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Shepherd University reacts to credit crunch

By Staff | Mar 25, 2011

Last week, while the student population was on spring break, Shepherd University announced its intent to redesign its curriculum.

Shepherd will be the first university in the state to reduce the number of credit hours required to graduate from 128 to 120.

“What 120 does, it gives us the expectation of 15 hours a semester,” said Shepherd President Suzanne Shipley.

Richard Helldobler, vice president of academic affairs, has overseen the transition, working with faculty members for the past year and a half and assessing the university’s general studies program.

Shipley said this new curriculum will combine learnings from general studies and discipline courses to prepare students for their careers.

To do that, Helldobler said the redesigned modules is set up in three tiers.

The first tier will consist of foundational courses in English, math and science. Tier two is broken into divisions, such as arts and humanities and social sciences, Helldobler said. Then each student will be required to complete tier three, a capstone experience within his or her discipline.

Helldobler said that tier two is more flexible, so if a student changes his or her major, he or she won’t get behind in the curriculum.

Both Helldobler and Shipley said the faculty was heavily involved in the process.

Shipley said when it came to making a decision, the faculty was divided.

“This was by no means a unanimous vote,” she said.

Larry Daily, chair of both the psychology department and the Faculty Senate’s General Studies standing committee, thinks the changes are “steps in the right direction.”

Daily helped begin the work to revise the university’s general studies requirements more than five years ago.

He said the faculty has long felt that the curriculum is in need modernization and greater flexibility.

Daily believes the revised curriculum will make Shepherd more competitive and ultimately will better prepare students for life after graduation.

“In long run, it will benefit students, and that’s what’s most important, ” he said.

Dow Benedict, dean of the School of Arts and Humanities and co-chair of the Academic Major and Minor Review Committee, supports the reform made to the curriculum.

But he said the process of deciding on those changes was long and not without some controversy, as the faculty worked to manage “strong opinions about how you educate.”

He described his committee’s task as “looking at unnecessary redundancy that can eliminated.”

In the end Benedict hopes the decisions the faculty made achieve the goals laid out in the university’s strategic plan.

Benedict said that the effort to increase graduation rates by restructuring requirements for graduation, is an effort being undertaken nationwide.

Though SU chose to redesign without the direct oversight of either the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission or the Southern Regional Education Board, Benedict said that both groups seem likely to make recommendations for curriculum redesigns across the state and region in the coming year, mandating a change from the average requirement of 128 to 120 credit hours for graduation.

“From Shepherd’s standpoint we want to be the ones who decide what’s right for our institution … We want to be the leader. We want to be the model,” he said.

The major reason Shepherd answered the call to seek change is college completion and affordability.

Shipley said at 120 hours, 15 hours a semester, students will be able to graduate within four years. She said on average she sees students graduating with between 140 and 150 hours – far more than the current state requirement of 128.

Kathy Butler, HEPC senior director of academic affairs, said “credit creep” is a problem across campuses, and Shepherd is combating that issue.

“This is just part of the college completion agenda,” she said.

Butler said HEPC is encouraging more institutions across the state to assess their programs to reduce their hours.

College completion and making the college experience more affordable go hand in hand.

If students finish their degrees in less time, they will not spend as much money. Shipley said Shepherd estimates tuition plus living expenses for an in-state student to average about $15,000 a year.

“We believe this is a great opportunity to save as a student,” she said.

And as far as this curriculum redesign, about two or three years in the making, costing the university money, Shipley said it will actually be a more expensive degree because more full-time faculty are being hired.

“We’re reducing the hours, increasing the number of full-time faculty so that we can have a higher percentage of full-time faculty teaching our students,” she said. “An over-reliance on adjuncts can lead to what’s called ‘attrition’.”

So maintaining quality programs across the board remains important to the administration. Student success continues to be a priority for Shipley.

“This is with no decrease in quality and no decrease in rigor,” she said. “Shepherd has a reputation of being a demanding institution, and we will continue to be a demanding institution.”

For HEPC, academic integrity and student success is its top priority.

“The issue is student success – getting them ready for the workplace,” Butler said. “But we don’t sacrifice quality.”

Until this fall, when the new curriculum roll out, policies are changing and majors are being adjusted on campus. A new electronic catalog will culminate the redesign on July 1.

Incoming students will register for classes through the new catalog while existing students must use the one that is already in place. In the fall they will be able to add and drop classes should they decide they want to switch to the new curriculum.

Chris Bryant, a graduate student studying college development and administration, supports the academic reform but expressed misgivings about the types of changes made.

“I think it’s a good idea to cut it down the eight credits. I just wish they had done it in a different way rather than re-vamping the whole gen-ed curriculum.”

Bryant also felt that students earning 120 credit hours rather than the 128 he earned in order to graduate will miss out on a more “well-rounded” education.

“I feel like my degree will be more of a true liberal arts degree than someone coming in now,” he said

Brian Miller, a third-year sociology major, said he would consider choosing the option to graduate with 120 credits.

“The only reason I’d be interested in switching would be because it gets you out of here faster,” he said.

But Shipley said that’s not necessarily true.

“Not everybody’s going to save time by shifting to the new (curriculum),” she said.

She said switching to the lesser hourly load could actually mean students would have to still take courses they didn’t have to take in their original curriculum.

“I think Shepherd has done a good job with this,” Butler said. “They have shown that it can be done.”