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The Problem with Students Is They Work Too Hard

Summary:
Something I’ve been thinking about lately: How many of the problems we have with students come from the fact that they have to take too many classes? The standard requirement for a BA is 120 credit hours. That means that to graduate in four years, you need to take 5 classes a semester. And that’s assuming you pass everything; that you don’t need any remedial or other non-credit classes; that all your transfer credits are accepted (an especially big issue for students who transfer to 4-year schools from community colleges); that you don’t have any problems with distribution requirements; and so on. Realistically, for many students even 5 classes a semester is not going to be enough. And in many cases those five classes are on top of jobs, even full-time jobs, and on top of caring for

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Something I’ve been thinking about lately: How many of the problems we have with students come from the fact that they have to take too many classes?

The standard requirement for a BA is 120 credit hours. That means that to graduate in four years, you need to take 5 classes a semester. And that’s assuming you pass everything; that you don’t need any remedial or other non-credit classes; that all your transfer credits are accepted (an especially big issue for students who transfer to 4-year schools from community colleges); that you don’t have any problems with distribution requirements; and so on. Realistically, for many students even 5 classes a semester is not going to be enough.

And in many cases those five classes are on top of jobs, even full-time jobs, and on top of caring for children or other family members. Especially for nontraditional students,  expecting a schedule of five classes every semester seems unrealistic. And if you want to finish in four years, five classes a semester is the best case.

A lot of students should be taking lighter loads. But the thing is, financial aid is often contingent on maintaining full-time status. So even if someone knows they are not in a position to take five classes and put an acceptable level of effort into each one, the financial penalties for a more realistic schedule may be prohibitive.

These aren’t such big problems at selective liberal arts colleges, where most students are traditional college-age without family responsibilities, don’t have to support themselves, aren’t taking remedial classes, get good advising and come in with AP credits. And students who don’t depend on financial aid have more flexibility about adjusting their courseload. But at most public universities, the system seems designed to ensure there will be a significant number of students taking more classes than they have time for.

Just speaking for myself, I never took five courses in a semester as undergraduate. With lots of credit from AP exams and so on, I didn’t have to. I never worked during the semesters, except for things like writing for campus newspapers. And when I felt like I needed to cut back to part-time for personal reasons, I wasn’t financially penalized for it.

It’s a crazy setup, when you think about it. The combination of financial aid contingent on fulltime status; AP credit; non-credit remediation courses; and problems with transferring credit from community colleges, means that we end up demanding the least from the students with the most advantages, and the most from the students with the least advantages. AP credit and the like seems especially perverse — it literally means that, the better the high school you went to, the less work you are required to do to earn a BA.

We all know about how excessive workloads undermine the quality of teaching, but I think we sometimes forget that the same goes for students. Just like with adjuncts as opposed to full time faculty, students from weak high schools, or who start their college education at community colleges, are asked to do more work for the same reward. And then we get angry at them for not living up to the standards of the better prepared students who are asked to do less. Just something to think about the next time someone doesn’t read the syllabus, or turn in their work, or show up for office hours.

About JW Mason
JW Mason
Assistant professor of economics at John Jay College - CUNY, and fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. RT = Read This

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