Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Academic Conspiracy Theories (Undergraduate Education Edition)

Our students seem to think that the university is out to get them with carefully chosen policies to wring as much money out of them as possible.

For example, we have a rule that the academic catalog expires after six years. You can't graduate under a catalog that is more than six years old. What this means is that if a major curricular reform (such as revamping the gen-ed requirements) goes in effect during your sophomore year, then you have a choice: Either graduate within six years of your original catalog or switch to the new catalog. Because once your original catalog expires, you can no longer graduate under the old requirements.

The reason behind this rule is to simplify the lives of the staff in the registrar's office and the advising centers. The way the undergraduates tell it, this rule was cooked up to squeeze more money out of them*. If you linger more than six years, then you might need to take slightly different gen-ed courses (or, your major may go away, if you started a long time ago as a Home Ec major).

I'm waiting for the budget-crunch conspiracy theories. I'm betting that we're going to hear tales of how the university is strategically cancelling classes so that students can't enroll in more than 12 credit-hours. You see, once you reach 12 credit-hours (official full-time status), the tuition function flattens out. It costs a student the same amount to take 19 credit-hours (the maximum you can take without special permission) as it does to take 12 credit-hours. (Under 12 credit-hours, tuition is pro-rated.)

In reality, we don't have much in the way of enrollment management. No one has crunched the numbers to predict how many students are likely to take any given course. The standard model is to run the exact same classes at the exact same times every fall and every spring.

* This does seem mildly plausible, as many gen-ed courses are taught by low-paid non-tenure-line faculty.