UW-Stout News Story

Curriculum changes to help cut debt, ease way to four-year graduation

August 13, 2013

Students will have a greater opportunity to graduate in four years from the University of Wisconsin-Stout thanks to an improved curriculum in undergraduate majors that responds to the demands of employers and addresses the problem of student debt.

UW-Stout faculty and administrators reviewed the requirements for majors and found ways to limit the necessary credits for graduation to 120 in 40 of 44 undergraduate programs. Incoming freshmen also will be able to select from a new and revised array of general education courses.

Chancellor Charles W. SorensenChancellor Charles W. Sorensen said the two changes will make it possible for most students to graduate more quickly but still with the same skills they need to succeed in the workplace.
 
"We heard the concern over the rising cost of higher education loud and clear," Sorensen said. "These changes will allow our students to graduate in four years, while still giving them the exceptional and rigorous education they and their future employers have come to expect from us."
 
Sorensen said UW-Stout reviewed each program's requirements for graduation after previous efforts only reduced the average credits taken by a graduate to 139 in 2011-12. That was less than the credit-to-degree average of 149 in 1993-94, he said, but it wasn't good enough.
 
"We knew we could maintain the quality of our programs and still make the changes necessary to bring the average credit load down," Sorensen said. "I am confident we have done that."
 
Jackie Weissenburger, associate vice chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs, said students will leave UW-Stout just as prepared, if not more prepared, for their careers. "The curriculum is going to be of high quality but more condensed," Weissenburger said. "We have designed innovative programs with great value that are very rigorous."
 
The process began a number of years ago when Sorensen asked faculty to revise the general education curriculum. Students are required to choose from an array of courses intended to give them a broad foundation in knowledge and skills.
 
Jerry Kapus, former chairman of the Faculty Senate, said it took a while for the faculty to embrace the chancellor's request. Kapus made revising the general education requirements a priority for his tenure.
 
Jerry Kapus"The intent was to integrate general education courses more closely with our academic programs and to make them more flexible for students," Kapus said.

A committee that included Kapus then proposed a framework for a revised general education curriculum that reduced the required credits from 42 to 40 and created two additional categories: contemporary issues; and social responsibility and ethical reasoning. Three credits are required in each.

The new categories are in addition to communication skills (nine credits), analytic reasoning and natural sciences (10 credits), arts and humanities (six credits), social and behavioral sciences (six credits) and electives (three credits) in the array. The new general education program no longer requires physical education and a technology course.

Once the new framework received campus approval, another committee worked on deciding what courses would fit into the new categories, Kapus said. These steps set the stage for the 120-credit effort.

On March 1, 2012, Weissenburger and former Provost Julie Furst-Bowe sent a message to undergraduate program directors stating: "To encourage timely degree completion, avoid excessive credits-to-degree and limit graduate debt load, we are requiring that each program total 120 credits."
 
If more credits are needed for accreditation or certification purposes, they said, those needs will have to be documented.
 Jackie Weissenburger
Weissenburger said 40 of UW-Stout's 44 undergraduate majors complied with the 120-credit limit. Four engineering programs — computer, engineering technology, manufacturing and plastics — have more than 120 credits for graduation because of accreditation requirements.
 
"We asked our program directors to be creative and innovative when they reduced their programs to 120 credits," Weissenburger said. "They did that."

UW-Stout already had a four-year graduation guarantee. Under this guarantee, UW-Stout staff will advise students in selecting the courses needed to meet the requirements of the major. If a course is not available, the university arranges a substitute course so the student stays on track.
 
UW-Stout also offers a three-year graduation guarantee for four majors. Weissenburger said this revision spreads the four-year graduation goal across all disciplines and for all students. "This does make it possible, if you take 15 credits a semester, to finish in four years," she said.
 
Sorensen said the changes address the concern expressed in July by President Obama, who said his administration was working on a plan to "shake up the system" of higher education to "tackle rising costs and improve value for middle-class students and their families."

Obama specifically mentioned "new approaches to shorten the path to a degree."

"We didn't wait for the federal or state government to tell us we had to shake up the system," Sorensen said. "We took the initiative, and I am pleased with the outcome — and our students and their parents will be as well."

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