• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

The Common First Semester

Can a seemingly good idea be carried out?

 

August 30, 2018
 
 

An idea came up on campus again this week that comes up from time to time. Couldn’t we save everyone a lot of time and angst by coming up with a common first semester that all, or nearly all, students could take?

At first glance, it seems to make a lot of sense. We know what the highest-enrolled classes on campus are, and most of them are taken early.  A common first semester, perhaps with a meta-major course built in, would streamline advising and registration and make it far easier to ensure that students take courses that count.

I could see the idea working well at a selective, residential liberal arts college.  It’s a variation on the “freshman seminar” idea, with the goal of starting everyone off on equal footing and ensuring that everyone has a similar foundation on which to build.  We might focus more on skills than on the canon, at least at first, but the general idea is similar.

The catch is that the students aren’t. 

Very few of our students take 15 credits in their first semester. And of those, most place into at least one developmental (or “foundational”) course. Some bring transfer credits. Any of those would throw off a tightly programmed sequence; combine a few, and it gets worse. 

Pragmatically, I believe that it’s important for students to get at least one class in the first semester that they recognize as being part of why they went to college.  The traditional remediation model is based on an “eat your vegetables” approach, in which students have to start with the subjects with which they’ve struggled the most in the past before they get to the good stuff.  That has entirely predictable effects on motivation. For that to work, of course, the class that fills the “good stuff” slot will necessarily vary.

All of that said, though, I know that some community colleges have done it. I’m just unclear on how.

So, my wise and worldly readers, I turn to you.  Have you seen a community college (or public four-year college with a similar student profile) successfully get to a common first semester? If so, how did they do it? And what did you learn that falls under the category of “if we knew then what we know now?”

Any how-to’s would be greatly appreciated.

Happy Labor Day weekend!
 

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