Thursday, March 26, 2009


In discussion with some colleagues from other colleges, I realized recently that different colleges handle 'stopouts' very differently. 'Stopouts' are students who interrupt their degree path, and then return.

From a curricular standpoint, brief stopouts during which curricula don't change are no big deal. Someone takes a semester or a year off, then picks up where she left off. We can handle that.

But sometimes curricula change. And when they do, there's a decision to be made: which set of rules apply to the newly-returned student? Should she be subject to the original rules, the new rules, or a hybrid?

Apparently, all three of these approaches exist.

The advantage of the 'original rules still apply' approach is that the student is already on track. She doesn't lose any previous credits. When stopouts are brief and changes relatively minor, this can be the most reasonable approach.

The downsides, though, are several. First, and most obviously, it requires the college to run multiple versions of the same program simultaneously. That usually means eating some small sections, and even those don't capture everybody. (That's especially true as the stopouts get longer. A year-old program may still have critical mass. A five-year-old program almost certainly doesn't.)

With longer stopouts in certain programs, there can also be an issue of dated-ness. In fields where the material changes quickly, I'm not sure I'd want to mint fresh grads based on old coursework.

Finally, if a curriculum changes relatively frequently, you can actually get into situations in which you'd have to run three or more different versions of a program at the same time. I've lived through this. Administratively, it's a honkin' nightmare.

The 'new rules' approach gets around the problem of running multiple versions simultaneously, but it raises issues of compatibility. Depending on how far along the student was, you may wind up with too few or too many credits in some categories, with incompatible prerequisites, and/or with a whole pile of 'course substitution' forms that make a mockery of both curricula.

The hybrid approach is often what actually happens, even though it's the least defensible theoretically (since it reflects a curriculum that nobody actually approved as such). It involves an individual chair or dean cobbling together a patchwork of the old and the new, working with whatever is at hand at the time. It's remarkably difficult to defend in the abstract, but on the ground, it's often the only reasonable way to actually get a student through.

Wise and worldly readers -- have you seen (or had) weird issues with stopping out? Is there an elegant way to handle them?