Higher Education Reform

I had an epiphany regarding the Utah System of Higher Education (“USHE”) and the Utah Legislature’s oversight of higher education. In short, we have been hurting our students (and often parents): (1) by not providing proper guidance, (2) by not better aligning our 8 colleges and universities, and (3) by forcing students to waste time and money by not offering enough openings in prerequisite courses.

Utah colleges and universities take a lot of money every semester for every student (through taxpayer money and tuition). In exchange for that money, our institutions should provide instruction and an efficient pathway toward a college degree.

Students often amass credits that don’t point them to a degree. We call those non-degree-related credits “surplus.” We blame the students for amassing “surplus” credits. And, after students have amassed too many “surplus” credits, we even have policies to charge them even more money (a “surcharge”) for the remaining credits they will need to secure a degree.

This seems backwards. Lots of businesses will sell customers as many superfluous products as they possibly can. Utah colleges and universities should not be in that business. Instead, our institutions should effectively counsel and guide students on the best pathway to get a degree as affordably as possible. If USHE institutions fail to do that, they are being negligent. In many cases, the blame is theirs, not the student’s.

Utah colleges and universities spend a lot of effort to recruit students and take their tuition. Do they spend as much effort ensuring that students are on an efficient pathway to graduate? Do they spend as much effort making sure that pre-requisite courses are available to students, so students don’t spin their wheels (paying for and attending classes they don’t need)? Do they spend as much effort making sure that credits transfer from one Utah institution to another?

Here is what I’m thinking. General education courses are important—to both expose a college student to various disciplines and to lay a proper foundation for higher learning. General education courses should occupy the first year of college. Beyond that, students should be working toward a specific degree. A pathway should be laid out for each student to obtain that degree in 3 more years or less (120 total credit hours or less).

If a student does not pick a major or changes majors or takes courses outside that pathway, maybe nothing needs to change from our current practices. Similarly, if a student cannot take a full-time caseload, maybe nothing changes. They take the courses as best they can.

But, if a student picks a major and puts full-time effort toward obtaining that degree, the student should be entitled to a certain level of guidance and certainty. If the student lives up to his/her end and the institution doesn’t, responsibility should rest with the institution.

If, however, an institution cannot establish a pathway for a student to obtain a degree in 120 total credit hours, all degree-related instruction to the student beyond 120 total credit hours will be free. (And, by the way, a student would be free to transfer between USHE institutions; yes, this would put a huge burden on the system to better align our institutions and degrees).

Likewise, if a student takes a full course load of degree-related courses every semester, all degree-related instruction to the student beyond 120 total credit hours will be free. (Yes, this would put a huge burden on the system to make prerequisite courses available to students).

The new burdens of this proposal—better counseling, better alignment of courses and majors within the Utah System of Higher Education, and better availability of prerequisite courses—are things our system already should have addressed. The benefits of this proposal to our students, our graduation rates, and our economy could be significant.

Currently, our 8 colleges and universities have financial incentives to keep students as long as they can. They have no financial incentives to move students through the process efficiently. They have no financial incentives to graduate students. If they had financial incentives to graduate students in 4 years, they would do it more often.

Working with the appropriate stakeholders, I believe that legislation to this effect could be passed in the next general session. I would want it to go into effect for first-year students entering our Utah colleges and universities in the fall of 2015. That would give our system a full year from today to make any necessary changes.

Our discussion

  1. BenJoe said

    Transferred from Dixie to Weber State and immediately made an appointment with the counselling office. Was given a list of what classes would transfer and which would not; so I could finish my business degree. After the first semester I went back to the counselors office since I felt I was repeating a lot of stuff and I found they had placed me in two of the wrong classes and that those classes did in fact transfer and I had now paid twice for them. I asked for a refund, but was told there was nothing they could do and they were sorry for the mixup. Then I got a job so I took classes at night, but after about 3 semesters I went back to the counselors office at Weber and they told me they are glad I came because they had changed their requirements and I now needed a Diversity Credit and Humanities Credit (in reality this was there all along they forgot to tell me). So I went and took two classes online that didn’t require any effort at all and breezed into two more “As” that I paid full price for and was again a semester behind. Finally out frustration, I transferred to Univ or Phoenix and through some work was able to transfer all my credits over and had a dedicated counselor who called me every 4 weeks to make sure I was on track to graduate on time. With in 9 months I was done. Also, I may ask that my classes at Phoenix were very challenging and glad I made the change.

  2. Martha said

    I’m always saddened when I hear that students received poor advice from advisors, like the imdividual who wrote above. I am also distressed when students hear what they want to hear and not what has actually been said. Both are too common occurences. I have not-so-facetiously said that students should have to pass a quiz on the graduation requirements before they can enroll. Not being informed (including receiving bad information or not being rsponsible for learning the requirements for one’s self) can be very expensive and detrimental to students’ educational fulfillment. That said, tuition at USHE institutions is approximately 30-50% less than University of Phoenix. It appears that higher tuition can buy better advising, at least in this case, and I’m happy the student above met his educational goals.

    Steve, you have some valid points about a lack of sufficient advising and transferability, but the supposed lack of sections of prerequisite courses is a complicated issue. Are you basing this claim on evidence or anecdotal information? Do you know how many students don’t choose to actually register for classes until the week before or even the first week of a semester? How is an academic department supposed to find adequate instructors and classroom space at that point?

    Also, college students in Utah work many hours (often because neither they nor their parents have saved any money to fund college although they frequently have savings for weddings and religious missions). That means they’re very picky as to when they’ll actually take classes because they have to go serve food or fold clothes or answer telephones for 20-30 hours per week to make money to live while they pay tuition using federal aid and loans. In particular, afternoon class sessions are often underenrolled. Students’ schedules are the determinant factor: I want all my classes “in the mornings” or “on Tuesday and Thursday” are not infrequent refrains, for example. There are only so many instructors and so much classroom space at any given time.

    But the biggest time-waster for Utah college students is re-taking classes. Ask for some statistics on how many credits are repeated each semester. There are students who retake dozens and dozens of credits. It’s not unheard of for students to take a developmental or GE Math class up to five times before passing it. Five times! That means four semesters when someone else couldn’t get into that class. Yes, all USHE institutions are supposed to be punishing students who retake classes by charging more after the second attempt, but that isn’t happening anywhere. And two attempts? Why not a set number of credits that can be repeated? Also, students usually have at least until the end of the eighth week of a semester to drop classes. That means they reside in a seat (whether or not they actually attend class sessions) for that semster and are penalized only by receiving a “W” grade. Do you know the statistics on that?

    Several state-wide changes could help alleviate any real or perceived bottlenecks:

    1. Drop the classes of students who do not pay tuition or apply for financial aid at least seven days before the beginning of the semester. Currently, students have until the end of the third week to pay before they are dropped from classes at most USHE institutions (commonly called the “purge”). Hundreds of students show up for one or two classes — or not at all — and remain on class rolls until it’s too late for anyone else to take their spot. (This would have a side benefit of providing more accurate enrollment numbers, but that’s another story.)

    2. Change the drop deadline to the end of the first week of each semester so students who want to be in the class still have time to enroll when someone drops.

    3. Require all students receiving any kind of financial aid (including federal) or scholarship to take 15 credits (not 12) in order to be considered full-time.

    4. Require Utah high schools to graduate students who are prepared to take college classes, including GE Math, based on national, standardized tests. Require school districts to fund remedial courses when over 25% of their college-going graduates require developmental instruction directly out of high school. (P.S. Since all research shows that any break in Math instruction leads to huge loss of compentency, expect even higher percentages of Utah students needing to take developmental Math courses because of changes to mission age.)

    5. Make institutions actually offer classes according to two-year published course rotation schedules so students can make legitimate plans for when they’ll take specific classes.

    6. Stop subsidizing thousands of freshman out-of-state students’ tuition across the state with Utah tax money through border waivers, legacy scholarships, friendly waivers, etc. Those students are taking seats in GE classes and using up the time of advisors. Why should Utah taxpayers be subsidizing something that penalizes Utah students? Limit such waivers more stringently (including WICHE) and offer them only to legitimate students with a standard minimum qualification level.

    7. Make it very clear to students that they don’t need a general associate’s degree. Students waste at least 15-18 credits on average when they pursue a non-specialized AA/AS rather than focusing on a bachelor’s degree from the outset. An unintended consequence of the “66% by 2020” plan is a continued emphasis on these largely useless degrees. If students want to “lock in” GE before transferring, a Registrar’s Letter of GE Completion does the same thing without requiring any crdits beyond GE. The 2+2 model hurts students!

    8. Make the USHE “Majors Meetings” agree on what is required in each major across the state. Don’t let some institutions opt out because they’re too big and powerful and the rules don’t apply to them. Prohibit stupid restrictions such as “no more than 12 credits of major requirements can be transferred into this program” (that one is common to almost all USHE business programs).

    9. Require the Commissioner’s Office to send the “general studies” program proposals it has received from multiple imstitutions to the Regents for approval. They’ve stalled proposals from several institutions for flexible degrees that include credits for competence (not just class hours). Creating rigorous individualized programs of study could allow students to truly utilize previous educational and life experiences toward degrees. Transferability is great, but it only goes so far. What happens when you’ve been majoring in athropology but move to an area where the local college doesn’t have an anthropology (or economics or political science or journalism or physical education or Chinese) program? Two more years of college, that’s what happens. Individualized programs can help alleviate that problem.

    10. Don’t tell students that the first 30 credits of college should be solely devoted to general education classes. I always advise students to enroll in at least one course in their proposed major as soon as possible. Why? It gives students “some skin in the game,” it makes the freshman year less like grade 13, and it helps students make decisions about their majors quickly — before they waste credits. Many majors have requirements that can be fulfilled using “shared” GE credits. An efficient use of credit hours gets students involved in their majors immediately. Then, even if they change majors, the impact is lessened.

    But none of those ideas is as sexy — or as easily understood — as saying “free credits if you’re not done in four years.” Such a program would force students into staying in a major even if they decide it’s not right for them: “I can’t change my major even though I hate it. I’d lose my 120 credit guarantee.”

    Every major area of study that is eligible for federal financial aid is required to provide a plan by which students can complete that program in the minimum amount of semsters (eight 15-credit semsters for a 120 credit bachelor’s degree). How many students follow those plans? Very, very few. And there’s always a reason: I couldn’t find a section of that class when I could take it, I needed to take a developmental class first, I got engaged and dropped all my classes that semester, I didn’t want to take too many hard courses at once, I had to drop out to take care of my grandfather, I want to take that class from Professor X, I moved to Salt Lake to be with my girlfriend, I didn’t know that class had a prerequisite that’s only offered once a year, I wanted to ski that winter, I wanted to go on a mission and dropped out to work, I had a baby, etc. (I’ve heard every one of those and many more.)

    Students have access to those schedules in college catalogs, so bad advising (and there’s plenty of that I grant you) can only be blamed for so much. Yes, if an institution doesn’t actually allow students to graduate according that schedule, then by all means it should be penalized. But 99% of the time, that’s not the issue. And if we’re going to penalize institutions, should we also look at penalizing students who usurp space in classes they have had ample opportunity to pass? Or stop allowing students to sit in class (or not in class as they choose but still taking up a seat) for half the semester and then drop?

    If the Legislature wants to start giving away free credits, a comprehensive, cohesive plan across USHE is in order, not one more quick-fix band aid (like meaningless mission-based funding, free concurrent enrollment courses, requiring credits for veterans that actually hurt them, and many other legislative schemes, including the many out-of-state tuition waivers).

    Steve, you’ve been very helpful to higher ed over the years, and I appreciate your willingness to ask hard questions and tackle issues head on. There are certainly problems regarding bottlenecks and scheduling that need to be fixed and transferability after GE is an issue, but this needs a little more work to be ready for prime time, including studying existing similar programs in other states. Let’s learn what has worked (and/or hasn’t worked) elsewhere before we claim this is the latest magic pill.

  3. steveu said

    Martha, wow! Thank you for the time you spent on your response. I’d like to meet with you ASAP to discuss. Your ideas are fantastic. As I believe you know, I’ve advocated many of them. But, I can’t figure out how to jump start USHE on several of them. Free credits after 120 hours would surely do it. Suddenly, I believe we’d see instant movement on things we should have done all along, like your ideas on drops and withdrawals, all of your math ideas, better transferability of credit within majors, the general studies degree, wiser concurrent enrollment offerings.

  4. Andrew said

    There has been a great deal presented here. I would like to comment on just a few of them.

    I am uncomfortable with the notion that USHE is, or ought to be, monolithic. Forcing all institutions to offer identical majors with identical curriculum is undoubtedly more efficient, but I don’t think that is what taxpayers are anticipating. I think there is little expectation that a degree from SUU, UVU or Weber State is equivalent to a degree from the U of U or USU.

    I agree that there is significant room for improvement within each institution, when it comes to required courses. I think that there should be a limit, both to the number of credit hours required for completing a major, and required credits that are exclusive to a department or college. It may be difficult in the current funding paradigm, but does every department need its own exclusive Math, English, etc. courses (I think some departments may even have their own Diversity courses) — particularly at the Freshman level?

    You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink, and so it is with students and choosing majors and planning ahead. Beyond simple indecision and procrastination, there are many other factors delaying graduation. Some of them are voluntary and others not.

    LDS Missions, military service and other activities that often interrupt schooling in Utah are not going to go way and will need to be dealt with constructively. I do not understand the consternation among administrators. Missions are nothing new, though perhaps they are to some of them. Punitive policies, intentional or otherwise, only serve to alienate the institution from its service population. Cohorts and similar trendy programs, popular in other states, may not be a good fit in Utah where even traditional students are not all that traditional..

    Some students may benefit from leaving on missions immediately after high school, rather than attending one or two semesters first. Hopefully, some serious thought will be given to education in deciding when to leave on a mission (and when to come back).

    I agree with Martha that school districts ought to shoulder the costs of adult remedial education. That being said, the diploma inflation of the past 30 years has pushed many to pursue degrees in Higher Education who are not necessarily equipped for it, nor ever will be unless we adopt the least common denominator approach — but I have made this point before.

    One week is hardly enough time to evaluate a course or instructor before deciding whether to drop or not. Forcing a student to commit to a course or section so early will result in more W’s, lower grades and repeated classes. You may solve one problem but create others.

    Some flexibility from funding organizations could substantially reduce the amount of surplus credits. Requiring a student to carry a full load in order to maintain a grant, scholarship or put off repayment of a loan results in students taking whatever course will fill the schedule. Again, solving one problem creates others.

    15 credit hours can be overwhelming, especially with demanding courses.

    I appreciate that there are efforts being made to improve Utah’s schools at all levels. I hope that they are thoroughly discussed from a variety of perspectives, before any serious actions are taken.

  5. Salam said

    Summer sessions used to be 8 weeks with flltuime students taking 7-9 hours. However you may find individual courses which last a shorter length of time, even as little as 1-4 weeks. You’ll have to look at your college’s summer course guide to find out just what kind of summer schedules they offer.

  6. Jenipher said

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