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Navigating the Curriculum – Making Decisions Count

January 26, 2018

As I proposed in an earlier article, the Catalog essentially represents a contract between the student and the school. If the student fulfills the requirements stated in the Catalog, the school will award the degree.  With the degree completion requirements articulated in the Catalog, schools establish student success support systems intended to enable the student to achieve their academic goals.  But in almost all cases these support systems are intended to provide advice and guidance; student choice and decisions remain the prerogative of the student.

Full Time Enrollment

One of the most confounding and reoccurring student success issues relates to student credit load.  Do the math.  Normative baccalaureate degrees require completion of 120 credits.  To complete this number of credits over a four year, fall/spring semester calendar, requires an average credit load of 15 credits per semester.   This is called “normal-progress full-time” enrollment.

Yet, a widely accepted definition of “full-time” enrollment is 12 credits per semester.  This has been largely driven by federal student aid regulations defining aid eligibility.  Students following the 12-credit definition will not complete a degree in four years since only 96 credits will have been completed.  An additional 24 credits, two additional semesters of enrollment, will be required.

Tuition Model

The school’s tuition model may impact semester credit load, particularly when the school offers a “full-time tuition” option.  More traditional options charge the student a fixed tuition fee if enrolled between 12-19 semester credits.  Other models charge a fixed tuition fee for 12 or more credits.

Enrolling for additional credits each semester is certainly a demanding academic situation and may be not be advisable for some students.  However, for the student interested in reducing their overall cost of attendance, this may be a very applicable approach.  I will never forget the enterprising student I once met who completed his baccalaureate degree in three semesters by enrolling in over 40 credits each semester.  Sounds outrageous, but he completed his degree with a 3.20 average.  When asked why, his response was simple; the school’s tuition model was a fixed price for 12 or more credits.  He was paying his way through school and did not want to accumulate any student-loan debit.  This is a rare and extreme example, but it makes an important point.  (Editor’s note: the student also indicated he didn’t sleep much!)

Student Choice

Registration rules vary greatly across the academy, but most schools offer the following opportunities for students to modify their original registration:

  • Drop/Add period. This registration adjustment period typically occurs during the first days of the semester and enables the student to adjust their registration schedule without penalty or restrictions. Adding courses results in increasing the student’s credit load. Dropping courses reduces credit load. The potential risk is the student will drop below normal-progress, full-time enrollment.
  • Late drop. This registration adjustment period typically extends well into the semester and represents a grade amnesty philosophy; the student is not performing well in the course and may be facing a failing grade if they complete the course. Late drop allows the student to leave the course without an impact on the cumulative grade point average. Common late drop policy restrictions will include length of time into the semester that the late drop is allowed, the total number times a student may late drop a course during their degree enrollment, and the recording of the course on the transcript along with a late drop grade symbol. The potential risk is the student will drop below normal-progress, full-time enrollment with no opportunity to add additional semester credits.
  • Withdrawal. The process represents a cancellation of the student’s current enrollment. This is a serious, and costly, decision. The intention of a withdrawal policy is to provide relief to a student experiencing an extreme hardship – illness, accident, family crisis, military deployment, and so on. The risk is the complete loss of semester enrollment credit and the loss of all or partial tuition and fees. Schools will often have a re-enrollment policy that enables withdrawn students to resume study, but may also have associated risks and restrictions.

In addition to registration changes potentially impacting normal progress, there are other curricular issues that need to be taken into consideration:

  • Change of Major. There is no doubt that the selection of an academic major is a difficult decision. Despite the best counseling and matching of interests to aptitude, selecting a degree program is challenging. Changing a major early on may have minimal impact on courses completed that will continue to fulfill degree requirements. The later a change is made, the more likely specific completed courses will not fulfill the requirements of the new major. This likelihood is increased when the old/new majors are in entirely different disciplines.
  • Dual Programs. Students often elect to enroll and complete more than one academic program. This may come in many forms such as an academic minor, a dual major, or a dual degree. The specific policies will vary from school to school, but the common denominator is that the student will be required to complete additional courses and credits.
  • Stop-Out. There are legitimate reasons why a student may need to interrupt continuous enrollment patterns. Most schools expect continuous fall/spring semester enrollment patterns. The potential risk is that the curricular rules may change from when the student first enrolled to the time they resume study. It is common that the curricular rules at the time of resuming study will apply.

Decisions have consequences.  As students navigate the curriculum the opportunities, costs, and program completion are all on the table.  In the next article, I will examine the impact of public policy on curricular issues.

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