High-demand Courses Can Delay Graduation

By Staff

In these times of record enrollment levels, upper-level requirements can create a bottleneck for students hoping to graduate. This can cause a problem not only in terms of delaying graduation, but if you rely on financial aid to help pay for college, it’s possible that one such course may put you beyond your aid eligibility; or, if you just need the one class, you may not be eligible for student aid because your credit load is too light. This means you may have difficulty paying for that last class or may take — and pay for — extra classes you don’t need just to qualify for aid.

While this is a problem at many schools, nationwide, high-demand required courses are causing extreme graduation gridlock at one of the nation’s largest public university systems. A shortage of veteran professors and crushing enrollment demands in the California State University system are creating headaches for students who find themselves shut out of the classes they need to graduate in four to six years.

Known as bottleneck courses, there were 1,294 identified throughout CSU’s 23-campus system during the 2012-2013 academic year, according to a survey of 791 department chairs between June 14 and Sept. 6.

CSU officials point to a lack of tenured professors as the biggest cause for the logjam of courses. But other issues ­— the lack of lab space, students failing and retaking courses and a crush of students taking whatever courses are available in order to maintain the minimum workload needed to keep their financial aid — are driving increasingly harried CSU faculty and staff into semiannual rounds of class-switching, seat-shuffling and other measures to press as many students as possible into a classroom.

At Cal State Long Beach, which has an enrollment of about 36,000 students, 416 spots were available in human physiology this fall. That left 46 students on the waiting list. Human anatomy had 280 spots available. Again, 46 students were on the waiting list.

A survey of deans defined a bottleneck as an undergraduate course students are required to take to earn a degree in four to six years “but for any given reason” could not be offered in the 2012-13 academic year. More broadly, bottleneck courses were also those that caused undergraduate course sequencing problems for students, which delayed their graduation date.

The report showed that bottleneck classes are not a one- or two-term problem only. According to the report, 360 courses were a problem from one to three terms. The remaining bottleneck courses lasted four terms or longer.

The hardest hit areas, according to the survey, were in science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM, and liberal arts.

Business and education were the least affected, with each having 3 percent of their classes log jammed, according to the survey.

CSU needs more tenured and tenure-track faculty, said Dorothy Wills, chapter president of the California Faculty Association at Cal Poly Pomona.

At a September meeting of CSU trustees, Diana Guerin, chairwoman of the CSU Academic Senate, the governing faculty body for the 23 campuses, said a plan to grow the percentage of tenured and tenure-track faculty to 75 percent of the total faculty at each campus has come up short.

In 2001, the state Legislature adopted a plan, developed jointly with the Academic Senate, the CFA and the CSU Chancellor’s Office, to raise the percentage of tenured and tenure-track faculty to at least 75 percent.

At the time, the proportion of permanent faculty had declined to about 63 percent. The Chancellor’s Office said then that the plan to increase permanent faculty would require expanded state funding up to $35.6 million a year in recruitment, hiring and compensation costs, with the hope of having enough such faculty in place by 2010.

But a battered state budget since 2008 saw the loss of roughly $1 billion in state support to CSU. The CSU operating budget typically runs between $4 billion and $5 billion.

The fallout not only leads to frustration among students, but burnout among tenured faculty, who act as academic advisers, serve on committees, build curriculum, lecture in the community, continue research and participate in other non-teaching duties, Wills said.

When the recession hit, a lot of people apparently had the same idea.

Over the last couple of years, there have been budget cuts and less classes offered, and, at the same, more students: When the economy goes bad, “everybody goes back to school.”

And much of the bottleneck problem is caused by students themselves. Far too many attempt to register for classes after their appointed day to do so. Mendoza said a common problem at Cal State San Bernardino is freshmen waiting too long to register, and then when it’s time for sophomores to register, they fill up the classes a freshman might need.

Another problem is that some students take classes they don’t need to maintain their financial aid. The unit level is typically at 12, or what’s considered full-time enrollment, for the financial-aid packages that students want.

There’s also the issue of too many students needing to take remedial math and English courses, or students getting to higher levels of courses in their major, only to find out they can’t cut it.

Cal Poly Pomona is finding that engineering majors must repeat calculus class or are not able to pass the course. At Cal State San Bernardino, aspiring nurses struggle with anatomy and physiology.

The key then is to move those students into more suitable majors, and convince some of them that they should take a lighter load of classes they can excel in, rather than try to graduate in four years with a lower grade-point average, Mendoza said.

If students want to graduate in a more timely manner and keep their financial aid, they should consider electives and summer school as options, CSU educators said. The answer is not increasing the size of classes, they said.

At Cal State Dominguez Hills, which has an enrollment of more than 14,000, administrators have collaborated with other universities in online concurrent enrollment, meaning students can enroll in available classes on another campus, if they’ve been shut out of ones at their home university.

Cal State Dominguez Hills also redesigns courses that have had a high rate of failure or withdrawals.

The redesign effort looks at particular activities in a course that students have not been successful in completing. The aim is to redesign courses so that students not only pass them, but have a firm understanding of the concepts and knowledge delivered.

For Cal State Northridge, impacted and bottleneck courses are not as much of a problem as in the past — despite a record fall enrollment of 39,000.

To cope with 2,600 more students than started in fall 2012, the San Fernando Valley university hired 100 more teachers, mostly guest lecturers financed through more student tuition. To pay for the additional staffing, maintenance and repairs were deferred across the 356-acre Northridge campus.

Class enrollment was aided by a new automated wait-list system that helped administrators tweak class offerings according to demand.

In addition, students were encouraged to take more online and hybrid courses, and were each compelled to sign up for Friday or Saturday classes. The result: Despite the fall enrollment bubble, CSUN students signed up for a near-record 12.4 average course units.

This had resulted in a push by some in CSU, including Chancellor Timothy P. White, to increase online offerings. CSU currently offers 33 fully online courses for students who cannot travel to other colleges to take them. CSU officials also are looking at creating hybrid and virtual lab courses for general education or pre-requisite STEM — science, technology, English and math — courses.

Cal State Northridge went out on a limb to exceed its targets — or state spending cap — by between 4 percent and 5 percent, at an estimated cost of $12 million, he said. That enabled it to hire more faculty and help solve its bottleneck problem.

About 50 percent of the faculty at Cal State Northridge were tenured or on a tenure track, which is normal for the largest CSU campuses.

A lack of logjam in enrollment was less clear across the city at Cal State L.A. The East L.A. university launched its fall quarter with 3,500 undergraduate courses, and 14 new professors.

Two weeks into its latest term, however, university officials didn’t know if there were any impacted or bottleneck courses. Five of its programs were impacted, or full, including nursing, criminal justice, social work, child and family studies and psychology.