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Graduation requirements: Is there another way?

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With increasing costs and shrinking resources most, particularly public, universities need to find alternatives to ever-increasing tuition and fees. Basing graduation requirements on total grade points earned is a novel model that could help reduce the time students’ spend obtaining a degree and help focus their studies.

Under this proposed model, an A student would graduate with fewer courses than a C student. While still requiring all courses in the major and general studies, the requirements would permit a students to graduate when they obtained a certain number of grade points.

Using the equivalent of 125 semester credit hours of C as the minimum requirement, a solid B student could graduate with about 100 credit hours, which is more than the total requirements for many majors, including general studies, and can be done in three years. A straight-A student, of which there are very few, might graduate with 85 credit hours.

To make this work, the C grade on a 0 to 4 scale would need to be adjusted to about 2.7, roughly two-thirds of an A grade; B and D grades would be adjusted accordingly with F remaining a zero. This scale is more in line with the grading scale used by many instructors; i. e., grades in the 90s being an A and grades in the 70s being a C.

In the 18th and for most of the 19th centuries, graduation was based on comprehensive oral, and later written, exams. In the late 1800s, universities, starting with Harvard, began including elective courses which necessitated course grades. In the early 1900s a summation of these grades quickly became the basis for granting a degree.

While a convenient way to evaluate fulfilling the requirements — particularly with computer calculations — it does have some problems. While some students include a minor in their studies, many students engage in “seat time” — simply retaining knowledge long enough to obtain a grade. Presumably this practice is more prevalent in elective courses which are not prerequisites for future work.

Obviously, the proposed graduation model works best with lower credit hour majors, such as history and English, and less well with high credit hours majors such as nursing and engineering. However, it should provide faculty with incentive to remove duplication of material among courses.

There are reasons to argue this proposal discriminates against poorly-prepared students. However, just as there are very few straight-A students there also are very few straight-C students. Thus it does have something to offer for the great majority of students.

This approach will obviously put a whole new meaning on grades. It gives the student opportunity to graduate sooner, but in many cases it will require more attention to studies. Faculty will need to carefully maintain standards without becoming overly strict. At the same time it would encourage the faculty to look more carefully at what is important to their curricula. Administrations will either need to find ways to deal with offering fewer courses or attracting more students. All members of the university community will need to work at proving the degrees being granted are equaling those with more traditional requirements.

Andrew Banta is an engineering  professor emeritus at California State University, Sacramento where he taught for 22 years and served on numerous committees, including chair of the university curriculum committee, the council for university planning and the faculty senate.  Prior to joining CSUS he taught at Northampton College in Pennsylvania for 12 years.