On Your Time: Creating Flexible and Diverse Pathways to Degree Completion at USC
A critical problem facing public higher education today is the time it takes a student to finish an undergraduate degree, and at USC we turned to our students for advice. Responding to a survey in November 2013, students indicated that their most pressing need was for summer and other intersession programs to provide more flexibility in course scheduling and a wider array of courses. Students requested opportunities to complete degree requirements outside the traditional fall/spring semester. In a follow-up, 40 percent of freshmen and sophomores surveyed wanted opportunities to complete their baccalaureate degree in less than four years. At the same time, external demographic and economic pressures on higher education were building. The prototypical model of a student completing an undergraduate degree in four years is no longer the norm. Mounting concerns about employability and the application of theoretical knowledge in real settings have led to increased student demand for out-of-classroom learning experiences and internships. Moreover, universities are being pressed by the public to increase degree completion, improve accessibility and control costs. Within this context, we developed the On Your Time initiative.
The USC On Your Time (OYT) initiative was designed to provide a flexible, innovative and individualized approach to education. The linchpin of the new initiative was reengineering summer school, which has been viewed for many years as a way for students to take a course or two to make up for a failed grade. To further complicate the issue, each school and college established their own schedules, often blocking students from building a full slate of courses.
Summer school was no longer about just catching up, but moving ahead, and the schedule needed to be reoriented to student needs rather than faculty interest.
The OYT initiative required a complete reorganization of summer school; the development of accelerated degree programs; the creation of summer institutes to provide students with practical tools in business, languages, communication and technology; and the creation of a one-week term to offer intensive scientific labs immediately before or after the spring semester. OYT involved major strategic, academic and operational efforts across all divisions of the university.
Making summer one term changed a number of core business, financial and advising processes. The Office of Student Affairs, the Bursar’s Office, and the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships collaborated to bring students the benefits of a full semester in the summer term. Students who registered for 15 credit hours across all summer sessions were granted full-time status, reducing tuition expenses, and out-of-state students with university scholarships became eligible to receive in-state tuition rates during the summer. After approval of these changes by the governing board, one billing and financial aid disbursement date for the new “semester” was established. The legislature and the governor were persuaded to allow students with South Carolina state-funded scholarships to use one of their eight semesters of funding in the summer. This process was carefully monitored by professional advisors to ensure that students who opted to use state scholarship funding were registered for a full academic load.
There were additional concerns surrounding space and facilities. It is a misconception that universities are underutilized during the summer months. Summer is the major renovation time period. Dormitories, classrooms and even office spaces are usually updated and remodeled during the summer when classes are not in session. Facilities Planning was involved from the beginning of the planning process for OYT, as their insights about how to manage space allocation were invaluable to the development of the plan and constraints on course offerings.
The OYT program established seven core sessions of varying length that function collectively as a semester, allowing students to complete 12 or more hours of coursework over the summer. Course times were standardized across schools and colleges, and strategic planning with academic leaders led to the identification of critical courses and the development of coordinated course packages to help students complete essential coursework and progress on their time. High demand courses were distributed across sessions and time periods in a manner that allowed students to build a schedule equivalent to a fall or spring term.
Careful academic strategic planning based on enrollment data and expressed student interest led to the development of new 12-credit course sequences focused on providing specialized skills for pursuing careers after college, including: the Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management Summer Institute; the Integrated Information Technology Institute; the Online Retailing Institute; a Business Institute for Non-Business majors; a Pre-Law Institute; and Summer Language Institutes in Chinese, Portuguese, and Spanish.
Additional changes were made to basic sciences courses with implications beyond the summer session. For many years, basic science courses were offered for four credits, which included both the lecture and laboratory sections. As any advisor knows, a required laboratory section lasts two to three hours, which blocks the student’s schedule not just on the lab day, but across the week. A Monday afternoon lab, for example, prevents students from scheduling MWF courses during multiple time blocks. Following faculty governance processes, we separated the lecture course as a three-credit course and the laboratory section as a one-credit course. Science curricula in lower-level lab sections are now offered in one-week time frames in January and May. Hundreds of students took advantage of this option the first time it was offered. This initiative not only creates more flexibility in students’ weekly schedule during the semester, but eases space constraints in high-demand lab courses. Both the students and the faculty found that completing the lecture section of the course material and then focusing on its application was an excellent learning experience.
The goal of the On Your Time Initiative was to provide more flexibility for students in moving through their degree programs and meeting their individual educational goals. A carefully constructed and predictable summer schedule comprised of high-value courses encourages students, working with their advisors, to develop an educational plan for fall, spring and summer sessions. Athletes are able to stay on track as we offer a broad range of courses in the summer, and study abroad students can dedicate their time abroad to language and culture immersion and then use summer to refocus attention on their majors if required courses are not available overseas. The creation of a full summer term allows students to complete courses required for their degree program, finish a cognate or a minor, or accept full-time internships during the spring or fall semester. The program saves money for students as the cost of a full load in summer was reduced and the opportunity costs of remaining in college in lieu of joining the workforce or continuing on to professional or graduate school are reduced.
As a result of OYT, more than half of the undergraduate degrees offered at the University of South Carolina-Columbia may now be completed in an accelerated timeframe. Going forward, enrollments, coupled with student and advisor feedback, are carefully monitored and program changes are made accordingly in order to facilitate student progress. OYT is an ongoing, iterative process in the interest of ensuring students graduate on their time.
Author Perspective: Administrator