Paul and David Monaghan. (2014. “The Community College Route to the Bachelor’s Degree.” Educational Evolution and Policy Analysis, American Education Research Journal.
 National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (2015) Snapshot Report: Interstate Mobility.
Author Perspective: Association