A new unit cap will restrict universities from requiring more than 180 quarter units of coursework for students to earn a bachelor’s degree. This new approach, however, could pose a problem for educators trying to prepare students for competitive industries.
This past January, the California State University (CSU) Board of Trustees agreed to cap unit requirements to improve graduation rates and open more seats in universities.
This decision could force universities statewide to cut core classes from programs that have larger course loads, which would make it more difficult for engineering programs to meet accreditation standards.
In an attempt to avoid the cut, Cal Poly will issue an exemption request to the Chancellor’s Office on behalf of the College of Engineering in January.
Cal Poly’s exemption request will be the second phase of the university’s two-part attempt to meet the new standard. It calls for the maximum unit cap on classes within the College of Engineering to be moved up to 192 units; this would offer breathing room to the programs most affected by the new policy.
“We don’t want to sacrifice quality,” Associate Vice Provost Mary Pedersen said. “We are very dedicated to providing students with the best education possible. Our stance has been to discuss the issue as diplomatically as possible and barter a compromise.”
Housed within Pedersen’s office is a folder, roughly 6 inches thick, with a large “180” scrawled on its surface. The folder outlines the first part of the limit implementation, which started rolling out at the beginning of this year. Every program Cal Poly offers meets the new guidelines — except engineering.
College of Engineering Dean Debra Larson said she’s confident the Chancellor’s Office will listen. She cited other universities that have run into the same problem, including San Diego State, Sonoma State and Cal Poly Pomona.
“I don’t believe the Chancellor’s Office is going to be able to deny all of us,” Pedersen said. “They know that we need to maintain quality programs.”
The Board of Trustees’ decision altered the language of Title V, the educational code that dictates guidelines for undergraduate degree eligibility. The code already contains exemptions for architecture, fine arts and music, but neglects engineering programs — which historically have higher base unit requirements and have to adhere to tight accreditation criteria for science and mathematics fields.
“It makes people very worried that this would diminish our ability to produce day-one ready graduates,” Larson said. “We have very high standards that could be compromised if we have to cut down to 180 units.”
Mechanical engineering junior Ryan Baskett said he thinks the decision will hurt his education and possibly engineering as a profession.
“I trust our department to know what we need better than the CSU,” said Baskett. “This decision would either require us to learn the same material in less time or force us to leave college knowing less.”
Michael Uhlenkamp, the Chancellor’s Office director of public affairs, said the decision was made because in the past decade, there has been a trend toward higher unit requirements. Some engineering programs have risen as high as 210 required quarter units.
“We aren’t trying to be iron-fisted about 180 being the limit,” Uhlenkamp said. “But we’ve heard students are wanting to be able to graduate within four years, and we’re trying to help them do that.”
Each program within Cal Poly’s College of Engineering is accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), a nongovernmental academic accrediting agency that assures the quality of programs within the applied sciences nationwide. ABET accreditation contributes in no small part to Cal Poly’s reputation as a high-end engineering school.
Larson, who sits on an advisory council for ABET at the national level, said there is no contingency plan if the exemption request fails, but hopes the Chancellor’s Office will understand their position.
“It would be a very difficult thing for us to go through,” Larson said. “I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t partner with us to come up with a solution.”
The new unit cap won’t limit the number of classes a student can take, but only the number of units an institution can require for students to obtain a bachelor’s degree, said Uhlenkamp. Students who receive financial aid will not be affected, since they are permitted to receive aid for up to 18 terms regardless of the total number of units they’ve taken, according to Director of Financial Aid Lois Kelly.
Though Uhlenkamp couldn’t offer any specifics on when exemption requests would be answered, he said accreditation does make implementing the limit more complicated.
“We acknowledge that programs within engineering generally take five years and that cutting them down may not be possible,” said Uhlenkamp. “We will audit programs like these and make exceptions where we can.”
Once accreditation is offered, it lasts six years before the program must submit a self-study report reviewed by ABET for reevaluation. Each engineering program at Cal Poly has been placed on the same six-year rotation and is poised to be reevaluated next year. Larson said she is hopeful that if they are forced to adhere to the new limit, accreditation might still be maintained through double-counting and other methods, but it wouldn’t be easy.
“We would really have to roll up our sleeves, and it would be very hard work,” Larson said. “But ABET is well aware that unit caps have become a nationwide phenomenon.”
Another potential solution could be to lower the overall number of general education (GE) units students are required to take. The CSU system requires 72 quarter units of GEs. By contrast, the University of California system only requires 45 quarter units. Though changing this requirement has been discussed, it would involve making another change to Title V, which would be an arduous process, Uhlenkamp said.
“The GE requirements haven’t changed in decades, yet programs have swelled, so the problem is on the back end,” Uhlenkamp said. “All of the campuses that have engineering are over the limit.”
Meanwhile, engineering courses will be safeguarded against the limit until the Chancellor’s Office responds to the request. The Associate Vice Provost Office and the College of Engineering are operating on the hope that the response will be positive. A big question mark hangs over what the next course of action will be if their request is denied, Larson said.
“That’s a good question,” she said. “We don’t know.”