Discouraging 'Course Fishing'

August 3, 2007

Policies that allow students to try out courses and drop them by a certain deadline are a time-honored way for colleges to encourage students to sign up for classes they're not sure about or get out of ones they don't like. But the policies are sometimes manipulated by students hunting for easy A's or a sure-to-pass course in ways that can cause headaches for faculty and administrators.

Texas is attempting to stop the abuse (and diminish the costs it imposes on colleges and the state) while still allowing flexibility, with a new law that goes into effect this fall. For students beginning their studies at a Texas public college or university this year, the brief course "shopping period" at the start of a semester will be more important than it has ever been for the state’s undergraduates.

Regardless of how many institutions they attend, how many courses they enroll in or how many years they take classes, students entering Texas public institutions this fall and beyond will be limited to six courses dropped after the shopping period.

The idea, administrators said, is to put a cap on the number of unfilled seats vacated too late in the semester for another student to enroll in a course, and to underscore the responsibility a student takes on when committing to be in a class.

Tacked on to State Senate Bill 1231, which amended the state’s rules on refunding tuition and fees for dropped courses and student withdrawals, the six-course policy was passed by the Texas Legislature in May and signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry in June.

Donald J. Foss, provost of the University of Houston, says that allowing unlimited drops was “more or less encouraging what he called ‘course fishing.’ ” Students would sign up for a few more classes than their minimum load and then drop the ones with the most work or the toughest grading. “We want to help our students stay focused on being oriented to their studies,” he says. “It’s not a good use of our seats in our courses and our state dollars to allow students to drop classes so much and so easily.”

Foss adds that even before the state legislation passed, Houston had already decided to put a similar -- and more stringent -- policy in place, establishing a six-course drop limit but applying it not only to new first-time students, but to all undergraduates there.

Under the law, students who stay in classes after the census date, a day early in the semester at which point institutions count course and overall enrollment numbers, will still be able to drop courses until an institution-specific date later in the semester. As is already the case, students will be penalized only if a drop lowers their course load to fewer than the institution’s minimum number of courses or than federal or institutional financial aid or scholarship rules dictate.

Drops beyond the maximum of six will be allowed for students who “can show good cause for dropping more,” including severe illness, active duty military service, or work obligations beyond the student’s control.

Drop limits exist at some colleges, but most academic officers and registrars would be surprised to hear about them, says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. Public institutions in Iowa, Pennsylvania and Washington, among other states, have limits on drops.

At most colleges, Nassirian adds, “too many withdrawals, without a good explanation like a student’s illness, would look bad,” but an infinite number would still be at least theoretically possible.

When incorporating the policy into the state education code, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board added any “other good cause as determined by the institution of higher education” to the reasons for exemption, says Dominic Chavez, the coordinating board’s assistant director for state governmental relations.

Janie Neighbors, president of the Texas Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and vice president of financial services at North Central Texas College, a community college an hour north of Dallas, says that registrars throughout the state are “concerned about how to track drops internally and across institutions” because the software at most institutions is not programmed to alert users when students have accumulated more than six drops.

“We’re brainstorming about how we can put the policy in place,” says Neighbors, “whether it means adding characters on the transcript or creating a searchable statewide database -- but then we get into other issues, like student privacy.”

For now, though, Neighbors is instructing members of her association to inform students of the policy and to begin to study their institutions’ internal policies. The association has also created two committees to figure out how to implement the change and to determine the programming and computer changes it would entail, which “could be very expensive,” she said.

Officials at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas at Dallas said their institutions are in the process of putting the policy in place and of determining how to make it work with the infrastructure of their registrars’ offices.

Tracking drops across institutions is a concern for registrars, but for other administrators like Foss, Houston's provost, a related concern is that six drops may be insufficient for a student transferring to a four-year institution from a community college. “Transfer students from community colleges may use up a disproportionate number of their drops during those years,” he says. “By the time they come to us or another four-year institution, they’re very limited. And they’re probably the kinds of students who may need the flexibility to drop here, too.”

Foss adds that Houston's student government supported the new policy as a way to encourage students to take their courses more seriously, though there are surely some undergraduates who hoped to continue to use drops to their advantage. For the students who truly need more than six, Foss says he hopes to work with legislators to add flexibility to the law.

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