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ASG continues push for credit requirements reduction

Shane McKeon, Assistant Campus Editor

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As the arrival of the new Weinberg dean approaches, ASG has issued a report calling on the school to reduce the number of credits students need to graduate, although it’s unclear whether the proposal has enough faculty support to change the requirement.

The report, compiled by Associated Student Government Senate’s academic committee and released in March, calls on the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences to reduce the minimum number of credits needed to graduate from 45 to 42. It also asks for individual Weinberg departments to reexamine major and minor requirements and for the school to re-evaluate its Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate credit system, which the authors say disadvantages students who didn’t attend high-performing high schools.

Senate passed a resolution in April endorsing the committee’s report, and ASG President Noah Star, a Weinberg junior, and Executive Vice President Christina Kim, a McCormick junior, advocated for a similar reduction during their campaign.

Whether the proposal will become policy, though, is far from certain. Some faculty members are skeptical, and it’s not clear where incoming Weinberg dean Adrian Randolph will stand on the issue.

‘A really large part of this student body is struggling’

Weinberg senior Anna Rennich and SESP junior Yair Sakols authored the ASG report and said students’ experience has changed in recent years, with extracurricular involvement becoming more central to students’ time at NU.

“There’s a general sense that something at Northwestern needs to change,” Rennich said. “A lot of students come to Northwestern because we have this great academic system, but right now it’s just about getting through classes.”

The report’s authors compared NU to peer institutions, particularly quarter-system schools with similar admissions rates, like the University of Chicago, Stanford University and Dartmouth College.

Rennich said although it’s sometimes difficult to compare NU to schools with vastly different systems, NU largely stands alone in its credit requirement. Stanford is on the quarter system but gives credit per “hour,” Dartmouth only requires 35 classes but gives no AP credit and UChicago has a minimum of 42 credits.

Sakols said the 45-credit minimum, which was implemented years ago, doesn’t make sense given changes in the student body.

One big change, Sakols said, is a more socioeconomically-diverse student body. The percentage of students who qualify for Pell Grants has more than doubled since 2008, and University President Morton Schapiro has said he aims to have 20 percent of the 2020 freshman class be Pell qualifiers.

The report also calls on Weinberg to reevaluate its AP and IB credit system. The authors say students from well-resourced high schools can enter with many AP credits, while students who didn’t attend similar schools can enter with little or no credit, creating a gap between students.

Sakols, who conducted a survey on students’ time use in February, said he also found striking differences between respondents based on wealth.

“My report found that low-income students get less sleep than their peers,” he said. “They work jobs a lot more than their peers. A really large part of this student body is struggling.”

Economics Prof. Mark Witte, the department’s director of undergraduate studies, co-authored the survey with Sakols.

Witte said dropping classes is often easier for wealthier students, while it can be more difficult for low-income students because they “don’t have a lot of leeway.”

Communication junior Amanda Walsh, president of Quest Scholars Network, said low-income students might not have had the same opportunities in high school as their wealthier peers.

“The current system excludes students who really didn’t have a chance in the first place to catch up with their peers,” said Walsh, who supports the ASG proposal.

‘Anything is on the table’

Rennich said the support of the new dean will be crucial to the proposal’s success.

Randolph, currently an associate dean at Dartmouth, will begin at NU on July 1. He said he isn’t familiar enough with the issue to have an opinion yet.

Randolph said he wants to learn more and understand possible effects of such a change.

“I’d like hear a range of opinions on that,” he said. “I want to very careful considering unintended consequences.”

Dartmouth, a peer institution also on the quarter system, made national headlines in January 2013 when it decided to no longer offer students credit for high AP scores.

Weinberg’s interim dean, chemistry Prof. Mark Ratner, said the graduation requirement should be reduced to 42 credits. However, he stressed his view doesn’t carry much weight given his stint in the position ends June 30.

In March, the Office of the Provost launched a task force to examine the undergraduate academic experience. The task force, comprising 12 faculty and five ex officio members including Rennich and Dean of Students Todd Adams, could recommend a requirement reduction when it presents its recommendations to Provost Daniel Linzer in Winter Quarter 2016.

Neurobiology Prof. Indira Raman, who chairs the committee, said the task force could recommend a broad array of policies, but any proposal must be rooted in strong data and research.

“Anything is on the table,” she said, “but ultimately the idea is to narrow it down to rational recommendations that are substantiated by evidence.”

Faculty skepticism

English Prof. Mary Finn, Weinberg’s associate dean for undergraduate academic affairs, oversees the school’s Office of Undergraduate Studies and Advising. She said she is “very skeptical” of the proposal.

Finn said few students have trouble reaching the 45-credit minimum and that many go beyond the minimum required.

She also said she’s hesitant to prioritize extracurriculars over academics.

“The academic component of a student’s education is the more important component,” she said. “But of course, that’s not what students think.”

Finn recommended students reduce the number of groups and degree programs they’re involved in but engage with fewer more deeply.

“We’ve always thought the zeal to credential that students have, to have as many majors and minors that they possibly can have, is academically counterproductive,” she said.

Witte said some Weinberg departments fear a requirement reduction would lead to fewer students taking their classes, which could cost departments faculty slots.

Witte also said he’s unsure if a credit requirement reduction would increase productive behavior.

“For some people, if you cut their requirements, it’ll be a lot more Xbox,” he said. “Would (the outcome) be more educational, experiential learning or would it be leisure? I don’t know.”

The report’s authors, though, said easing academic requirements could allow students to get more sleep. Sakol and Witte’s report found that most students reported getting more sleep — on average, almost an hour and a half more — when taking three classes instead of four.

And Rennich said leisure isn’t necessarily a bad outcome for students.

“I’d push back on the idea that it’s bad for students to have down time,” she said. “We’re not robots. We can’t go to class, do extracurriculars and sleep without any time to enjoy ourselves.”

A formal proposal has yet to be introduced in the school’s Curricular Policies Committee, a major first step in a process that would include debate at an all-faculty meeting and voting at a second faculty meeting.

Ultimately, Ronald Braeutigam, associate provost for undergraduate education, said Weinberg faculty will decide whether to make a change.

“If the faculty is not behind it, it’s highly unlikely that it’s going to occur,” he said. “But I think we have pretty reasonable faculty here.”

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Twitter: @Shane_McKeon

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