REPORT OF THE SCEP SUBCOMMITTEE ON CREDITS AND DEGREES, APRIL 2001



The SCEP Subcommittee on Credits and Degrees looked at a number of issues related to graduation rates and the percentage of total credits specifically required in majors and programs: (1) How many credits on average did U of M undergraduates actually acquire before graduation? (2) Has the percentage of degree credits specifically required in a major or program increased with semester conversion? (3) Was the percentage of degree credits specifically required in a major or program high to start with, whether or not it increased after semester conversion? (4) Are the CLA Graduation Proficiency Tests in foreign languages a barrier to timely graduation?


Credits per Baccalaureate Degree

This inquiry was motivated by the University’s desire to shorten the time students take to graduate, and the question was, “Do students need to accumulate too many credits in order to graduate?” The average number of semester credits amassed by students graduating in 1999-2000 in some programs seems quite high (e.g., 170 in Nursing, and around 150 credits in a number of the College of Human Ecology B.S. degree programs). The subcommittee was at least somewhat surprised and reassured to learn, however, that the average number of semester credits completed by baccalaureate degree recipients at the Twin Cities Campus—138—is not far from the average earned by students at comparable institutions. Thus, as we seek to improve our four-year graduation rates, we need to focus more on the speed with which students complete their credits rather than on the total number of credits completed. Still, we would not like to see the average total number of credits increase; it bears watching.


Changes in the Percentage of Required Credits Resulting from Semester Conversion

The subcommittee examined data (from Twin Cities, Morris, and Crookston) comparing the percentage (of total degree credits) of required courses, including prerequisites, in various majors and programs under both quarters and semesters. We took as an indicator of a potential problem if the percentage of required credits increased by 5% or more. As befits a liberal arts campus, Morris seems to have been most careful not to permit majors and programs to raise the percentage of credits required; though some majors went up and some went down, the average on the Morris Campus changed less than 1%. On the Twin Cities and Crookston campuses, however, there were rather substantial increases in a number of majors and programs. In the case of the Twin Cities, in particular, it appears that one factor contributing to these increasing percentages is the fact that many courses in the sciences and mathematics that had carried 4 quarter credits now carry 4 semester credits, and thus constitute a larger proportion of a degree. These science and math courses are required in many B.S. programs throughout the campus. Some departments also converted their requirements course by course: where a quarter course had been required, now a semester course is required, thereby increasing the proportion of required credits in a degree program.

The Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, Craig Swan, using the same data examined by the subcommittee, has already written to departments on the Twin Cities Campus where the percentage of required credits increased by 5% or more, asking for justification of the increases. We endorse these enquiries, suggest that similar ones might be undertaken at Crookston if they are not already under way, and would encourage a rollback to quarter-system levels wherever practicable.


Unchanged High Percentages of Required Courses

The subcommittee was disturbed by the large percentages of required courses and credits in some majors and programs (largely on the Twin Cities Campus), whether or not those percentages had increased with semester conversion. It was surprising to some of us to discover the number of majors and programs in which 60, 70, 80, or even 90% of the credits (including prerequisites) were prescribed. In some cases, of course, these highly structured requirements derive from licensure or accreditation rules, and certainly we all want our actuaries, hygienists, dieticians, and civil engineers to be well trained and to have acquired the knowledge requisite for their professions. It may be the case, though, that accreditation and licensure requirements are stated broadly enough as to permit some latitude in the coursework used to meet the standard. Furthermore, many majors and programs at the U of M seem themselves to have set a high percentage of required coursework and enumerated courses, even when they have no licensure or accreditation requirements. Some majors and programs seem to require students to take nearly all their courses, including nearly all their liberal education courses, within a single major or college. This undermines the goal of the liberal education requirements, under which all students should be broadly educated and experience diverse modes of enquiry. It also means that students must be “on track” for their degree program virtually from the instant they arrive on campus for freshman orientation; they have little room for flexibility or for the exploration of options, which we think educationally important. There is little margin for error if a student hopes to graduate in four years, and students are required to commit prematurely, in many instances, to a specific course of study. Finally, the subcommittee believes that undergraduate students in even highly structured degree programs should have some opportunity to take elective courses. Breadth of study should be one of the hallmarks of an undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota, as the liberal education requirements clearly envisage.

The subcommittee thus proposes that the Provost and Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education review on a regular and continuing basis those programs that require students to take specific courses, including prerequisites, for 60% or more of their college credits. Among the questions that should be considered are these: (1) are the credits required essential for this degree? (2) where appropriate, can this degree reasonably be completed in four years? (3) are flexibility and breadth of study promoted? (4) is the spirit, as well as the letter, of the liberal education requirements promoted under these requirements?

The subcommittee makes this recommendation knowing full well that different educational goals, each meritorious in itself—such as extensive study in a major or program, the pursuit of a broad and diverse course of study, and a four-year graduation plan—may come into conflict. Still, the institution must speak out in support of a genuinely liberal education for undergraduates and the desirability of at least some curricular exploration and free choice of elective courses.

CLA Graduation Proficiency Testing in a Foreign Language

The College of Liberal Arts requires students to pass a Graduation Proficiency Test (GPT) in a foreign language. That examination tests reading, writing, oral understanding, and speaking the language, and it is usually taken after the third or fourth semester of language study, though it is independent of any grade earned in a particular course. It is intended as an independent measure of what a student has achieved at that point in his or her language education. It is said to demonstrate language proficiency in a way that “seat time” in courses does not.

The subcommittee met with Charlotte Melin and Jenise Rowekamp, appearing on behalf of the CLA Committee on Second Language Education (ComSLE). ComSLE feels that the GPT is not a significant barrier to timely graduation among CLA students. The overall pass rate for the GPT is 92% on the first attempt, and 97.6% of all students by the second attempt. Students only retake the parts of the GPT they have not passed.

There have been improvements in the administration of the GPT. In the most commonly taught languages, the GPT is integrated into the regular class schedule and finals week for 1004 sections. Computerized versions of the listening and reading sections are given during finals week at the regularly scheduled final exam period for the course. Students may take the GPT either at the beginning or end of each semester during the academic year, or during the summer. Accommodations are made for students with learning disabilities. In general, the language departments are becoming more proactive about encouraging students to complete the examination successfully. There is an appeals process for students if they are unable to pass after two attempts.

Some members of the subcommittee thought the idea of a GPT intellectually and pedagogically sound, in that the GPT demonstrates meaningful achievement and proficiency in a foreign language which the institution is prepared to certify. Others, however, were skeptical about the educational rationale for the GPT at this point. Peer institutions seem not to have followed our lead. The GPT may have been defensible when the CLA second language requirement was being established and there was a desire to establish a common level of achievement across the different sections where instruction in a particular language was taking place. At this point, however, a common test given to all sections, such as is administered in calculus courses, would seem to accomplish the same end. If a student desired certification of proficiency, perhaps the GPT could become an optional exam and certification could be indicated on the transcript.

It is clear to the subcommittee that most students pass the GPT in a timely manner, that both ComSLE and CLA are committed to reviewing any effect on graduation rates and to improving administration of the exam, and that the foreign language departments are vigorous advocates of the GPT’s value. The subcommittee is reluctant to impose its opinions upon experts in language instruction. Perhaps because of the extraordinary nature of this examination-based graduation requirement, however, SCEP might recommend to the College of Liberal Arts that the GPT have a “sunset” provision after five years. It ought to be reconsidered at least quinquennially by the CLA Committee on Instruction & Advising. It would then be up to the language departments to persuade their peers on that committee that this extraordinary examination continues to play a valuable and essential part of the educational process.


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