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To Accelerate Student Success, Eliminate Course Bottlenecks

Imagine you are a senior in college, preparing to register for your final semester of courses. You have worked hard for the past few years and are looking forward to the day when you can walk across the stage, accept your diploma, and begin the next chapter of your life. You’ve looked at the catalog and written down all the courses you’ll need to finish your degree on time. You’re ready.

There’s just one problem: you can’t get in. Only one of the remaining courses needed for your major is being offered this semester. And that required science course that you withdrew from as a sophomore and need to re-take is nearly full – the only open sections conflict with your work schedule.

Frustrated, you sign up for just enough electives to maintain your full-time status. “Next year I’ll graduate,” you think, “if I can afford it.”

Unfortunately, many students find themselves stuck in the same bottlenecks, unable to proceed along the pathway to graduation. “Bottlenecks” are broadly defined as anything that impedes a student’s progress toward degree completion. Students trapped in these choke points waste more than just their time – an extra semester means more tuition to pay and higher debt upon graduation. Course bottlenecks have a disproportionate impact on low-income and nontraditional students, many of whom are balancing work and family responsibilities in addition to school.

What causes bottlenecks?

A working group report from the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU) identified several high-risk conditions that contribute to course bottlenecks. Restrictions on physical space and limited resources were obvious culprits, but scheduling preferences of faculty and students played a large role as well. Introductory “gateway” courses often caused bottlenecks, as did specialized courses that were infrequently or inconsistently offered. One glaring indicator of a problem class is the DFW rate (D/Fail/Withdraw). Courses with a DFW rate above 15 percent were first to fill up, as new enrollments competed with repeat course takers. Overall, just 5 to 10 percent of courses cause the majority of bottlenecks, making this a fixable problem.


How do bottlenecks impact institutions?

Although bottlenecks cause myriad problems for students, they take their toll on the university as well. High failure rates in gateway courses contribute to overall institutional drop-out rates, which impacts the university’s bottom line. Forcing students to take classes they don’t need just to maintain their enrollment or qualify for financial aid is costly for the institution, as it must pay for space and instruction using funds that would be more efficiently invested elsewhere. When faculty are burdened with too many teaching responsibilities, they have less time available to contribute to the university’s other important missions of research and service.


Fortunately, the working group concluded that there are a number of things university leaders can do to reduce or eliminate course bottlenecks on their campuses:

  1. Lower DFW rates. Some strategies that universities may consider are redesigning courses for active learning, establishing bridge programs to accelerate student academic preparedness, and adding additional support services such as learning assistants and early alert systems.

  2. Fix scheduling conflicts. By proactively budgeting additional funds for high-demand courses, departments can easily add new sections when needed to meet student demand. Providing flexible options such as online, hybrid, or blended courses will give students more opportunities to take a class without disrupting work or family commitments.

  3. Upgrade policies and practices. Policies that limit the number of times a student can re-take a course will relieve some of the pain, and guide struggling students into their advisor’s office to explore new majors and pathways that may be a better fit. Establishing formal partnerships with nearby universities and community colleges can give students more options for taking required courses if those courses are full at their home institutions.

It’s important to remember that bottlenecks are moving targets. Course demand can increase and decrease rapidly in response to demographic shifts, new degree requirements, and changing student enrollment. But by planning ahead and responding quickly to challenges that arise, universities can help more students graduate on time.


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