The Alternate College, later renamed Delta College, was born in the early 1970s, during a time of explosive growth and innovation in higher education. The SUNY system was growing from a modest supplement to the array of private colleges and universities in the state to a major educational force in its own right, expanding access to coming-of-age baby boomers, returning GIs, and others who saw a college education as increasingly necessary in the high-tech cold -war economy. Brockport was completing its transformation from a state teacher’s college to a full-fledged liberal arts institution. Enrollment at Brockport had nearly tripled in the last few years of the 1960s.
Such rapid change prompted reflection. After the unusually large baby-boom cohort moved through its conventional college years, attention turned to improving the efficiency and effectiveness of higher education. One landmark document was a Carnegie Commission report entitled Less Time, More Options, envisioning, in part, shorter degree programs combined with more educational options throughout one’s working life. “Students”, they write, “would be given more points at which to reassess their direction, stop out for work experience, or stop with credit.”
A subsequent grant program of the Carnegie Corporation encouraged colleges to develop “time shortened” degree programs meant to make the first year of college more challenging and less like the last two years of high school. The SUNY system won a grant to begin six such programs at various campuses, joining eight other Carnegie-funded experiments in California, Illinois, North Carolina, and Ohio. Some built a seven-year path through high school and college for advanced students, and others waived general education courses based on standardized exams. Beyond the Carnegie-funded experiments, a 1973 survey of colleges and universities revealed over 240 time-shortening programs across the country. While many students can still seek out time-shortening opportunities like dual high school-college enrollment and credit-by-exam, Brockport’s experimental program is the only one of the original 13 that is still operating.
The Alternate College at Brockport was unique in the SUNY system in creating an interdisciplinary and experiential “college within a college.” It opened its doors in 1973 with a chief academic officer reporting directly to the president, about 20 faculty members, and almost 300 students. Students flocked to the available spots, drawn by the promise of closer faculty-student interaction and the more individualized nature of the program. The comprehensive alternative design of The Alternate together with its success in attracting students garnered it the 1979 G. Theodore Mitau Award for Innovation and Change from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
Some initially defining elements of The Alternate College proved hard to sustain. Initially, students in all courses in The Alternate College were evaluated on a Pass/Fail/Honors scale, together with written evaluations that formed a narrative transcript. Many students, and especially those with their sights set on graduate school, worried that other audiences would look askance at such transcripts. A short-lived compromise was “shadow grades”: conventional letter grades recorded on a transcript but not communicated to students. Within two years, The Alternate College used conventional letter grades and relied on the ongoing interaction between faculty and staff to help students meaningfully reflect on their goals and progress.
The Alternate College was renamed Delta College in 1985, in part to attenuate the counter-cultural overtones of “alternative” during the conservative 1980s. Over time, as SUNY-wide general education requirements coalesced, Delta found a stable berth as an alternative general education program rather than a comprehensive “college within a college.” As enrollment at Brockport shrunk from its baby-boomer peak, so did enrollment in Delta, settling in at about 60 incoming first-year students every fall.
Despite such major shifts over four full decades, the themes that animate the original Alternate College proposal will be familiar to current students: “faculty mentor/student relationships,” “interdisciplinary instruction,” and “experiential education.” Amidst the changes, the Delta College Program has always been a vibrant learning community for students seeking to make the most of their Brockport education.
Leslie, W. Bruce and Kenneth Paul O’Brien. (2000, October 16). The Alternate College, a general education program from the 70s (Part 1). Alumni News, 2(3), 18, 20.
Leslie, W. Bruce and Kenneth P. O’Brien. (2000, November 6) From Shadow Grades to Delta – The Alternate College, Pt. 2. Alumni News, 2(4), 16, 18-19.