• 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.


Once More, with Feeling

Second chances.

November 23, 2015

How many times should a student be allowed to re-take a class she hasn’t passed? In my context, that usually means either failing or withdrawing; we don’t do many incompletes.

Some colleges have policies on retakes and some don’t, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a fleshed-out argument for any given position. I’ll offer a few gestures towards one, and then ask my wise and worldly readers to help me fill it out and reach a considered answer.

First, I think it’s obvious that any given number (assuming there is one) should have some sort of “exceptions” clause. Weird stuff happens. When the stuff is both documented and sufficiently extraordinary, I don’t see much point in being overly strict. (Example: one semester, the professor falls ill six weeks into the class, and the college can’t find a replacement in time. I don’t see why a student should be punished for that.)  That said, a policy of “infinite retakes” strikes me as hard to defend, given limited resources. So assuming that infinity is off the table, and there’s some sort of safety valve for extraordinary cases, what would be a reasonable limit?

“One and done” strikes me as unnecessarily cruel. People make mistakes. If a withdrawal from a class means you can never take the class again, and that class is a prerequisite for other things and/or a degree requirement, then the student is basically done.  Say that a student has a medical issue or family emergency during Freshman Comp.  Freshman Comp is required in every degree program at the college. Bar her from retaking the class, and you’ve basically expelled her. Given that anybody can get sick at any time, that just seems unreasonable.

Two or three attempts both seem reasonable at first glance. Either allows for a stray awful semester without banning the student from progressing.  But they both put a cap on throwing good money or effort after bad. If you haven’t passed a class in three attempts, I’m thinking maybe that isn’t the class for you. Getting blocked from self-registration for a fourth attempt may prompt a visit to an advisor, who might suggest other pathways. Everybody is good at something, but nobody is good at everything; disappointment can be part of the process of narrowing down the fields that work for you. If that weren’t true, I would have spent much of the 90’s and 00’s playing major league baseball. The only thing that stopped me was a catastrophic lack of talent.

I’ve asked the Institutional Research offices at my last couple of colleges to run numbers on success rates for successive attempts at courses. In both cases, success rates dropped from the first attempt to the second, the second to the third, and so on. The drop was the largest from the first to the second. I haven’t seen national figures on that, but I’d guess they’re consistent. By the time you get to fourth or fifth attempts, it starts to look less like compassion and more like false hope, or tuition theft.  

The change in Pell limits in 2012 added urgency to the issue. Prior to 2012, students had a lifetime limit of 18 semesters of Pell.  (That had to cover both undergrad and grad degrees.) In 2012, the limit was shortened to 12 semesters. If a student spends four or five semesters on a single class, the odds of her finishing a degree before running out of money drop dramatically.  And even if she finishes the associate’s, the odds of having enough money to complete a bachelor’s are vanishingly low.  If a student has a semester or two of ESL and/or developmental classes, and stops out once or twice, that 12 semester limit can come up fast.  I hate to base academic policy on financial aid, but I also find it irresponsible to enable behavior that would defeat the possibility of completing a degree.  

So I turn to my wise and worldly readers to shed light.  Is there another angle on this question that sheds useful light? Is there a better answer?


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