The Arizona Desert Lamp

Registration reform and its unintended consequences

Posted in Campus by Evan Lisull on 23 February 2009

The proposed plans to free up class space at the very least have some merit to them. The details of the plan, with some extra snarky scare quotes to spice it up, from the Wildcat:

Under the proposed policy, undergraduates wishing to attain the next higher classification will need to have completed a minimum of 30 units for sophomore standing, 60 units for junior standing, and 90 units for senior standing.

In the old class standing policy, students needed to have the same numbers of unit “in progress”. The catch with the new policy is that the units need to be “earned” by registration time.

According to the proposal to change class standing and classification submitted last April by Jerry Hogle, interim vice president for instruction, “there is evidence that full-time students are more academically successful when they take 15-18 units per semester than when they take 12-14 units.”

The new policy is focused around this “evidence,” as well as the idea that higher class standing cutoffs will encourage students to enroll in at least 15 units each semester.

As far I can tell, though, this doesn’t really change the system – even if this encourages enrollment in 15 units, a freshman who enters such a system will still have freshman status when they try to enroll in March for their second-year classes, since they will only have 15 units completed – earned, if you will. This student won’t be allowed to register as a sophomore until he or she enrolls for the classes in the second semester of their second year. Meanwhile, a student who sticks to a 12-unit regimen his or her first semester – which, I will point out, was repeatedly encouraged by orientation leaders as the appropriate course load for students to help them “ease into” the college atmosphere and work ethic – will not be able to register with a sophomore standing until they are enrolling for classes for the first semester of their third year; which, under most circumstances, is considered one’s “junior” year.

This seems to deny a long-standing reality that when you register for classes, you aren’t registering as you currently stand – you are registering as you will stand by the time those classes are actually taken. Thus, students taking a prerequisite course (say, Basic Microeconomics) are allowed to register for a course requiring said prerequisite (Intermediate Micro), even if that student hasn’t yet passed the course. If they fail the prerequisite, that fact will ultimately come to light, and the student won’t be allowed to take the advanced course. In summary, we register as we will be, not as we are. It’s an inefficiency, certainly, but it’s far less inefficient than waiting until the end of the year, and then letting the horse-race begin.

While the ostensible reason is to encourage 15-unit consumption (and yes, it would be nice to see this evidence of Mr. Hogle’s), an advisor that actually deals with these sorts of requirements offers a more common-sense justification:

Celia O’Brien, academic advisor for the department of psychology, said that it would be questionable to assume that this policy change would cause students to take longer to earn their degree.

“This policy change is essentially just spreading out the class standing classification more evenly throughout those 120 units,” O’Brien said via email. “What it may do is cut down the time that any student is classified as a senior.”

Very understandable, but I think that there’s a more reasonable approach to encourage this – grant class standing within the major, rather than on the basis of pure credits alone. This solves the strawman problem in which a sixth-year senior has just decided that his communications major just isn’t working out, and that he wants to try political science. Such a student should be considered a freshman as far as registration is concerned. As far as I know, this is not University policy, but I’m willing to be corrected on this point. To implement such a model would require a more decentralized registration system – an approach, I believe, that would be far more efficient and allow for more experimentation, and for regisration systems that take into account the idiosyncracies that plague registration for different majors.

All of this aside, the goal of evening out the status distribution undercuts the other proposal put forth by the administration:

Along with the class standing changes, UA faculty and administrators have recently proposed changes to the Grade Replacement Opportunity policy.

Under the proposed GRO policy, undergraduates may only use the Grade Replacement Opportunity to repeat courses in which they received a D or E. Students will no longer be able to GRO a grade of C.

Also, only freshmen, sophomores, or students who have completed fewer than 60 credits, may GRO a course. Juniors and seniors will still be able to repeat a course but will not be able to replace the grade.

The problem with this, of course, is that more students will have a lower classification because of the earlier policy; the GRO situation has not been solved, but rather has been shifted. A junior who was formerly hogging class space for his grade-changing GRO will now be considered a “sophomore” under this new policy, and will thus be able to do exactly what he would have done under the former regime.

Really, though, the only legitimate reasons for a GRO are extenuating ones – family deaths, serious accidents, and what not. Such circumstances can easily be explained before a committee, who should explain beforehand the higher standard that must be met to engage in a GRO. Right now, according to the Registrar’s site, the only offered reasons for the refusal of a GRO are administrative. To significantly diminish GRO abuse, these standards must be made more stringent.

On a final note, it’s a bit odd to see that an interim official is proposing a rather dramatic change in the university’s administration. Regardless of his merits, this seems like a decision that you would want to hold off on until a full-time hire was made. At the very least, the final proposal should be offered by someone else within the UA’s vast academic bureaucracy.

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Textbook Season

Posted in Campus, Textbooks by Evan Lisull on 24 August 2008

The school year is just about to get under way, which means that it’s high time for some griping over the price of textbooks. Cue the Wildcat:

Textbooks are not yet printed on the backs of hundred dollar bills, but they’re still expensive. The UA Web site’s estimated cost of attendance places books and supplies at $1,000 per academic year.
That holds true just about everywhere. The national average that students spend on textbooks is $995 per year, Farias said.

Tuition, housing and food are still more expensive than textbooks, according to the estimated cost of attendance. But after paying for those basics, forking over $500 a semester can be a dagger.

While the cost is certainly a factor, an even more important factor is the capriciousness of the market; there is no reason why this should be such an onerous cost. There’s a personal anecdote that I think perfectly illustrates the inanity of the college book market. This past spring, I was doing my book shopping online I started with my POL 341 class:

Not unreasonable, but not cheap either. I went over Amazon’s Marketplace (which I’ve found to have the best deals), just to see how much I could save. The first entry looked like this:

Thus, the bookstore was selling this book to the general at a third of the price that it was offering to the students it supposedly serves. It’s absolutely inexplicable, like many of the things that go down at the bookstore.

A few random thoughts about the textbook situation:

1. There really are alternatives out there; use them. Sometimes, it’s not very easy, and usually it involves several days of shipping or shady and uncommunicative dealers. But if you’re relatively organized, and have a bit of credit, you can save in the hundreds. Buy older versions of textbooks, since the differences are slim to nil. Ultimately, this comes back to the buyer; spending hundreds of dollars at the bookstore sends a much stronger message than a whiny screed after the fact. If you think that the bookstore is over-priced, then vote with your dollar and choose an alternative.

2. Professors play a role as well. Ultimately, it is the doctors and lecturers who chose the books that are taught. This is often ignored, and professors are painted as victims of evil, conniving Textbook Industry (Big Book?). Yet it’s inane to suggest that doctorates are being fooled by half-educated salesmen. Do they mean to suggest that they really don’t understand how much of any increase in price that the new edition will cost? Are the elite of the ivory tower oblivious to the cost of CDs and other nifty gadgets that they’ll use once, maybe? Professors need to be asked why they are using these new books, when the old texts were more than sufficient.

The faculty appear to be intransigent on the issue, though. From last year:

Wanda Howell, faculty chair and professor of nutritional sciences, stressed the importance of the resolution and said it couldn’t be delayed.

“We need to vote on this today,” she said. “No part of this bill can be construed as limiting the choice of textbooks by faculty.”

3. Decentralize the problem. Different departments have different issues with textbooks. The science departments are much more likely to deal with bundled software books than the social science majors. The supply issues for Gen Ed courses are much more pertinent than for upper-level classes within the majors.

Each department should play a role in its own book provisions, and should be free to establish, say, a sociology library with all the books available for a renters’ fee. The bookstore probably has a good reason to buy up books for Gen Ed classes, but these classes should in turn be taught with less expensive, and more readily available, books. Physics, chemistry, and similar departments should have a serious conversation about how nifty they want their “bundled” books to be, and should implement department-wide policy on the measure.

In an economics class I took last semester, the professor offered to rent out from a collection of books he had for a simple fee of $10, which would be paid back should the student choose to return the book. By building up this collection, the professor essentially reduced the textbook problem to nothing.

This is just one possible solution. Professors can provide less book-centric classes, making use of the plethora of online resources to teach. Ultimately, though, the only way textbook prices will come down is through bottom-up innovation at the classroom level, rather than ineffective mandates from the state legislature.