Competition from community colleges makes it hard for Cal Poly to offer summer classes. | Courtesy Photo

Suha Saya

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Biomedical engineering senior Michael Dewitt, who took psychology and macroeconomics courses at Foothill College last winter, didn’t take a normal community college class. He took it all the way from Texas — online.

“There’s no other way I could’ve done it or taken the classes if it wasn’t online,” Dewitt said. “It was while I had an internship, so the idea was that I could take a couple easier courses while working and continuing degree progress.”

Dewitt is one of an increasing number of students taking classes outside Cal Poly, with data from the Office of the Registrar showing more than 16,000 classes transferring into the university since the 2006 academic year. The trend increased from a low of approximately three courses transferred per 100 students in 2006 to 16.5 courses transferred per 100 students in 2012 — a roughly 500 percent increase. The number fell to 11 classes transferred per 100 students in 2013.

According to Vice Provost for International, Graduate and Extended Education Brian Tietje, there are three main reasons students want to take classes outside Cal Poly: limited variety in Cal Poly’s general education requirements, convenience of outside classes and difficulty of classes at Cal Poly.

“The basic premise is we know there’s a lot of it going on,” Tietje said. “Because I run summer term, the biggest explanation is that as an institution, Cal Poly has not embraced online.”

This coming summer, Cal Poly has only four online courses scheduled.

“While other community colleges and CSUs are offering far more online courses, students who want to travel or go home or do internships are more attracted to those programs,” he said.

Students heading home and conveniently taking local community college courses is also a factor, Tietje said.

“So whether they do it face-to-face or whether they do it online, they’re opting for those courses,” he said.

But according to a GE student survey sent out in February, students didn’t don’t prefer options, said Josh Machamer, chair of the Academic Senate General Education Governance Board.

“Online classes was fairly low in terms of the things that prompted narratives of what could GE be doing better for the most part,” Machamer said. “It’s interesting that both the things that could be improved and that students liked the most was the sense of flexibility and variety of classes, and we’re in the process of trying to quantify that information.”

The variety of Cal Poly’s GEs — some of which are quite narrow, according to Tietje — could also play a part in the lack of students taking courses at Cal Poly.

For example, GE area C2 at Cal Poly is defined as philosophy (writing intensive), whereas at other community colleges, it includes a broader list of courses under the definition of humanities such as literature, philosophy or languages other than English.

During the past five summers, from 2009 to 2013, 1,003 students satisfied their C2 requirement by transfer coursework.

“If you go to, Hancock offers 27 courses that satisfy C2,” Tietje said. “Cal Poly faculty is choosing to limit that in a very narrow way because they’d argue that other courses aren’t as meaningful … but that’s part of the reason students take it elsewhere.”

In addition, competition from community colleges continues to make it difficult for Cal Poly to run courses during summer. Because summer session is self-supporting, meaning it’s not subsidized by state dollars, there are fixed costs attached to the courses, Tietje said.

“When you look at what students are paying, you have to have a certain number of students in that class for it to break even,” he said. “That number is usually at least 20 students … so if you’re facing that challenge and meanwhile Cuesta or Hancock or others are offering courses for much cheaper, it becomes more difficult for us to hit breakeven.”

Recently, the mechanical engineering department noted an increased amount of students taking classes outside Cal Poly — typically general education courses. Many Cal Poly faculty started to wonder if the cost of Cal Poly’s summer program was driving students away or if it was the challenging courses, mechanical engineering professor James LoCascio said.

“We started noticing the (junior college) advertisements — I’m sure you’ve seen Cuesta — and realized we can’t compete,” he said. “Not only are students thinking they’re saving money, but now they’re telling each other which general education course at which junior college is easiest.”

The “saddest part,” he added, is students are discounting the value of general education.

Tietje has also heard many students say taking classes at community colleges is less of a challenge.

“In this specific case, you have a writing-intensive philosophy course in comparison to an online class, where you can possibly do little work and still transfer it,” he said. “While I believe that students might be doing so because it’s easier, I also believe that Cal Poly students, at the deepest level of motivation, value the academic challenge.”

If the price was closer, Tietje thinks students would be willing to pay a little more for a Cal Poly class.

“I bet you, if the price was closer, they would want to pay more and would be up for the challenge,” he said. “But it’s so far-fetched — $60 a unit vs. the summer cost of $289 a unit here — so the price differential is big, we don’t offer it online and we’ve made it so specific that it’s harder to take here.”

The specificity of general education courses, Tietje said, might just be the breaking point.

“My biggest takeaway is that I embrace the comprehensive polytechnic theme, and thus I think there’s a great deal of value in our general education, but I think at times, we take it too far to specify it,” he said. “As a result, students find it easier to take classes with more variety outside of Cal Poly … in choosing to be so specific, we’re only hurting ourselves.”

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