By Emilsen Holguin, Assistant Vice President for Academic Operations
and Regulatory Affairs
“The College meets students where they are.”
Excelsior College is considered an innovator in higher education. As with other distance learning institutions, common words used when describing the College include flexibility, accessibility and affordability. But what makes Excelsior unique? What sets Excelsior College apart from its competitors? This document attempts to illustrate the difference and explain its impact on College operations.
Everything starts at the beginning
Excelsior College was founded in 1971 by the New York State Board of Regents, and was originally known as the Regents External Degree Program (REX). Initial development of the College was funded by major grants from the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation. From 1971 until 1998, Regents College (as it became known in 1986) operated as a program of the Board of Regents (which also served as its board of trustees) and under the authority of The University of the State of New York by which degrees and diplomas were awarded during that period. In April 1998, the Board of Regents granted the College a charter to operate as a private, nonprofit, independent institution, and on January 1, 2001, Regents College changed its name to Excelsior College. Today, an independent board of trustees governs Excelsior College and it is composed of prominent individuals in the fields of education, business, and the professions from across the United States.
In this description, two words make the difference: External Degree. The New York State Board of Regents created the delivery format of “External” for Excelsior College. The original definition of External states “all requirements for the degree or other award must be capable of completion through examination, without formal classroom study at the institution[i].” Although the original definition remains the same in NYSED files, in the last decade, the department has interpreted and applied the external format as a means of accessibility and flexibility in requirements for degree completion.
What does this really mean?
Registering a program under External format means that the NYSED expects that Excelsior College degree programs are designed to make education accessible by keeping a non-competitive admission process and allowing students to transfer the majority of their credits to meet degree requirements.
The External format translates in Excelsior’s practice of maintaining a low residency requirement and an open admission policy.
Note that prior to the regulatory environment that required evidence of learning outcomes, Excelsior’s students could transfer all credits to meet their degree requirements (except for the Clinical Performance in Nursing Examination in the associate degree in nursing). Due to changes in expectations, NYSED approved that Excelsior’s require a capstone course in all of its registered degree programs.
Although the NYSED does not stipulate a required number of full-time faculty per student headcount, the department rules stipulate the institution must have a sufficient number of faculty to oversee the following:
- development, implementation, evaluation and improvement of curricula,
- ongoing assurance of the integrity of credit,
- quality of teaching and learning,
- advising; and
- appropriate allocation and use of services and resources.
The type of delivery format sets an expectation for the number of full-time faculty required to support a program. There is not an expectation for full-time faculty under the original External format; however, the introduction of online courses created a need for full-time faculty to support courses and fulfill regulatory agencies’ expectations of a faculty body.
The External format allows Excelsior College to register degree programs with a minimum number of full-time faculty per student headcount.
From the beginning of Excelsior College, the cornerstone of its operations has been the strong group of academic advisors. Since Regents External Degree Program and later Regent College academic advisors were fundamental in guiding students to find the best options to meet their degree requirements. These options included taking a face-to-face course in a local college, a standardized exam with Excelsior or some other institution, as well as developing a portfolio or taking a correspondence course. Academic advisors’ guiding principle has been to act in the best interest of the students and help them to meet their academic goals.
Academic advisors continue to be fundamental to Excelsior’s operations. Currently, academic advisors are experts in curriculum and evaluation of degree requirements. They are master’s prepared and highly trained professionals who work collaboratively with students toward the achievement of academic, career, and personal goals. They work with students to plan their degree path and choose the best options to meet degree requirements. In addition to their expertise in credit evaluation, academic advisors are highly knowledgeable in Excelsior’s course inventory, and work closely with faculty to assure academic integrity.
The External format allows Excelsior College to use academic advisors to fulfill some expectations traditionally assigned to faculty, such as assurance of the integrity of credit, advising, and appropriate allocation and use of services and resources.
Academic quality at Excelsior
Regulatory agencies expect that educational institutions demonstrate the quality of their programs through evidence that the students’ learning outcomes meet the approved program outcomes. This is mostly accomplished by designing courses that provide opportunities for learning experiences that include the desirable learning outcomes of a degree program. Some practices that traditional institutions use to accomplish this goal are:
- Admission requirements
- Prescribed curriculums
- High residency requirements
With a few exceptions, Excelsior’s degree programs do not follow the practices above. At Excelsior College the evidence of student learning outcomes is collected mostly in each program’s capstone course. In addition, the schools use academic advisors to ensure that students learning experiences meet program expectations, providing a detailed credit evaluation of each applicant’s prior learning and recommending the best options to achieve the expected program outcomes.
The evaluation of credit at Excelsior College is fundamental to ensure students are prepared to take the capstone course. At Excelsior College, academic quality goes further than simply ensuring a student takes a sequence of courses. Because of Excelsior’s generous transfer policies, academic quality relies heavily in the integrity of the evaluation of credits transferred throughout the student academic journey.
The most significant operational difference at Excelsior College comes from its very low residency requirement (as low as 3 credits in several degree programs). Most educational institutions have high residence requirements (60 or more credits) and policies that prevent transferring of external credits after students enrolled. These policies facilitate the speed of the initial evaluation of credit and the collection of evidence that demonstrate students’ learning outcomes. Some of the practices used by traditional institutions to approve credits to meet degree requirements are:
- Course match: Courses are approved on the basis of matching course ID and course title.
- Waiver: Courses are waived on the basis of completion of prior degree programs or certificates.
- Agreements: Courses are approved on the basis of established agreements between institutions.
Excelsior College has a very low residence requirement for most of its programs and allows transferring of external credits after a student has enrolled. With this said, Excelsior College’s credit evaluation practices have been designed to support that students achieve the expected learning outcomes in their degree programs. The credit evaluation practices stated above are used at the College, but the characteristics of our model and student population (highly military) require a deeper level of review.
The main goal of the credit evaluation process at Excelsior is to ensure the credit the student transfers align with the expected learning outcomes of the program.
If needed, academic advisors performing evaluations will research course descriptions and course outcomes, and in some cases, request course syllabi and consult with faculty prior to approving a course into the student academic plan.
The detailed research needed in many of the evaluations performed at Excelsior College slows the process and impacts the speed of the evaluation. At the same time, the detailed research performed by academic advisors supports the academic quality of Excelsior’s degrees and maximizes the number of credits that a student may transfer into a degree program. In short, the credit evaluation practices at Excelsior College promote a quality and affordable education for students.
The design of our program, academic policies and credit evaluation practices allow the College to “meet students where they are” and bring to life its founding philosophy: “What you know is more important than where or how you learned it.”