In my role leading the Center of Excellence at Acadeum, I spend a lot of time talking with academic leaders about how they can improve course and program access and quality while working within current resource constraints.
After spending over two decades in academic leadership, I know how hard it is to overcome these constraints, and I know that most institutions’ resources are stretched to the brink. However, recent innovations, some of which were forced upon institutions by the pandemic, show us that breaking free of these constraints is critical to continued success and possible when institutions work together.
Recently, Steve Mintz tackled this topic in an article published in Inside Higher Ed. The article addressed a number of innovations that institutions should consider to confront longstanding issues around access, affordability, and equity. I’m writing this blog series to examine two of those suggestions in-depth:
My goal is to give academic leaders three actionable strategies that they can use to make an impact on quality and access as early as this summer.
Let’s start by exploring how encouraging students to continue making progress this summer can help them stay on track to graduate while increasing your student retention.
SUMMER AND INTERSESSION TERMS ARE CRITICAL TO COMPLETION
The standard nine-month academic calendar is a relic of the agrarian economy, and yet the vast majority of colleges and universities continue to follow this calendar due to a variety of factors, including faculty contracts and resource constraints. Meanwhile, student interest in summer and intersession terms is increasing as students seek effective ways to graduate on time and with less student debt. Indeed, major initiatives like Complete College America’s 15 to Finish are highlighting the need for students to increase their course load to graduate on time. Taking summer courses allows students to catch up, accelerate, and balance their course load to alleviate stress during the Fall and Spring terms.
TRANSFER CREDIT ROULETTE
In many cases, students turn to less-than-ideal alternatives to complete summer coursework. In theory, this “summer swirl” between institutions seems like a smart and economical plan. Unfortunately, the reality is a lot more complicated.
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, more than 40 percent of the credits students attempt to transfer to their home institution are not accepted. That amounts to a tremendous waste of students' time and money, and a barrier to persistence and completion. Much of the waste results from what University of St. Francis President Arvid C. Johnson refers to as “transfer credit roulette”: students who take unapproved transfer courses or courses that do not adequately prepare them for upper-level requirements.
It’s hard to blame students for this unfortunate outcome, yet it’s easy to see why this outcome can be really demoralizing. The process of taking a transfer course is anything but user-friendly, and it is fraught with opportunity for error. Typically, to take a transfer course a student must spend time searching for the needed course, applying and being admitted to another institution, paying another institution for the course, and managing the paperwork to have a transcript sent back to his or her home institution. Not surprisingly, students can make mistakes and end up taking a course that, in the end, does not work for their institution.
In addition, this difficult process dissuades many students who could benefit from taking summer courses to catch up or rehabilitate their GPAs from doing so. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a clunkier approach to getting students the courses they need than the current transfer course process. It is ill-suited to its purpose and is more of an after-thought than a true student success strategy.
LOSING CONTROL OF COURSE QUALITY
Yet, even in the scenario where an off-campus course is accepted by the home institution, students aren’t necessarily out of the woods. For, as these students progress into the upper-level courses that are critical for their major, instructors sometimes find that the off-campus prerequisite courses did not adequately prepare the student for success. This presents a barrier to student retention and completion. The loss of quality oversight for off-campus courses is a hidden cost to students, and institutions.
We can, and should, do better for our students. The good news is, there’s a relatively simple way to support summer and intersession student progress that also benefits the institution.
USING COURSE SHARING TO ADDRESS ACCESS AND QUALITY
We all know building a summer schedule can be a challenge. Inevitably, there are a group of students with needs that your schedule just can’t accommodate. Instead of letting these students go it alone and risk taking courses that won’t transfer or adequately prepare them--or sending them through a maze of approvals to ensure courses will be accepted as transfer credit--your institution can use course sharing to meet 100% of students’ needs with pre-approved, quality courses from peer institutions.
With course sharing, your team can select courses that meet your institution’s quality standards through a review of syllabi, faculty credentials, and assessment information. This means you can extend your catalog to cover virtually 100% of the courses students need without extending your budget or investing additional resources.
When students enroll in course sharing, they stay connected to your campus. Tuition is paid to your campus, not another institution. There’s no need for students to apply elsewhere, or manage the back-and-forth of requesting official transcripts. Importantly, with course sharing, course grades can also be transcribed; this is especially helpful for students who need to take summer courses to replace low grades in critical courses or who need to improve their GPAs to avoid losing good academic standing.
Course sharing represents a meaningful improvement to the student experience, and it’s also a win for institutions. Bringing back summer enrollments results in significant revenue for your institution in the short term. In the long term, ensuring that students have access to quality, pre-approved course sharing options improves student retention, and thus retained tuition.
The critical first step in expanding the number of students you can serve this summer is to select and pre-approve summer courses. Once courses are approved, ensure student advisors know which courses are available via course sharing so they can get students enrolled in the courses that meet their needs.
Working together with peer institutions, we can vastly improve upon the antiquated course transfer system, offer students an expanded catalog of summer and intersession courses, and help more students earn a degree.