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Take a Load Off: Who decided five courses per semester is the magic number?

By UMB credit standards, he’s graduating early.

By UMB credit standards, he’s graduating early.



Little known fact: Not all universities require the same course load for graduation.

Take, for example, the following universities located relatively near our own campus: BU, Northeastern and Merrimack College. Each requires a minimum of 128 credits for graduation, but unlike UMass Boston, most courses are worth four credits. This means that students can take four courses per semester, no summer or winter classes at all, and still graduate in four years.

UMass Boston requires 120 credits to graduate. However, as we all know from scrambling to fill out our class schedules for the fast-approaching Fall 2012 semester, the three-credit course is almost universal. (Freshmen and intermediate seminars and courses with labs are the exceptions.) Therefore, at UMass Boston, most students have to average five courses per semester in order to graduate in four years.

Typically, one credit translates to one hour spent in the classroom per week, but not always. The obvious exceptions are lab courses, where students spend two or three hours a week in class, but earn only one credit.

Does this mean that students going to universities with four-credit courses are going to classes one hour more per week? Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. The University of New Hampshire, for example, offers four-credit courses that meet for only three hours per week. On the other hand, Emerson offers four-credit courses that meet closer to four hours per week.

Is there a nationwide, universally accepted correlation between credits and time spent in class? No. MIT, for example, offers some 12-credit courses – calculated on the basis of the three hours spent in class per week plus the nine hours spent on homework.

There are universities where students spend 20 percent less time in class and 20 percent less energy on schoolwork, each and every semester. And these students graduate with a degree, just like you and me.

Perhaps there are state-mandated reasons for why UMass Boston, as a public university, cannot ease the graduation requirements. After all, UMass Amherst is in the same five-courses-per-semester boat as us.

If this is the reason, I think it’s time something is done. UMass Boston, especially, would benefit from this reduction in overall credits required, because of the university’s working-class roots and its large population of part-timers. As of right now, most students graduate within five years, not four. There is nothing inherently wrong with taking an additional year to graduate, but that extra year is costly.

Regardless, rather than just cutting wholesale the number of classes required, the university (and state regulation, for that matter) should reconsider what a graduating senior needs to know.  Does a student in Earth and Environmental Sciences need to take a full year of a language? Does a student in English need a mathematics course?

I can only speak from what I know, but many required classes, rather than improving the student and making him or her more marketable, serve as roadblocks to graduation.  Yes, being proficient in a second language would help many students (economics and classics majors perhaps), but hosts of students see these classes as a waste of time and a potential drain on their GPA.  My grade in statistics is a perfect example.

If nothing else, fewer general education requirements would allow students to pursue courses that they are better suited for–on topics that students are interested in or even passionate about, and that will be useful after graduation and not just for the purpose of achieving graduation. I would love, for example, to take a basic biology course to supplement my cognitive science minor, but I can’t because I’m missing one more upper-level writing course for my English major.

It would shore up the prestige of the school and help students improve their graduate status if they had fewer classes each semester and were more able to focus on a select few, and ace these. It’s almost as though the school is promoting a mantra of quantity over quality.