Friday Fragments | Confessions of a Community College Dean
Friday Fragments | Confessions of a Community College Dean

Jessica Ruf’s article this week in Diverse Issues in Higher Education is a must-read. It’s about community colleges that have broken the 16-week semester in half, with students taking half of their classes in the first seven to eight weeks and the other half in the second. The results are striking:

So far, data from the participating colleges show promise. Five years after implementing shorter semesters, Trident Technical College saw its student course success rates increase from 63.2% to 75.3%, its graduation rates increase by 8% and its withdrawal rates decrease from 15.8% to 9.4%. Odessa College saw its graduation rate double to 42% the year it launched 8-week courses. Full-time enrollment increased from 36% to 46% at Amarillo College four years after it began shortening its terms. And Grayson College saw an 11% increase in students converting from part-time to full-time status.

The article does a good job of outlining reasons that students are more successful doing two things at a time for two months than doing four things at a time for four months. Among other things, in the split semester, a student who has to drop out in week 10 for personal reasons leaves with credits under their belt; in the regular semester, that student leaves with nothing.

Those of us who obsess over student success know that many of the factors are largely out of colleges’ control: family issues, the larger economy, the occasional global pandemic. But the academic calendar actually is under colleges’ control. We can change it just by choosing to. And in the places that have jumped in with both feet, the results have been encouraging. They’ve been particularly encouraging in closing achievement gaps.

Many interventions that show good results are either prohibitively expensive at scale (such as ASAP) or reliant on quirky local factors that only work where they work. But the cost of changing an academic calendar is mostly a one-and-done, with payoff accruing for years to come. And while it disproportionately benefits low-income students and students of color, it doesn’t single them out; the same calendar applies to everyone.

People on my campus know that this is a pet cause of mine. Ideas that are simple, practical, affordable, egalitarian and effective are rare birds. This is one.

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My thanks to the wise and worldly readers who responded to the student question about incompletes earlier this week. There was a widespread consensus that the syllabus should be the first point of reference, and that the first person the student should contact would be the professor.

Some folks made broader comments about incompletes generally, though. I was struck at how many mentioned that it’s rare for a student actually to resolve an incomplete. (Sandy Shugart, the former president of Valencia College, called incompletes “pregnant F’s.”) It sounded like institutional policies around incompletes vary considerably, with some colleges being quite prescriptive about what’s required for them and others allowing much more discretion. For what it’s worth, from the perspective of my office, prescriptiveness reads as consistency.

In grad school, incompletes were commonplace, largely as a function of the amount of reading and writing that was required. But at the undergrad level, they’re more rare, and that’s probably for the best.

I’ve never seen a scholarly treatment of why so few students ever finish their incompletes. Anecdotally, I’d guess that it’s largely because the circumstances that prevented finishing often linger beyond the deadline to resolve the grades. But if anyone has a deeper understanding of them, I’d love to hear about it.

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A few days ago, on a walk with The Girl, we were discussing which celebrities seemed supportive of the LGBTQ community. She expressed skepticism about Bruce Springsteen. I responded with, “That’s not fair. He did a duet of ‘Thunder Road’ with Melissa Etheridge on MTV Unplugged.”

Her response: “I don’t understand a single word of that sentence.”

Gotta love getting older …



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