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?

Oh good lord - how I hear you on this one. In our department, we currently have a stopout from 1978. I don't know that we even have copies of the curriculum from back then. We've taken the hybrid approach; one of the new requirements he has to take is our Research Methods Course (which I teach). It requires the use of computers to analyze data and the other day, he tried to put his CD-Rom into the floppy disk drive (yes - some of our computers still have those). Right now, the old requirements approach is looking REALLY good to me, but of course, we can't have someone graduating in this day and age without knowing how to use a CD-ROM!
Maybe we're just hard-hearted at my university, but there's a university-wide policy about how long you can stop out before you automatically have to move to a new catalog year - something like 6 or 8 years. Any longer than that, and sorry Charlie, you have new catalog requirements. Sometimes individual chairs may make sure a class or two from before counts if it fills the spirit of a new requirement, but we don't offer hybrids of degrees that are current and degrees students could earn 20 years ago. That's just nuts.
Our policy has always been to allow a student to opt for the old program or for the new program (with a restriction I'll get to in a second). We do this even with students who are not stopouts, by the way. Mostly students who are more-or-less just getting started opt for the new program, while those near the end opt to continue the old program. One thing that makes this somewhat easier for us is that almost all of our coursework (I'm in a business school) is taken in the junion/senior years, and there has not been, in my 20+ years here, any change in the required business courses in the freshamn/sophmore years...some changes in general studies requirements, but minor.

The restriction is this. If you've been out five years or longer, you have to come back in the new program. Even if, when you stopped out, you only had one semester to go. As I think everyone has said, things just change too much.
How often do departments completely change their programs around? I think they shouldn't be allowed to make major changes except every five years or so. That would help with this.
I found the general subject amusing because it can be a policy problem that has no end. I went looking for something at Ye Olde Alma Mater, where I had served on a major policy committee that spent part of its time all year on this question, and happened to notice that they had finally settled the issue twenty years later!

As I recall, their problem was that they had to change the default assumption for the newest catalog and then await the exponential decay of demand for the old ones before the new system could run as the default one. I know at one point we thought about requiring that the *student* produce their original catalog if they wanted to graduate under it, but some will keep it.

Some of our CC students suffer because they plan their transfer classes based on a particular university catalog, but are legally bound by a new one that appears magically the week before they transfer. This is annoying to them and to those of us who advise them, but sometimes there is no good solution when something key to licensure in a profession has changed.

At our CC, the rule is they are governed by the catalog when they entered the college but can choose to follow a new one. We don't have too much trouble with classes that have ceased to exist, because most are just replaced with a new one and the old numbers are magically associated with new ones in the computer. Other cases might be in an area like nursing where they cannot get licensed without taking the new class.

Just remember this problem when you create a new class. It is always better to call it "Programming 1" rather than "Programming in Pascal" or "Introduction to Fortran".
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