Sunday, August 28, 2011

Another CRTF-related post, in which I begin to sound more and more like an administrator

One of the issues we on the Curriculum Review Task Force are facing as we go about our business is the rather ill-defined identity of UNC Asheville as a university. We're finding it difficult to put a pin on our strengths, weaknesses, and other salient characteristics. What is it that best defines us, our commitment to undergraduate research? Our emphasis on service learning? Our small class sizes and opportunities for one-on-one teacher/student interaction? These all play a role, but it's becoming more and more evident that certain unintentional, often demographic, institutional characteristics shape our school more than these do.

Foremost among them is the predominance of transfer students at UNCA. Roughly half of those students graduated from UNC Asheville in any given year spent only half of their undergraduate careers at this school. Many transferred in after spending time at one or more regional community colleges, while others have bounced around from school to school, sometimes visiting as many as six or seven schools (in extreme cases) before coming here. These students often have more "real-world" experience than their peers who matriculated at UNCA as first-year students, and in any case they almost invariably contribute rich multifaceted perspectives to every class they attend. (In my experience many UNCA students with a community college background are "nontraditional" students, returning to school after several years in the workforce and several years of growing up. These students are mature, organized, diligent, and earnest about their learning. Even when they're not as "book smart" as some of the kids fresh out of high school, these other strengths more than make up for that shortcoming and make them fantastic students.)

Moreover, these students' presence has a profound impact on the structure of our curriculum. Consider, for instance, students' completion of the ILS requirements. A number of those students coming in from community colleges may arrive having completed the 44-hour core, an articulation agreement that suffices to knock out most ILS requirements; many other such transfer students, as well as those who've bounced around from school to school before landing at UNCA, have not completed the core and may arrive with little more than a long list of elective courses, numerous ILS core requirements outstanding. These students may therefore end up having to take three or four years at UNCA to complete their degree requirements, despite having spent two or three years elsewhere, and once done they may have taken as many 160, 170, or more credit hours, well more than the 140 beyond which tuition costs half again as much. (Every hour past 140 hours costs 150% the base tuition rate.)

Thus these students take a disproportionately long time to graduate, pay more for the privilege of enrollment, and often fail to see the point of the school's liberal arts mission in the first place. To this last point: many of these students come to UNCA because it's relatively cheap, it's convenient (Asheville's mild climate, high quality of life, and welcoming atmosphere make it a destination for many), and they believe it will provide them with the skills needed to fulfill the functions of whatever career they aspire to. Few transfer students come here specifically because of the interdisciplinary learning experience UNCA purports to offer through its liberal arts curriculum. More often, such students are annoyed by the burdensome requirements that curriculum imposes upon them. "I just want to take my major courses and get out of here."

Surely these students can't help but feel like suckers, stuck playing a game in which every hand is stacked against them. Yet, as I mentioned above, these students make up, and, indeed, for a long time have made up, a large percentage of our undergraduate population. (In each of the AYs 1995-6, 1998-9, 2004-5, and 2005-6, they accounted for a larger percentage of the graduating classes than "native" students did.) This isn't likely to change, given our status as a relatively low-cost provider of a fairly high-quality education.

How, then, can we restructure our curriculum to avoid treating these students like second-class citizens? For one thing, we should ensure that whatever core requirements we impose, they can be efficiently and effectively completed by all students, without sacrificing their goal of providing an authentic interdisciplinary learning experience. We should also take care to structure our major and degree programs flexibly, permitting students to fulfill these programs' requirements in a timely fashion and not get mired down by labyrinthine class sequences in which key courses are offered no more than once every year or every other year.

These are, in fact, among the principles which have been guiding our work on CRTF this summer. Time will tell if we succeed.

Students, what's your take? We've solicited woefully little input from students as we've begun our review, and I'm curious to know what you all see as the strengths and shortcomings of UNCA's curriculum. Feel free to comment.

1 comment:

John Mairs said...

In comparison to my list of requirements from community college, UNCA's curriculum is much more complex. Granted, maybe I'm just thinking that because of the way requirements are published. Mitchell CC just had a simple 2-page checklist for every degree they offered. DegPar, on the other hand, is a little difficult to read.

That said, I kind of fit in the crack between "native student" and "transfer student." Admissions calls me a Freshman, and OnePort calls me a Junior. Most of my ILS clusters have already been met. There are two things that irritate me about this: 1) it seems there's a lack of information provided for early college high school students. There should be more information specific to students in my situation, as I can only hope that early college high schools are the future. Coming in, I only got a vague understanding of the curriculum, and an even more vague understanding of how my existing college transcript would fit in to that. Plus, since I'm a "Freshman," I'm stuck with my LSIC advisor. I like him, but I'm betting he knows absolutely nothing about my major / minor. Although again, I only have a vague understanding of how advising works at UNCA – I can only assume it's the same as it was at MCC. 2) Most of my classes are directly related to my major / minor, and rightfully so. But I'm now stuck with a few that absolutely don't fit. I understand the idea of having a well-rounded group of classes (thanks, LSIC), but these outliers really throw me off. I'm seeing the connections between programming, precal, and even digital design principles. But my LSIC seems to be completely disconnected. As soon as I walk into that class, I feel like I've gone six years into the past to attend ACA111 (College Student Success) at MCC.