Getting undergraduates through college in four years has long been a challenge, particularly for universities that enroll an economically diverse student body. Students from lower-income communities might struggle with inadequate academic preparation, limited finances, or the difficulties of being a first-generation student trying to figure out how to “do” college. Many programs have sprung up over the past decade or so to provide support through learning communities, enhanced advising, co-curricular activities, and financial aid.

But one area has remained largely untouched: the major. Student-success efforts often leave degree requirements out of the equation, in large part because those are considered the faculty’s purview, both sacrosanct and unknowable to anyone outside their discipline.

The way majors are designed, though, can throw up a lot of barriers that advocates for students say are completely unnecessary. Now, a new push involving dozens of colleges is attempting to untangle curricular complexity and encourage more professors to think about their role in retaining and graduating students. It is the latest in a series of projects to create a more coherent curriculum and smooth the path through college, often using analytics and data to help professors see patterns that would otherwise remain invisible.

What are those patterns? Degree requirements can grow without rhyme or reason. Unneeded or poorly timed prerequisites and corequisites can add months onto the degree. And tangled course sequencing can leave students spinning their wheels if they can’t sign up for the classes they need when they need them. These problems are particularly true in STEM fields, such as engineering.

The difficulties, reformers say, spring from two related issues. Professors are typically focused on their own courses and may not pay attention to the big picture. They often don’t see the roadblocks or understand the disparate impact these slowdowns have on students from less privileged backgrounds. And even when they are aware of challenges, they might not believe they have power to change anything. The curriculum was probably in place before they arrived.

Advocates say the time is right to talk about these problems, as Covid-19 and the social-justice movements of the past year have drawn attention to the deep inequities in higher education. Only 41 percent of students graduate in four years from the college they first enrolled in. Those figures drop to 21 and 32 percent for Black and Hispanic students, respectively.

Adding another semester or year onto graduation may not be a dealbreaker for students with financial means, but that’s not so for those on a four-year scholarship or who struggle to pay their bills. Equally significant, say reformers, complicated degree programs are more likely to deter those who already question whether they belong in college or come from marginalized communities, including first-generation students and students of color.

“That’s why you see very little diversity in engineering: If you can’t finish in four years, some students have to find an alternative major,” says Gregory L. Heileman, vice provost for undergraduate education at the University of Arizona. “You don’t see racial diversity. You don’t see economic diversity. Essentially, if you go to a less resourced high school, you’re basically shut out of engineering — and most STEM, in fact.”

The catalyst for this new reform effort is Curricular Analytics, a tool designed by Heileman and others at the University of New Mexico about eight years ago that helped triple the university’s four-year graduation rate. The open-source software they created allows faculty members to develop maps that visualize the path to a degree within their department, and provides a complexity score. The higher the score, the harder it is for students to graduate in a timely manner.

Professors can see, for example, how a student’s inability to enroll in — or to pass — one required course can block the path to potentially a dozen or more other courses. And these curricular maps can identify other potential delays to a degree, or courses that seem tacked on and lead nowhere. Professors can also use the tool to create alternative pathways to see what effect that might have on retention and graduation rates.

While engineering programs are typically among the most elaborate, other disciplines can fall into the complexity trap. Academics who have used the tool have discovered a range of degrees on their campuses with high complexity scores, such as music education and business. When you have a setup in which many courses come with prerequisites, degree requirements are high, or professors can add required courses without much review, experts say, programs are more likely to become convoluted or bloated. It’s also not uncommon for faculty members to think that certain courses, or course sequences, are required by accreditors when that isn’t necessarily so.

At the University of New Mexico, these visual representations changed the conversation in many departments, says Chaouki T. Abdallah, the former provost, and Heileman, the former associate provost for curriculum. Both are engineers, and say they were frustrated by the lack of data when they began to dig into low retention and graduation rates.

“We stepped back and focused on the curriculum because the four-year graduation rate was really low, like 15 percent. But the five-year rate was much higher. And we asked, why is that?” recalls Abdallah, who is now executive vice president for research at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “People would say, ‘Oh, they’re changing majors, they’re swirling.’ It was always someone else’s problem.”

Abdallah recalls, for example, that nobody knew why most majors at the university required 128 credits, when other institutions required only 120. “It’s in the handbook,” was the refrain. So they started looking through old faculty handbooks and discovered the change happened in 1978. “There was no record of someone saying it should be that,” he remembers. “It was just 128.”

Abdallah and Heilemen are both interested in network systems, so they looked at the curriculum through that lens. How much longer does it take to graduate when a student fails a “killer course,” one that typically has a high rate of D’s, F’s, and withdrawals but is needed to advance in the major? Is progress to the degree slowed because some of the harder courses are expected to be taken simultaneously, and if so, could they be ordered differently?

“Once we made it into a graph, it became a mathematical problem,” says Abdallah. “You have to justify whether this complexity, this idea of a course blocking other courses, makes sense. And we showed that they indeed affected graduation.”

Their visualizations turned out to be something of a Trojan horse, as one advocate describes it. They allowed professors who might never have studied the curriculum in its entirety to begin scrutinizing the design of their degree programs. Heileman became accustomed to walking into departmental meetings with data and spreadsheets to face a sea of skeptics. By the end of the meetings, faculty members became absorbed by what they were seeing, and willing to question the status quo. The goal was never to tell professors what to teach, says Heileman, but to have them explain why the degree plan existed as it did.

While it was part of a suite of changes made at the university over several years, the tool helped raise the four-year graduation rate to 35 percent from 12.6 percent over eight years, say Abdallah and Heileman. Among the most notable changes made university-wide: Virtually every degree program dropped the total number of required credit hours from 128 to 120.

But are other universities ready to examine their degree programs in as much detail? Even the most vocal advocates of curricular reform agree that the culture of academe makes that difficult. Professors are inclined to associate complexity with rigor, despite some evidence to the contrary. Heileman, who has brought his discussion of Curricular Analytics to campuses across the country, says he has been able to show how some of the most competitive engineering programs, including those at Stanford, Cornell, and the California Institute of Technology, often have the least-complex curricula.

That helps open minds, he says. But the hard work of making changes still goes largely unrewarded. Unlike teaching, research, and service, student retention and time to degree are not something faculty members are measured on — or held accountable for. Nor do they necessarily have the time, or sense of urgency, to reform their degree programs. After all, it takes years to see the effect of curricular changes on graduation rates.

Several major organizations are betting that widespread use of Curricular Analytics, along with the creation of cohorts of institutions willing to share and discuss their degree requirements, can help shift the culture. They include the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, and the Association for Undergraduate Education at Research Universities (formerly the Reinvention Collaborative).

These organizations consider curricular reform integral to their efforts to close gaps in retention and graduation rates for first-generation, Pell-eligible, and other students from underrepresented or underresourced groups. APLU, for example, has invited clusters of universities to work together on degree reform. Being able to compare your program with someone else’s is one of the key benefits of the tool, advocates say, which is freely available for anyone to use.

Kathleen Fu for The Chronicle

“It’s hard to engage faculty into owning the curriculum and feeling empowered to make changes,” says Julia Michaels, executive director of the association’s Center for Public University Transformation. “This does so in a way that’s not confrontational.”

In late 2019, a handful of universities began using Curricular Analytics, including the University of South Florida and Colorado State, Utah State, and New Mexico State Universities. While the pandemic interfered with that work as colleges became consumed by the shift to online learning, some early discussions did produce changes and laid the groundwork for further reforms.

At the University of South Florida, Kyna Betancourt, assistant dean of undergraduate education, has been putting every degree program through Curricular Analytics to examine its complexity. As is true elsewhere, South Florida has found that its College of Engineering has lagged behind others on campus in getting students through in four years, mainly because of the high number of credit hours most programs require.

Bringing Heileman in to talk to engineering deans helped make them receptive, says Betancourt, because the advocate for curricular reform wasn’t the state legislature or the administration, but a fellow engineer. So far, three degree programs have agreed to reduce the number of required credit hours to 120. Mechanical engineering dropped some required electives. Computer engineering eliminated one software-design class and incorporated some of the content in another course. Industrial engineering eliminated three courses and created a fourth, which combined some of the material from two of the cut courses but has fewer prerequisites.

The pervasive use of prerequisites may become one of the legacy practices to be put on the chopping block at Utah State University. Mitchell Colver, a professional practice assistant professor in the School of Teacher Education and Leadership who is leading the effort to reduce curricular complexity, believes some prerequisites came about more as an enrollment-management strategy — essentially to reduce the number of students entering a particular major — than as an academic necessity.

He doesn’t hold faculty members responsible for that problem. “Most of the current faculty were not present when the curriculum was designed,” he notes. Yet he has found it challenging to get them to act. “The idea that ‘curricular complexity’ should be pejorative is new,” he says. “Lots of departments wear complexity as a badge of courage.”

When academics do tackle curricular reform, they often focus on improving the structure of a particular course rather than on altering the path to a degree. That’s partly because it’s simpler to help a professor change what or how she teaches, and partly because certain introductory, or gateway courses, can have a disproportionate impact on a student’s career. Research shows that first-generation, lower-income, and underrepresented students have higher rates of D’s, F’s, withdrawals, or incompletes in gateway courses, even when they are performing well in their other classes.

The Curricular Analytics tool, Heileman says, was designed to look at both problems: instructional complexity and curricular complexity. Professors can use it to see, for example, which courses generate the highest rates of D’s, F’s, and withdrawals. And he has been working with Nathan W. Klingbeil, an engineering professor at Wright State University, to advocate that engineering programs reimagine one of most ubiquitous killer-course sequences in the field: calculus.

“All engineering programs have an entire line of math classes that are essentially a gateway into the core curriculum,” says Klingbeil. But when you load all these math classes into the first year, he notes, many students don’t complete the sequence. At Wright State, that figure hovered around 40 percent.

That’s the main reason, he argues, why at many universities only about half of students who start an engineering program stick with it. Not only are the courses challenging, many students struggle to understand why they are relevant to engineering and decide they should change majors.

Students who might not be calculus-ready when they enter college are fully capable of being great engineers, Klingbeil says. Sticking to traditional math sequencing, he says, is essentially throwing up barriers to students from underresourced high schools. “We can’t solve the world’s grand challenges if we don’t have all the voices at the table,” he said at a recent Gardner Institute conference on socially just design in postsecondary education. “We’re nowhere close to doing that. I’d argue that’s because of the structure and content of the curriculum”

To fix that problem, Klingbeil led a redesign of the course sequence at Wright State so that students learn math on an as-needed basis. Instead of front-loading Calculus I, Calculus II, and differential equations, as many engineering programs do, Wright State infused an introductory engineering course with the necessary math, allowing students to immediately apply what they learn. That keeps them motivated enough, he says, to continue in their programs. Students still learn the same amount of math as before, but it is spread out over several semesters and taken concurrently with engineering courses.

The results have earned Wright State national attention: Students who took the new math-infused engineering course earned degrees at double the rate of the traditional population. The impact was especially powerful for students from underrepresented groups, including women and students of color, who earned degrees at triple the rate. Dozens of institutions have adopted Wright State’s approach.

“What Greg is up against is the same thing we were,” Klingbeil says. “Administrators and provosts don’t control the curriculum. It’s the faculty in the trenches. But what institutions can do is implement things like Curricular Analytics to make compelling arguments to propose to faculty what-if scenarios.”

And encouraging faculty outside of your program to ask questions can be especially helpful. Winston-Salem State University adopted that approach during a recently completed project focused on curricular coherence, supported by the Teagle Foundation and the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

In the business school, for example, outside professors were helpful in asking why things were structured in particular ways. Faculty members in the school recognized that the pathways were confusing to students and their advisers, leading many undergraduates to take the wrong courses. So they agreed to reduce five majors to one, with different concentrations.

“It’s somebody completely different looking at your program saying, Does this make sense to me,” says M. Dee Guillory, an associate professor of marketing who has helped lead several curricular reform projects. “You know if the faculty member isn’t getting it, then students aren’t getting it.”

Many students at the historically Black university are first in their families to attend college, Guillory notes, and professors are aware that simplifying the path to a degree has real value financially and academically.

The university recently joined the Gardner Institute’s new Curricular Analytics Community, which will bring together seven colleges to share ideas on how to reduce complexity across degree programs.

But analytics and data go only so far, reformers agree. Hearing from students is often an important catalyst for action.

One of the developers of Curricular Analytics, Hayden Free, was an undergraduate studying computer-science engineering at the University of Kentucky when Heileman hired him to assist with programming.

As Free learned about curricular complexity, the stories he was hearing from classmates took on new meaning. A roommate told him about enrolling in a precalculus course his first semester on the advice of an adviser, even though he had taken calculus in high school. The friend’s problems snowballed when he stretched a required chemistry course over two semesters. All told, the student unknowingly added a year to his degree and had to go into debt to finish college.

Another friend switched from mechanical engineering to business because of his struggle with calculus, only to admit at graduation that he regretted not sticking it out.

Free, who now works full time on Curricular Analytics, believes that most professors want their students to succeed but may be unaware that many undergraduates perceive courses like calculus as intentionally designed to weed students out. “It’s a big room full of students,” he says, “and by the end of the semester, it’s half empty.”

He also wants professors to understand that while curricular complexity may seem like a badge of honor within a discipline, it can have life-altering and unintended consequences. “That one prerequisite might be enough to set a student back for a term,” he says. “And for a student like me, first generation and on a four-year scholarship, to add an extra term has the potential to be a dream-killer.”

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