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University students, faculty adjust to changes in academic calendar

Fewer classes, students and higher costs in program’s first year

POSTED March 4, 2011 10:17 p.m.

In the first year of California State University, Stanislaus’ new, self-supported winter session, 235 fewer classes were available to students, at approximately four-times the price of the state-funded winter term of 2010, but the university says the session offered other benefits to students.

“We did not offer a lot of courses by comparison,” said Russ Giambelluca, CSU Stanislaus vice president of Business and Finance.

The 2011 winter session offered 10 classes, which 173 students enrolled in at a cost of $825 for a standard, three-unit course. The 2010 winter term offered 245 classes and enrolled 3,834 students – 22 times more – at a cost of $204 to each student.

In total, 13,153 student credits hours were doled in winter term 2010, while 560 student credit hours – 4 percent as many –were awarded in winter session 2011.

“We did reasonably well, but we expect to do more courses this year,” said CSU Stanislaus Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs James Strong. “… I was disappointed personally that we didn’t get more classes.”

In a move primarily motivated by cost-savings, CSU Stanislaus decided in October 2009 to do away with its longstanding academic calendar, featuring a 13-week semester in the fall and spring and a four week winter term. The new, more traditional schedule—comprised of two 15-week semesters, with an optional three-week winter session – went into effect in fall 2010.

Rather than being funded by CSU Stanislaus’ increasingly shrinking state funding, the new winter session is funded entirely by student fees. Because of this shift, the university says it’s an apple-to-oranges comparison between the two; the new session also does not include state financial aid, makes access to federal financial aid more difficult, and has fewer class offerings at a higher price as all winter session costs must be offset by student fees.

Those higher costs put CSU Stanislaus history major Mary Bonta off enrolling for winter session this year.

“I found a class that I needed, but then when I looked at how much it cost, it was going to cost me my books for my entire year,” Bonta said. “It was $800 or something ridiculous. I decided it just wasn’t worth it.”

The $275 charged per-unit for a winter 2011 class is roughly on par with undergraduate costs for the fall and spring semesters. Students taking zero to six units in the current spring 2011 semester pay $1,763, or $304 per unit with a six unit load. Those taking more than six units pay $2,756, or $184 per unit for a 15 units load – the minimum to graduate in four years.

But more important to Bonta, who regularly took winter term courses in the past, was that her financial aid would not help pay for winter session. Had financial aid helped, or the cost been lower, she would have enrolled, Bonta said.

 

Winter session offers other benefits

Previously, CSU Stanislaus was only the CSU campus to have a winter term, Strong said, which wreaked havoc with scheduling and allocating resources from the chancellor’s office. The move allowed CSU Stanislaus to better meet fluctuating student demand and scheduling requirements by aligning the university with the rest of the semester-based CSU system, said David Tonelli, university spokesperson.

And student fees were simplified, too, the university said – though both fall and spring semesters increased in cost by about $100, absorbing the share of tuition previously attributed to winter term. Previously, financial aid students who did not attend winter term would not receive a full allotment of aid dollars, which were prorated across the three terms.

The shift to a self-supported ‘catch up, keep up or get ahead’ model for winter intersession had other benefits, the university said, as the college could allocate more resources to traditional fall and spring semesters, at the same time making them more conducive to learning.

By extending the fall and spring semesters by two weeks each, all classes were altered to meet for eight to 12 fewer minutes each day. Added up over an entire semester, classes still meet for the same amount of minutes as before the change, and offer the same amount of units.

But the shift allowed the university to schedule an additional class slot each day, offering 15 class slots rather than the previous 14. That change eased scheduling conflicts, allowing students to enroll in more classes in fall and spring, Tonelli said, and giving the opportunity to take additional courses.

And, using funds previously directed to winter term, CSU Stanislaus can offer additional classes in the fall and spring. With more classes offered, shorter classes each day, and two extra weeks to learn and complete class work, the university believes students will have additional time to assemble a schedule in line with a traditional time to graduation.

To graduate in four years, students must take 30 units per academic year. That’s unchanged from the previous requirement, but students must now either take heavier class loads in the fall or spring, or else pay more to attend the winter session. Already, the university has seen the average unit load increasing, from 11.5 in fall 2009 to 12.6 in 2010.

 

Professors concerned with shift

Faculty members are still struggling to deal with the altered academic year.

Samuel Regalado, CSU Stanislaus professor of history, who has appeared in an ESPN documentary about Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Fernando Valenzuela, used to teach a class on U.S. sports history during winter term. Now, he’s attempting to translate the class into a 15 week-long course, without the benefit of time to prepare for the shift.

According to Regalado, the administration’s decision to change the academic calendar in 2011, rather than giving faculty a year to modify programs for the new calendar as the faculty Academic Senate had requested, left professors forced to retool curriculum on the fly.

“Basically, we get thrown into the fire and we’re kind of winging it this year,” Regalado said. “ … I don’t know if we’re doing what’s in the best interests of the student.”

Regalado said professors are looking at ways of improving courses. But some classes simply can’t be offered with the shorter schedule, the university admitted, like the longstanding interdisciplinary Cuernavaca program, which sent students to spend a month in Mexico to better understand the local community and the environment.

According to Regalado, that program provided a golden opportunity for graduate students and advanced upper-division undergraduates to apply their studies in a real-world setting. And other, similar programs, like an environmental history class which sent students on field trips to the Sac-Joaquin Delta, are also reinventing themselves in the shift to a 15-week semester.

The winter term allowed professors a chance to work one-on-one with research-oriented students, Regalado said, which isn’t afforded during the packed-schedules students hold in fall and spring terms.

“It’s hard to put a plan together of how we can bring back this relationship we had with our advanced students,“  Regalado said.

Regalado also questioned the “academic integrity” of classes offered through the UEE-operated winter session. Those classes aren’t vetted by traditional curriculum committees, Regalado said.

And Regalado said he hasn’t seen any benefits to the changed fall and spring semesters, either. He continues to receive word from the administration that resources are down and there’s not enough classroom space.            

 

Building a better winter session 2012

CSU Stanislaus administrators expect to offer a “much more robust” winter session this coming year, highlighted by additional classes.

Strong said the winter session “snuck up on people” in the first year, and that faculty didn’t have time to prepare classes. But, should faculty want to teach, Strong thinks more students would take winter session classes if they were offered.

“We need to get out in front, start a little earlier, and convince faculty to offer more classes in winter session,” Strong said.

Regalado said he’s seen the push in that direction already. Even when the subject matter has nothing to do with winter session, administrators always slip in a mention of money-making UEE classes like “evangelicals” might.

But despite the push, Regalado doesn’t see his U.S. sports history class returning to winter session any time soon.

To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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