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Cal State trustees OK plan to limit required course units

Most majors must set a maximum of 120 semester units for a bachelor's degree. The aim is to allow students to graduate quicker and to reduce education costs.

January 23, 2013|By Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times
  • Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, left, Gov. Jerry Brown, and Cal State Chancellor Timothy White listen to a speaker address the Cal State University board members in Long Beach.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, left, Gov. Jerry Brown, and Cal State Chancellor… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

In a move to reduce costs and move students more quickly toward graduation, California State University trustees approved a plan Wednesday to limit the number of credits required for most bachelor's degrees.

Most of these majors must set a maximum of 120 semester units by fall 2014. Some, in architecture, landscape architecture, fine arts and music, will be allowed to exceed that limit. Other exceptions must be approved by the chancellor, after consulting with faculty and others.

Cal State leaders have been trying to coax colleges to reduce unit requirements for more than a decade, asking campuses to review degree programs and justify those requiring more than 120 units. Currently, about 81% of programs meet the standard.

But the issue has become more pressing as state funding cuts forced course reductions and enrollment declines. Many universities around the country are studying ways to have students complete bachelor's degrees in four years or are touting their success in getting students to graduate in that time.

Cal State's new requirements do not limit the number of units students can take or require them to enroll on a full-time basis.

Officials argue that with fewer required units, current students can graduate more quickly, increasing access to classes for freshmen and community college transfers. Students would also save money on textbooks and other college costs if they can reduce the number of courses needed for a degree.

Colleges must recognize that "we are in a new normal, with reduced resources," said Cal State Chancellor Timothy P. White, who urged trustees to approve the measure at the board meeting in Long Beach.

But the issue is not without controversy. Trustee Bernadette Cheyne, who represents faculty, opposed Wednesday's action, which formally revised Cal State rules systemwide. Faculty leaders said they feared that the academic quality of programs would suffer and they argued that instructors on individual campuses were best suited to set curriculum standards.

"It sends a message that yes, we can get students through quicker, we can get them through cheaper, but [faculty] are concerned about academic quality," said Diana Guerin, chairwoman of the Academic Senate.

Students also questioned whether the new requirements would reduce the value of degrees and graduates' job prospects.

"It's all about the details," said David Allison, president of the Cal State Student Assn. "Will there be a decrease in quality and education outcomes?"

College leaders said they could maintain quality and reduce unit loads even in demanding fields such as engineering by redesigning curriculum and using teams of instructors, among other options.

"Rather than students taking another course, they can graduate much quicker and be part of the workforce," said San Jose State University President Mohammad H. Qayoumi. "The hope is by changing these programs we can improve access."

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