Monday, December 19, 2011


What Do You Mean, I’m Not Graduating?

It’s the end of the semester, which means it’s time for some students to figure out that they’ve taken the “wrong” courses for their programs.

This happens every single year.

When it happened at Proprietary U, I couldn’t really blame the students. PU had an odd habit of changing requirements annually, if not faster than that, so it was easy to lose track. (It wasn’t unusual to have three different versions of a curriculum running simultaneously. The scheduling headaches were awful.) Worse, Home Office used to change the requirements without paying attention to total credit hours. The ADHD culture led to all manner of confusion, with the students ultimately paying for it.

Here, that’s less of an issue. Curricula change much more slowly, and there’s no issue of people in one state making rules for people in another without looking at the relevant regs. But still, every year, some students profess themselves shocked to discover that whatever lineup of classes they chose didn’t add up to a program.

In my first few months of administration, I was surprised every time the question came up. Now, not so much.

Typically, confusion arises from any of several sources.

1. Curricular change. That’s still relevant when you have a student who started many years ago, took some time off, and returned, with the requirements having changed while she was away.

2. Inattention to advisement. “My advisor never told me” frequently translates to “I wasn’t paying attention when my advisor told me.”

3. Inattentive advisors. Yes, sometimes advisors get it wrong. The most frustrating cases are the ones in which they get defensive and try to explain that they’re actually right.

4. Procrastination. Some students will try to put off their math classes until the last possible moment, not noticing that they’ve placed into developmental courses. That means that instead of just needing the one class, they need a sequence of classes that can’t be taken together. There’s no elegant way out of this, once it happens.

5. Changing majors. Courses that counted towards the first major may or may not count towards the second. Students don’t always catch that, though.

6. Scheduling. This is usually the easiest to work around, assuming you aren’t in California. Sometimes a student will need a social science elective on a Tuesday night, but we don’t have one she hasn’t already taken on a Tuesday. In consultation with advisors, they can usually find an acceptable substitute. (For a business major, does “Early Modern History” seem like a viable substitute for “The Middle Ages?” I took the position that it did.) If they play their cards right, we just fill out “course substitution forms” and call it good. Of course, the substitutions have to be academically defensible. One literature elective for another is typically fine, but I’ve shot down requests to substitute literature for engineering.

Where this approach falls flat is where students can’t get anything resembling anything they need. In a case like California’s, in which colleges have waitlists thousands deep, there’s often no reasonable substitution available. Happily, that’s not my world.

My free advice to students and prospective students out there is to keep a checklist of course requirements from your very first semester forward. When you see your academic advisor, bring the checklist and go through it. It’s sooooo much easier to make adjustments to courses you haven’t taken yet than it is to find funding for an extra semester to make up for that one requirement you somehow missed.

And for the love of all that’s good, don’t put off your math. It won’t get any easier.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen other ways that students wind up with courses that don’t quite add up to a program?

In transferring where classes don't count for the same number of credits... All of a sudden a student might be 1 credit short when all classes are 4 credits.

Normally, if all the items are checked off on the sheet, you're done. But, if some of them didn't carry the right number of credits things might get dicey.

Or, when the catalog is written to prohibit getting credit for 2 similar courses but in a way that's so confusing that it's not at all clear what's actually right.

E.g., You cannot get credit for course X after getting credit for course Y. (now, mess with the phrasing so that it's incomprehensible)

This suggests you can take X, Y as a sequence. But, there's maybe an unwritten rule that you can't...
I wonder if we're in the minority, but at my CC, whatever the program requirements are when the student begins their studies, are the program requirements when they conclude. Granted, if it's been years since they set foot on campus, that might not hold true, but our students are protected from having to take additional courses which weren't required when they signed on.
Our students are required to fill out a "degree plan" that lists all the courses they will take. Ideally this happens when they choose a major. We still have trouble with those who changed their major or just ignored the degree plan requirement, but it helps.
Our advisors actively work with those students who have been at it a while to change them to new catalog years if possible. We are a public univ but with a longstanding overseas military arm and so students could've been with us for 20+ years.

Of course, we use the official evaluation as gold. If they didn't read, and our systems track that, it's not on us.

I think the piece of advice I would give to students is to not "hold on" to transcripts from other institutions until the last minute. First, you may be able to transfer it. But if you've gone and maxed out your transfer credit (our is 70 cr) then you are sunk.
"And for the love of all that’s good, don’t put off your math. It won’t get any easier. "

Sounds sensible, but not data-driven. If you know the data suggest longer developmental sequences are detrimental, then if someone 'places into developmental courses' and then goes and successfully completes more advanced courses, is "there's no elegant way out of this" really code for "there's no way out of this without the college admitting it was wrong for this particular student, which in turn puts us on shaky grounds for students in general"?

My grad school (where many programs were subject to an impressive number of curricula changes each year) had the rule that you had to complete EITHER the graduation requirements that were in effect when you STARTED (and you'd better hold on to the handbook they give you because it'll vanish from the web) OR those in effect when you FINISHED (sometimes having to fill out a form along the way to be counted under the new requirements). This is the only sane thing to do if your curricula change every year.
We count the credits from the previous institution, but can get into odd situations when the transition is from a quarter system to a semester system. They end up with fractional credits.

One problem you didn't mention is different requirements. Some schools allow a random mix of classes (like your history example), but we require a sequence that results in a coherent whole. A student might think they have their two history classes, but they don't if they are both from the same century on different continents.

Our computerized degree audit makes this obvious, but they don't look until it is too late. This makes advising new transfer students a really important task even if their success doesn't count toward anyone's graduation rate.

The biggest problem is, indeed, putting off math, although we have a rule that forbids enrollment in any class if they put off a developmental math class beyond the 30 credit point. They are forced to take the developmental math class, but can dally after that.
At my institution, the requirements a student is responsible for in their program are set when they register for their first year, so if the program changes, it only affects future incoming students, which seems reasonable. Advisors keep the student handbook for each of their advisees' years and frequently the first question in a session is to verify the year of matriculation.

Apparently, this isn't always the case, and a friend of mine found out that when she changed her major, she apparently received updated common curriculum requirements, which is to say, a course that previously had qualified as freshman writing no longer did. Neither she nor her new advisor seemed to know about the shift, and apparently, when she petitioned to have it count as it did when she had taken it, she needed the original instructor's testimonial, and the original instructor, an adjunct, had since left and could not be tracked down.

As the student needed a degree in hand for a job she was offered, she took an emergency online version of the class and accelerated it, but the entire system sounded like a nightmare for everyone involved.
I completely agree about your point about taking math ASAP. My friend got placed into Math 353 (the equivalent of Algebra 1), so she has to take Math 353, Math 253, and then college algebra. This is her second semester at our California CC, and if I didn't nag at her to add the math class, she would not have taken it because she felt that she "didn't need math classes because she was a music major." She failed to realize that only college level math counts towards her IGETC or her Cal State requirements, so if she didn't do them this semester, she would have to stay for three years, not two.

I think you're referring to a different situation than DD. At my CC, almost every student needs a course called Intermediate Algebra to graduate. They might be bad at math and then try to wait until their last semester to take it. This becomes a serious problem when a student didn't place into the course - instead they placed into Pre-Algebra. Then they must take Pre-Algebra, Elementary Algebra, and Intermediate Algebra, which is a three semester sequence. If they don't think about this until their "last semester", it won't be. And when we get a student who's particularly weak in math, they often have to repeat one or two of the courses in the sequence, thus delaying their graduation by a couple of years. In situations like these, it would have been better if the student had started taking their math classes earlier on, so they weren't stuck with a few requirements at the end that they couldn't take concurrently.

I think you're assuming that they took the higher math class after the developmental one and passed, but are still being held back because they didn't take the developmental one. In my experience, that doesn't actually happen - a student who managed to end-run the pre-requisites somehow and enroll in, say, the calculus sequence and then pass it would have their math credit done and no one would insist that they go back and take developmental math at that point. (I once basically cried my way into a summer session calc I class that I hadn't taken the pre-req for and passed it with a solid B despite missing the last 3 weeks of an 8 week class because it overlapped with Calc II at another campus - no one ever mentioned my lack of pre-calc trig to me again after that B and A in the calculus sequence.)

What happens instead is that a student places into, say, a two-course sequence of developmental math where you have to pass course a to get into course b, and have to pass course b to take the first class that counts toward graduation. If you then need to two math classes to graduate, you're probably looking at a 4 quarter series of courses (since there generally aren't two credit-bearing math classes that can be taken during the same term until upper division classes for majors). The student then decides that math is hard and that they suck at it and puts off taking the math classes in favor of other subjects.

If you put this off until the year you plan to graduate, you're stuck unless there's an accelerated option for the developmental stuff since you need a 4 quarter sequence (some places do have a self-paced developmental option so a motivated student could barrel through those two classes in a quarter, but that's tough for a student who actually needs the help). If you put it off until your final quarter, there isn't a reasonable option for anyone to point you at because you're in no position to succeed in those two math classes that you need and they can't be taken at the same time anyway.

It's worse at 4 year schools because the student in question also probably stopped taking math in their sophomore or junior year of high school and is completely out of practice with whatever math skills they once had firmly mastered and would now place into an even lower level of developmental math if they were to re-test. At a CC they at least probably had those years of high school more recently (if they're going to college full time straight after high school).
As someone else said, credits that transfer as a different number of credits can be a real dealbreaker. This is a bigger problem at semester schools, as students will try to transfer in their quarter-school credits (often from a CC where they took summer classes after junior year in an effort to catch up and graduate on time) and not realize that their 4 quarter credits are worth somewhere between 2 and 3 semester credits.

Unclear program requirements can also be a problem. My undergrad had a line in their math major grad requirements that stated that math majors were "expected" to take their blah gen ed requirement (blah being the requirement met by pretty much every math class ever and also the for majors physics sequence - the actual name was something school specific) outside of the math department (implying that all math majors better go take physics).

I never had schedule room to take physics (because the labs consistently were at the same time as choir practice) and this was the only thing stopping me from adding a math major to my degree. I found out that "expected" meant "we want you to do this, but we'll still totally give you the major if you don't" partway through fall semester of my senior year. If I'd known even one semester earlier I would have easily been able to schedule remaining the math classes I needed for the major - as it was I fell one short because I had to drop one of the three math classes I was taking my last semester so as to have time to finish my thesis for my other department and also sleep.
All situations mentioned in the post as well as comments above happen at our school. I don't think anybody mentioned (or maybe I missed it?) that students sometimes pick courses just because "they look interesting." It does not happen often, thank goodness. Also, counselors in our Admissions office are sometimes trying to advise students without a clue to what students really should take and when. I update programs of study for my advisees whenever they contact me (email, phone, in person) and share a copy with them, so they know where they stand. Of course, they often change classes after they have been advised, sigh... Yes, I always remind advisees to request transcripts ASAP and then follow up on the request, to make sure our Admissions office received and processed all transcripts. And, yes, I do remind them to take care of math courses as soon as possible. Most of our students need to take two learning support courses before they can take College Algebra or equivalent.
Becca, not to pile on, but DD's statement about math is most definitely data driven. Our college has tons of data that show how math skills deteriorate over time. Even skipping a semester is a problem.

What you might not realize is that the typical HS grad in most states barely passed HS algebra 1 and has been actively forgetting it since then. Passing history and humanities and Science Without Math does not increase the odds of being able to solve a quadratic equation, let alone fractions.
We get this one too often: students who planned out a course of study from day one on campus, after a thorough reading of our course catalog, only to fail to understand that just because it is in the catalog doesn't mean we ever teach it. We have courses in there that haven't been taught in a decade (or more). So, come graduation time, the student will be a couple of classes short, still waiting for that elusive course to be held.

We also sometimes have students who had the bad luck of signing up for more than one class that got canceled due to low enrollment - and when they scrambled to fill the resultant hole in their schedule, they picked something that wouldn't count toward their major, without realizing it.

And we have gen eds that also count for majors/minors, and similar-sounding gen eds that don't count for majors/minors. This trips up a lot of students.

Some of this could be resolved with a bit of administrative house cleaning. But of course, there's always the student equivalent of "user error," too.
I've a friend taking a French reading class to fulfill a language credit. Except this class doesn't fulfill that credit (in fact, it's the only that does not) - I've seen it in the calendar. He wanted to take the regular French class, but they were always closed.

I didn't have the heart to tell him.
I graduated from college when they were still making Preparation A, but I didn't need a single math class. And I didn't test out by taking AP classes or by getting a stellar score on the SAT, either.

Even with only high school math, my skills are still pretty good, but all I need to get through life (and I've somehow become the faculty expert on our local cc budget and how some complicated parts of it are calculated and reported to the State) is basic arithmetic, how to do fractions and percentages, and some very basic algebra. In other words, eighth grade math--tops.

I'm saying this because intermediate algebra seems like a barrier that's artificially high, and one that keeps many folks from graduating from cc's and transferring.
Philip, you do realize that "Intermediate Algebra" is the code word for "eighth grade math"?
What's with not posting to the blogger site?
Well appreciable views has been conveyed. Thanks for making this post so interesting.

what does education requirement means for a particular post
I was a student continually from 1999 to 2002, trying to earn an A.S. degree. Policy at my school was that you were under the catalog in place when you started, unless you opted in to a more beneficial cirriculum change. My program changed just as I was getting ready to graduate. I was told that I need to take a few more courses to complete my program - courses that I had already taken under their old names/numbers (I took Legal Systems and Tors rather than Torts, and Contracts was Business Law when I took it). A course sub was done for me, which still didn't win my battle - I wasn't in the wrong, as I had completed the program set forth in the 99 catalog.

Later, when I went to work for this same university, I realized that this crap was standard practice. It was a way to squeeze a few more courses (and a few more dollars) out of students and their financial aid programs. It is still going on. I couldn't stop it, but I did start advising students to please communicate with their advisors via email, so that they'd have a record of what they were being told.

It's still going on. Most recently a student has had to leave with nothing - this person can get no more financial aid to cover the new requirements the unviersity says they must have to graduate according to new requirements not in place when they started.

I'm anonymous because, while I no longer work at this university, they're in a lot of trouble right now for various things. I hope this is one of them, obviously.
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