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Conversations With CAEL: Jennifer Sparrow, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs for CUNY SPS

Posted by Marie Cini

 

Around the start of a new year, it’s common for people to reflect on change – maybe make a few predictions. A new decade? Even more so. The 2020s will be our sixth decade of advocating for working adult learners. Anyone who has shared that journey knows it’s challenged by constant upheaval. But I’d like to take the opportunity to focus on one constant amid all that change – and make one very confident prediction. From the beginning, CAEL’s greatest strength has been our membership. That will always be the case. 

Sometimes, we spend too much time talking about the changes we need to make for adult learners. We neglect the great work that is underway. And with that in mind, I’m going to be sharing some conversations I have with CAEL members and other stakeholders. The work they do every day is – and always will be – the greatest impact advancing our mission. Hearing about these efforts amplifies that impact. We need to share more of them. 

This month, I talked with Jennifer Sparrow, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs for CUNY’s School of Professional Studies (SPS), located in Manhattan. Launched in 2003, the school focuses on working adults and the evolving, vital connections between the workplace and the classroom. 

The critical role of these pathways has led to a robust complement of programs at CUNY SPS. Today, there are 10 graduate degree programs, 11 undergraduate degree programs, and 9 certificate programs. CUNY SPS supplements these with a multitude of professional education and workforce development initiatives. Quality online coursework is also an effective way to improve access to postsecondary adult learning. So it’s no surprise that CUNY SPS is a leader in online education. It’s also no surprise that they have won many awards. That includes CAEL’s very own Adult Learner Impact Award, which we presented to CUNY SPS at our annual conference in November.

 

Prior Learning

I began our conversation by asking Jennifer to tell me more about Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) at CUNY SPS. I knew that CUNY SPS works hard to help its students get credit for what they already have learned. That applies to previous institutions, the workplace, and military service. After all, what could be more demotivating to prospective adult learners than devaluing their knowledge, skills, and experience? 

Fortunately, CUNY SPS recognizes that adult learners aren’t “blank slates.” Instead, it actively helps students get the most out of their prior learning. To help do that, CUNY SPS began partnering with CAEL in 2014 to offer a hybrid portfolio model using licensed CAEL content. That means CUNY SPS portfolio courses feature CAEL-trained instructors. In addition, CUNY SPS offers or accepts 150 Assessment Exams, such as CLEP, DSST, and UEXcel. 

In terms of transfer credit, CUNY SPS accepts 62 different industry credentials, as well as ACE and NCCRS course recommendations. This is all in addition to “traditional” transfer credit from other colleges. 

 

Learning From the Adult Learning Experience 

A few years ago, SPS also worked with CAEL to assess how they could serve their adult learners even more effectively. I think the best way to get better at serving your constituents is to listen to their feedback. And that’s exactly what CUNY SPS did. They used CAEL’s Adult Learner 360 assessment results to highlight opportunities to improve. They made agile adjustments that yielded quick, positive results. For example, they clarified financing information. They also improved responsiveness, including adding staff to the financial aid office. And, they created a free-standing scholarship office and reorganized their website to make it more user friendly.

The assessment also highlighted CUNY SPS strengths so they could prioritize plans to increase impact. Their strong orientation and onboarding process for new students was a clear differentiator. They decided to enhance this area by creating Test Flight, an online orientation and learning experience for potential and new students. Test Flight offers students a realistic simulation of the online learning experience. What an innovative and immersive way to prepare future students.

SPS CUNY also created a new position—Experiential Learning Manager—to lead both PLA and Internships. This is a particularly creative model! PLA focuses on past experiences. Program internships, of course, occur while students are enrolled at SPS CUNY. But both create learning. Kudos to Jennifer and her team for recognizing that these two parts can be joined in a larger, coherent whole.

As you can see, Jennifer and her colleagues are innovators. So I thought it would be good to find out what other new things they are driving to assist their adult learners to earn a degree or quality credential. She had several to tell me about:

 

Jump Start

Jennifer told me that she and her colleagues were concerned about the number of applicants whose access to continued learning was blocked by very low transfer GPAs. To address this, she and her team created the Jump Start Program. Jump Start allows applicants with low GPAs to demonstrate college-level competency in several areas. These include languages, leadership, project management, technical skills, professional writing, and quantitative skills like bookkeeping and accounting. Applicants do this through a portfolio process. If an applicant can demonstrate college-level competency in several of these areas, they are considered for admission. 

If that reminds you of the PLA process, there’s a good reason. Jennifer told me that the application format was inspired by the the LearningCounts PLA portfolio evaluation process. It allows adult learners to demonstrate what they already know and can do at the college level. Jennifer and her colleagues wanted to give applicants a similar chance. Jump Start offers a way to demonstrate that they are capable of far more than a 20-year-old transcript might predict. I have to say – Jump Start was inspiring to learn about. Many working adults want and need a second chance at college. CUNY SPS has found a creative and sound method to provide that second chance.

 

Z Degrees

We all know that adult learners’ time is pulled in several directions – school, work, family. The same is true of their finances. Every dollar counts. That’s why Jennifer and her colleagues are also tackling the problem of costly textbooks. They are creating entire degrees that have zero textbook costs, using Open Education Resources (OER). For example, their communication and media program has no textbook costs at all. They are close to achieving the same for their sociology degree. They are converting many general education courses as well.

“Z degrees” (zero cost textbooks) are a terrific solution given all the excellent OER being created and shared. When I was at University of Maryland University College (now known as University of Maryland Global Campus), we moved toward this model for all our degrees. Let me tell you: The cost savings to students were phenomenal with no degradation in quality of learning. A win-win for all.

 

Partnerships Are the Future

There’s no question the postsecondary space is growing more complex by the day. Much of that is owed to the intricate web that connects educators, employers, governments, and workforce developers. Partnerships are more important than ever for reaching more students as they seek their best path forward. To that end, Jennifer and her team are pursuing agreements that allow students to seamlessly move from a two-year to a four-year degree. They recently partnered with Kingsborough Community College to offer fully online two-to-four-year transfer programs with shared services and academic outcomes aligned.

Jennifer was particularly excited to tell me that starting with the fall 2020 semester, CUNY SPS will lower its residence requirement to 15 credits (5 courses). This allows more of today’s students to transfer in a higher number of credits. High residency requirements are preventing so many students with many valid credits from transferring them. Kudos to CUNY SPS for being so responsive and helping adult learners navigate another common barrier. 

I could have talked with Jennifer for hours about all the great things CUNY SPS is doing for adult learners. They are doing so much great work, and I just didn’t have room for all of it here. But when CAEL moves into our Membership Platform (later this year), you’ll be able to network directly among the communities of practice that comprise our membership. That will include interacting with innovative leaders like Jennifer who generously share the latest best practices in adult postsecondary education models. Watch for updates on that. In the meantime, I look forward to sharing another conversation with you next month.

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Are you a member of CAEL and doing some innovative work for adult learners? Would you like to share those ideas with the greater CAEL network? Drop us a line at cael@cael.org and tell us about your work. We’ll be in touch.

 

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