Academic policies change for fall semester

After Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies Katharine Cole met a student who was in over his head academically, she said it was a sight she never wants to see again.

During his career at USF, the student had withdrawn from 39 courses and accrued a mountain of debt, she said. As a result, he graduated from USF after six years.

“This kid had no idea that the total was 39,” Cole said. “It was two this semester, then three, then one in the summer, then two more, and when you do that for six years, that’s a lot of classes and you have to pay for those.”

Cole, who worked with the Student Success Task Force over the past year, spearheaded efforts to create a new withdrawal policy this semester, among other changes. Now, students can only withdraw from five courses during their career at USF – three times within the first 60 credit hours and two after that total is reached.

“We decided we needed to limit the amount of times a student can withdraw for (the students),” she said. “As I began to gather more and more data, it was clear that withdrawals are probably the most important thing as far as students’ progression, as far as students’ ability to graduate and as far as students’ ability to accrue debt they can’t pay.”

The policy, which takes effect this semester, prevents students from withdrawing from more than the permitted number of courses until they speak with an adviser. Cole said if extenuating circumstances, such as health ailments, arise beyond a student’s control, the University could allow for exceptions on an individual basis.

All students start at zero, she said, and withdrawals accrued prior to the new policy’s implementation will not be counted. However, prior withdrawals will still be marked on transcripts.

The task force met throughout the 2010-11 academic year to explore the benefits of the policy, studying other universities that limit withdrawals. The decision to implement the new policy was approved by the USF System in the spring, Cole said.

USF currently lags behind other Florida universities with an undergraduate graduation/retention rate of 51.6 percent. The University of Florida has a rate of more than 80 percent, and the University of Central Florida has a rate of 64 percent. At the last Board of Governor’s meeting in June, USF expressed a desire to work on increasing these rates.

Vice Provost for Student Success Paul Dosal said he believes the new policy is a step toward achieving this goal.

“I most certainly expect that the change in withdrawal policy will have a positive impact on graduation and retention rates,” he said. “The higher the number of withdrawals, the less likely it is that the students will graduate (at all).”

The withdrawal policy is just one of six academic policy changes approved for fall 2011. A new dismissal policy allows the University to dismiss a student with a GPA less than 2.0 after two semesters. Previously, students were only dismissed after three semesters.

Initially, the policy put students on warning their first semester before putting them on probation, Cole said. However, this allowed students “to get further and further in the hole.”

The academic renewal policies for re-entrance into the University after dismissal have also changed. Students may now return to USF if they have completed an associate’s degree at another institution. If a student accrued more than 60 credit hours prior to dismissal from USF, their GPA will be reset to 2.0 once they are re-admitted, even if their earlier GPA was lower.

To be considered for re-admittance into the University, students must prove to a committee that they will be academically successful upon return. Cole said in addition to receiving an associate’s degree, work experience and other experiences could also be considered.

Cole said this helps ensure students’ success upon returning, citing instances where students had returned to USF after dismissal only to be dismissed seven or eight more times. This was not due to poor performance, she said, but an inability to boost their prior GPA.

A final policy change prevents “M” grades – missing grades that have not yet been posted by professors – from being changed to failing “F” grades at the end of the next semester.

Before this change in policy, Cole said students were at risk of receiving “F” grades at no fault of their own. Now, missing grades will remain “M” grades until an instructor changes the grade.

Other policy changes that were considered by the task force, but not passed included preventing incomplete “I” grades assigned to students with a passing grade in a course that they were unable to complete due to extenuating circumstances from becoming “F” grades – instead enforcing a maximum grade of a C-. However, neither policies were passed and “I” grades will remain “F” grades after two semesters until a student completes it.