Clearing the academic calendar is the easy part

This spring, President Joe Biden announcement its $ 1.8 trillion (£ 1.3 trillion) American Plan for Families, which includes a one-time investment in community colleges to make them free for all students. If the president’s proposal becomes law, it will be a major victory for university access and will ensure that no student has to drop out of their first two years of college because they cannot afford the tuition fees. schooling.

As important as money is to a student’s post-secondary goals, time is another crucial factor in determining whether students enter and finish college. Two of the most common reasons why students to give up of colleges before graduation are unable to adapt their studies to their need for work and / or competing family commitments.

Almost a quarter of undergraduates raise children and almost two in three work while in college. They need classes to be available at times and in terms that fit their schedules but, all too often, disjointed class schedules that do not rationalize completion force students to give up or postpone a dream of a student. diploma.

So while the free community college could make headlines, another element of the American Families Plan could also have a significant impact: a $ 62 billion grant program to support success, retention and success. completion of students in institutions that accommodate large numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. – sources of income.

This proposal comes at a time when the pandemic is shaking up HE. We clearly have the opportunity to rethink the long-standing structures that influence student achievement, retention, and completion, but we need to be intentional about what we build for them.

While there have been inevitable growing pains with distance learning and virtual student services, the pandemic has proven institutions can respond quickly and at scale. Online education and additional support has enabled many learners to continue, to resume or start their studies when they could not have done so otherwise, and these resources should remain available to learners after the pandemic.

The pandemic has also created opportunities for structural innovations that can be adopted more widely. For example, some observers have gone so far as to say that the pandemic is “”erasure”The traditional academic calendar.

Previously, innovation around the academic calendar tended to focus on redesigning course lengths. Shorter academic sessions, typically eight weeks, offer a promising opportunity to meet the needs of today’s learners better than the traditional 16 week semesters.

Many Make the dream come true Member Colleges (ATDs) demonstrate the success of this approach. For example, Odessa College in Texas doubled its graduation rate within two years of adopting shorter terms, while Grayson College, also in Texas, increased its rate of students who switched from part-time. to a full time of 11% in a single year. In fact, the shorter terms have been so effective that ATD recently published instruction manual help other institutions to implement shorter durations and promote equity and flexibility for learners.

Shorter periods often require learners to take fewer courses at a time to be considered full-time students, which can help them balance work, family and education. And if learners still need to interrupt their studies or don’t pass a course, they can catch up or catch up faster the next term.

However, as institutions increase flexibility in course scheduling and add options that better meet the needs of learners, they must equally be careful to eliminate options that have not worked for students.

Institutions need to engage in the strategies they believe work best rather than offering an endless buffet of incongruous choices for fear of doing the wrong thing. Not only is too much choice overwhelming, it can also lead to situations where lessons don’t fit together in cohesive sequences to provide clear paths to completion.

It is imperative that institutions maintain structures that help learners to progress effectively towards a degree. Colleges have worked hard over the past five plus years to create guided pathways that ensure that credits add to a meaningful degree, and they should continue to do so. Alternative student-centric calendars should offer flexibility in how students take lessons, but also solid guidance and structure regarding which courses they take and in what order.

Finally, institutions should pay particular attention to formats that meet the needs of learners and avoid options that might work on paper but not in real life. No student wants to drive to multiple campuses on the same day or take morning and evening classes on campus. Course paths should be aligned and compact to help student classes adjust to their lives, not the other way around. Collecting learner feedback and analyzing historical student enrollment patterns is one way for institutions to ensure that the timeline is a vehicle, rather than an unnecessary obstacle, to completion.

As needs change, colleges must continue to evolve in order to support student success. Rethinking the academic calendar, whether adopting eight-week semesters or other proven innovations, is one way to achieve this. But institutions shouldn’t just hunt for the shiny object and make changes just for the sake of novelty.

Instead, they should rethink the timelines in all of their programs to support best practices that better meet the needs of learners. This process needs to be intentional, consistent and holistic, removing options that don’t work for learners and replacing them with more effective and relevant pathways to a degree. This work is a critical step towards fulfilling two important promises of the U.S. Family Plan: that all students can attend college – and that they can complete it.

Karen A. Stout is President and CEO of Achieving the Dream.

Tom Shaver is Founder and CEO of Ad Astra Information Systems.

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