Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Change, Not for the Better

There are colleges and universities moving towards 120-semester-unit bachelor's degrees, down from 132 or more in many cases. Others are seeking ways to offer "accelerated" degrees in three years instead of four. Of course, the not-so-secret truth is that many students take much longer than four years to graduate as it is — for a variety of reasons.

Nationally, the four-year graduation rate from our state and regional public universities is 31 percent, according to Jeff Selingo, editorial director for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Private universities graduate a slight majority of their undergraduates, 53 percent, "on schedule" based on their degree plans.

Consider the following example, which is representative of graduation at state institutions nationally:
June 11, 2012. — Middle Tennessee State University is making efforts to increase its graduation rate, but still just over half its students are completing college within six years.

According to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, 53 percent of MTSU students who began in fall 2004 graduated by 2010. That was fourth best among the state's four-year public universities. The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, was tops with 67 percent. Tennessee Tech had a 55 percent graduation rate, and UT-Martin's rate was 54 percent.

Nearly half of students enrolling at MTSU don't graduate, and nearly a fifth don't make it past freshmen year.
— The Republic; Columbus, Indiana (http://www.therepublic.com/)
Cutting the unit requirements, shifting to eight-week rolling enrollments, and other changes meant to make college "more convenient" might increase the completion rates, but will our institutions still be providing solid liberal arts educations? We've already shifted from liberal arts to "professional prep" within many degree programs, but this emphasis on graduation rates concerns me.

Online programs are particularly easy targets for redefining what a degree means. I know many people have used online programs, especially the for-profit programs, to complete degrees. These students are focused on career requirements and don't necessarily ponder what is missing from a professional prep program that omits or compresses the traditional pillars of the liberal arts general education.

1. Lost in the Rush

Having taught eight-week, 12-week, 15-week, and 16-week semesters, my experience and those of many colleagues is that content has to be cut the shorter the course time. While we can argue the class time doesn't change, it is much harder to read the same content in eight weeks. Cramming 16 weeks into eight might seem possible in theory, but the reality is that the courses are "light" versions in too many instances. (If you've ever taken a summer school course, you know it is different.)

2. Less Shared Knowledge

When you move to "rolling enrollments" one of the consequences can be the loss of "prerequisites" from course to course. If any student can start at almost any time, you can't have a long list of required courses. The result is that every course has to reintroduce basic concepts: you cannot "build" on past knowledge as you can with the traditional academic model.

I've had a professor tell me that three weeks of each of his eight-week courses were review. The benefit might be that students are sure to get some concepts time and time again. Reinforcement works. But, this also causes yet more "rush" through the course content. More content ends up sacrificed to convenience.

3. Sacrificing Breadth

To rush students through programs in three years, 120-units or less, courses must be cut. It is not electives or discipline-specific courses that are cut in the unit reductions. Instead, core liberal arts requirements are sacrificed. The idea of a well-rounded education gives way to vocation-centric certification.

We have problems with our colleges and universities, but making them easier and more convenient is not an improvement. Less rigor means bachelor's degrees will suffer the same devaluation we've seen in high school diplomas.

How can we even consider less rigorous degree programs when large numbers of college students need remedial math and English courses?
May 29, 2012 (AP) - Each year, an estimated 1.7 million U.S. college students are steered to remedial classes to catch them up and prepare them for regular coursework. But a growing body of research shows the courses are eating up time and money, often leading not to degrees but student loan hangovers.
— Businessweek (http://www.businessweek.com/ap/2012-05/D9V2C75O0.htm)
These students won't be helped by higher education cutting requirements. If anything, I'm increasingly in favor of increasing the undergraduate requirements. If that means students need seven years to graduate, I don't see that as a problem. You shouldn't graduate until you have received a well-rounded liberal arts education and professional preparation. If you only want job skills, that's the role for vocational and technical institutions.

Learning should be our first, second, and third concern. Graduating "on time" is less important and not our most serious problem.

The push to graduate quickly is a response to the cost of education. That's a different issue and one we should address in other ways.