I Was a Progression Requirement Pusher

Todd A. Diacon comes clean on a practice that many colleges accept without question, but that he writes is more about convenience than about education.

October 1, 2007

Students must obtain a cumulative grade-point average of 2.0 to graduate from my university. Sort of. In reality most students have to obtain a higher GPA for admission into a particular major. This second admissions hurdle is as important as gaining entrance into the university. Known often as a "progression requirement," it is one of the dirty little secrets in academe.

I know this because I wrote my department's progression requirement, which prohibits students from declaring a history major before obtaining grades of at least C+ in a series of courses. Some departments require even higher grades to begin the major, and a few go as far at to require a certain cumulative GPA for continued good academic standing in the department. Why did I write our department's progression requirements, and why did I push for their adoption? Because the professors in anthropology created their own first, and I did not want their "rejects" to scurry over into our major; so much for the love of teaching and a devotion to the success of all students.

Can I really tell you that a student earning a C+ in a survey course is likely to be more successful than a C student? No. Can I tell you that a history major who graduates with honors will be more successful than one who graduates with the minimum 2.0? Yes, but this presumes I know exactly what "success" means. Sure, the 4.0 student will likely be admitted into a top graduate school, might become a professor just like me, and be happy. But the 2.0 student might find just as satisfying a career, and be an educated citizen to boot.

As part of our effort to improve student retention and graduation rates the provost asked me to meet with deans, department heads and professors to review departmental progression requirements. In these meetings I have heard many rationales, but mostly these defenses rely on narrow definitions of what constitutes success in a given field, and are exactly the kinds of explanations I employed to defend my department's requirements. "Our students can't be successful accountants without at least a 3.0," or "our students tend not to pass the nutrition licensing examination on the first try if they have below a 3.0," are typical responses. Both may be true, but who is to say that the students in question have to be accountants or licensed nutritionists? Could they not proceed to have happy and productive careers in fields outside of their major? Also, if there is a pattern where people with grades below a certain level tend to fail licensure exams, could we not simply publicize this so that students can make informed choices?

Progression requirements are also appealing as a fast and easy way to demonstrate the rigor, high standards, and importance of an academic department (all of which I thought I was doing). As such they allow professors to ignore, diminish or at least supplement the real markers of a department's reputation, which at a research university are publications and the quality of the graduate program, both of which require much more effort and excellence than the creation of progression requirements.

Of course there are good reasons for progression requirements, such as when they are employed to limit admission into a popular major which simply does not have sufficient personnel to teach well the growing number of majors. Yet even here there are problems, for departments can create scarcity by capping enrollment, by requiring a series of small enrollment seminars, or, and this is my favorite, by pointing to the standards of their accreditation agency. Such agencies can function as a protection racket by saying: "do it this way- -- or else; teach no more than X students per class -- or else." Administrators are left to figure out how the agency derived the magic X number, and in the meantime many students admitted into the university have one less major available to them.

Progression requirements produce what a colleague calls "academic boat people," because these students drift from major to major even though they meet, and often exceed, the university's general 2.0 GPA standard for continued enrollment. What are we to do with these students? What are we to tell parents when they complain that their child has a 2.4 GPA and yet cannot gain admittance into any of three preferred majors? Who should teach these students, and help them graduate? At my university such students become "undeclared majors," and are transferred automatically into the College of Arts and Sciences. Do deans of the other colleges send flowers and chocolates in thanks of such generosity?

More important, who are these students? Last November I spied one of them late one evening at the local Sam's Club. She was a decent writer in my upper-division course, but consistently earned C grades, and contributed very little to class discussions. She was at work, of course, and her lapel button held a photograph of her infant daughter. She greeted me kindly, and noted that she worked full time, was a new mother, and that soon she would finish the research paper for my course. At once my assumptions about her ability changed; suddenly her course grade reflected the complexity of life, and was no longer a simple metric of future success. Much the same happened months later when I encountered another student in a restaurant. He too earned a C from me, and as we conversed he noted that he worked more than 40 hours a week while enrolled in my course. He attended my 8 o'clock class, went straight to work, and then returned to campus for a class at night. As a progression requirement pusher I failed to incorporate the reality of these students into our department's standards.

To be sure there are many students who do not work late, do not face double days with families, and who simply do not apply themselves in courses. This does not justify progression requirements, even though the goal of excluding just such students motivated my own jump into rule making. And herein lies the problem: progression requirements are exclusionary. They keep people from pursuing their particular academic goals. They prevent students from specializing in a field of particular interest to them. Yes, budget constraints mean that universities sometimes cannot meet the demand for programs. But often such issues are absent, and yet progression requirements remain. Take it from a former progression requirement pusher: Such exclusion, as well meaning as it may be, prevents universities from fulfilling the call to educate our citizens. As such they should be eliminated when possible, reduced when feasible, and abandoned as a means of determining in advance who will and will not be successful in life.


Todd A. Diacon is vice provost of academic operations at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.


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