revolutions large and small

Higher ed’s paradigm shift from inputs to outcomes won’t happen fast, but it’s gratifying to see it already under way, on a couple of different scales.

Larger scale:   A recent post from Dave Eubanks reminds us in a thought-provoking and very engaging way how far we need to go.  It’s a mix of sociobiology, educational psychology, and history that I find hard to resist.

Smaller scale:  In the meantime, some of our colleagues are already thinking about ways to move the culture right now.

Last month at Sacramento State University I was talking to Ed Mills, AVP of Student Affairs, and he told me an idea I haven’t tired of sharing since.  He and his colleagues on the university’s Graduation Initiative team were thinking of the typical way we define class standing, by counting the number of semester units a student has earned since enrolling:

The problem with this is that it confers a certain advantage – registration priority – to students who’ve loitered aimlessly for several years (okay, decades), racking up hundreds of units to nowhere, and puts them in line ahead of their more goal-oriented peers.

But in the world of automated degree audit, we can count something more meaningful than “units since beginning.”  We can compare the courses they’ve taken to those they still need for a given degree, and count “relevant units until finishing.”  That would give us a definition of class standing that looks more like the blue numbers:

And then the ones who are closest to the finish line – and who, as a result, have the fewest productive choices at registration time – go to the front of the line.  And because I’m older than web-enabled class scheduling, I picture them getting escorted to folding tables in a crowded virtual gym, and handed their index cards first.

Noteworthy:  this embrace of degree teleology comes essentially free of charge.  Yeah, there’s some significant programming to figure out, but compared to advising or marketing, or a move to performance funding, this is cultural change for a pittance.

Two weeks ago the national organizations behind the CSU’s Graduation Initiative brought fifty or so universities from around the country to Washington, D.C. to compare ideas.  Ed and team were there, and I was glad to hear they’re still pursuing this.  Colleagues from our campuses in Pomona and San Bernardino were there as well, and on the way home they were treated to an unscheduled layover in Waco.

With longing glances toward the frequent flier VIP lounge, they mused about a “CSU Advantage” club.  Here’s part of the email they sent me, laying out the idea:

“Students can join the CSU Advantage Club and accumulate points based on the number of courses they take towards their degree and the grades they get in these courses.  (4 for A, 3 for B, etc.) This includes community college courses, and there is a conversion for AP courses.  They can become silver, gold, and platinum members as they accumulate more points.  This moves them up in the registration priority.  With gold, they don’t need to pay a fee to change their class schedule during add/drop.  With platinum, they get a parking place guaranteed as well.”

I don’t know if these ideas would work, or even if their own authors still liked them after a night’s sleep.  One key is that these changes — the smaller ones dreamed up at Sacramento, Pomona, and San Bernardino, and even the larger one Dave Eubanks describes — will only ever work because they accurately reflect what we value.  Students won’t finish the degree to get registration priority, any more than I take a vacation to get priority baggage handling.  You have to want the main thing you’re going for.

But some of the structures and systems we’ve inherited prioritize the opposite of what matters.  Getting beyond them takes us one step further away from registration in the gym.


2 thoughts on “revolutions large and small

  1. Would students with a greater number of major requirements (e.g. pre-med) and therefore “more units left to go” be at a disadvantage?

    Note: This is likely more of a concern when it comes to competing for GE courses.

    (In competing to enroll in an “upper-level major requirement” class, major pre-requisites provide sufficient regulation so that a community college transfer with 100 sociology units won’t have an unwarranted advantage to enroll in BIOL 172.)

  2. Really good point, Rosy — thank you. I hadn’t thought about that. I’m going to pass this to the campus so they can keep it in mind as they work this through.

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