Brittany Kima and Sue Monahan
In 2016, Western Oregon University’s (WOU) graduation rates fell behind its peers. The typical transfer student graduated with almost a year’s worth of excess credits. Students and faculty were often confused by the university’s degree requirements. Getting a transfer course approved for general education required walking around campus seeking signatures from individual faculty.
These problems did not seem to be caused by WOU students, though students were certainly affected by them. They were about the university and how it did things. To address these problems, WOU created a faculty task force to investigate alternatives for general education and university degree requirements. In 2018, faculty adopted a new general education program and streamlined degree requirements to better serve the needs of today’s students. This work has resulted in higher graduation rates across diverse groups of students and a reduction in excess credits among transfer students.
The process started by looking at data.
WOU’s four- and six-year graduation rates were lower than they should have been, given the institution’s student-centered values. For cohorts that started in 2004-2006, an average of 17.6% of students graduated within four years. About 42% graduated in six years. It took WOU students too long to graduate, and they finished college with “excess credits” (credits over the 180 needed to earn a WOU undergraduate degree). In 2016, transfer students finished with an average of 40.5 excess credits, nearly a year’s worth of credits. First-time students graduated with an average of 17.7 excess credits.
Time to graduation and excess credits matter to WOU students: extra time in college has opportunity costs because students are not able to get their post-college lives started, and extra credits carry a financial cost.
WOU had established academic support programs, and these programs improved outcomes for students who were eligible and participated. But not enough students benefited from those targeted supports. Looking to improve, WOU realized that it was time to look at what the university required of students. Was it possible that students’ paths to graduation were hindered by the curriculum that had evolved over the last forty years?
Examination of the curriculum revealed:
Figure 1: Twelve Buckets of Requirements
This work benefits first-time students, who experience a more coherent and streamlined path to graduation. Because the new general education requirements aligned with the Associate of Arts – Oregon Transfer Degree (AAOT), it also benefited transfer students. AAOT degree holders have completed all general education requirements; they are no longer surprised by additional requirements not covered by their AAOT course work.
“We were hoping to improve student outcomes and experiences with the general education reform. Part of this was done through revising the curriculum but we also made great strides in developing more streamlined processes to help students maximize the number of transfer credits that satisfied graduation requirements.” says Rob Winningham, Provost & Vice President for Academic Affairs.
In 2018, WOU addressed other buckets that complicated a student’s path to degree completion.
“It is hard to look at what you do every day and ask if there is a way to do it better,” says Dr. Sue Monahan, then Associate Provost and one of the leaders of this work. “Our students have changed, and we realized that to serve them best, we needed to change too.Â The work of curricular review and revision was what we could do. We can’t always help students with their work schedules or family responsibilities. But we can make sure that what we require of them, taken all together, makes sense for students.”
As a result of this work, graduation rates have risen and excess credits at graduation have decreased, especially for transfer students. In the five years since WOU began implementing changes, four-year graduation rates have increased by 50%, or ten percentage points. Six-year graduation rates have also increased. WOU’s transfer students now graduate with just over 200 total credits; excess credits beyond 180 have been reduced by nearly 50%, the equivalent of more than one term’s worth of credits.
Moreover, the benefits of the curriculum change have benefited all groups of students at WOU. Irrespective of gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or familial college experience, all groups of students have seen increases in their graduation rates.
A Foundation for the Future
Beyond smoothing the path to graduation, the review and revision of general education aimed to improve student learning. “We wanted to build a program from the ground up based on learning outcomes for what we wanted all students to gain from a college education,” says Dr. Breeann Flesch, an applied mathematician who co-chaired the task force. “We wanted to ensure that WOU students were getting a transformative education, so we built in high-impact practices, like the first-year seminars.”
Curricular review and revision is paying dividends for WOU students. It has also resulted in a firmer foundation for the university going forward. The new general education program has jumpstarted cross-disciplinary collaborations in its first-year seminars and the potential for learning communities. High impact learning practices are embedded in each student’s general education experience. A now established General Education Committee is responsible for these university requirements and assessment of the program, ensuring greater cohesion and program quality going forward.
And in an era where it is hard to find resources for new initiatives, WOU has embedded improvement in the curriculum itself, creating durable and sustainable gains in student success.
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