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.