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Converting to the Semester-Hour Unit

News & Features | November 20, 2017

When the Spring 2018 semester comes to an end, Tufts will officially adopt a semester-hour unit system in place of the current one course, one credit system. Under the current structure, the vast majority of classes are worth one credit. But under the new semester-hour unit configuration, credits are intended to be proportional to the amount of time a class requires per week. Classes will be worth anywhere from one to five semester-hour units.

This switch is a small part of a national initiative to standardize higher education. Carmen Lowe, Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Tufts, explained that in 2011 the Federal Department of Education became aware of “wild inconsistencies” regarding graduation requirements for undergraduate and graduate degree programs. The department decided that the semester-hour unit was the best way to standardize degree requirements because it clearly denotes how much time a course requires. Philip Carrasco, a M.Ed. student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, researches the origin and implementation of the semester-hour unit as a method of tracking degree completion. Carrasco explained the semester-hour unit’s appeal: “With its standardized definition, the [semester-hour unit] serves as a basic currency among higher education institutions. With increasing numbers of students attending more than one institution in their undergraduate careers, the [semester] hour unit helps students take their educational experiences wherever they go.”

A federal semester-hour unit represents one hour in class and two hours of homework a week. This means that a three credit class should require three hours of class time and six hours of homework per week. The department also determined that a student should complete 120 semester-hour units in order to earn a bachelor’s degree. Under the current one course, one credit system, students in the College of Arts and Sciences must complete 34 credits in order to graduate, while students in the School of Engineering must complete 38 credits.

After the Department of Education announced its new standard for degree completion, accreditation institutions were mandated to ensure that the universities were adhering to this new federal standard. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), who accredits Tufts, communicated to the university that under its current system, it was possible for Tufts students to graduate with only 102 semester-hour units, instead of the required 120. In order to retain its status as an accredited university, NEASC said Tufts would have to make a change. Anne Mahoney, the Chair of the Education Policy Committee and a Classics Department Lecturer, explained over email, “Accreditation is what makes your degree count. A school that isn’t accredited is a diploma mill, a rip-off. If we aren’t accredited, then our students are not eligible for federal financial aid, including Pell Grants, federal work-study, and federal student loans. And our researchers would have a harder time applying for federal grants.”

The decision was put to faculty votes in March of 2015. The first vote established that the current system of credit was unsatisfactory and had to be changed. Lowe explained, “Then we had two options. One was the semester-hour unit system, the one we use around the country. The second option was to stick with one class, one credit, but to add different decimal variations like ‘1.75’ and ‘1.5’. The faculty felt that that was too complicated and cumbersome.” The vote came out in favor of semester-hour units.

The difficulty came in assigning semester-hour units to each individual course. Lowe explained that the registrar made a spreadsheet of every single class that is taught at Tufts and then estimated the number of semester-hour units the class should be worth, based on the amount of time spent in class every week. Each department then reviewed the registrar’s estimates and conducted their own review of the time required for each class. Based on this review, the departments either accepted the semester-hour unit assigned by the registrar or submitted an online petition to explain why the course should be worth a different number of semester-hour units. These petitions were then reviewed by a curriculum committee­—one for Arts and Sciences and one for Engineering. Mahoney served on the Arts and Sciences curriculum committee and explained the petition process: “We checked the substance of the claim: is this course really worth four semester-hour units, or more, or fewer? We suggested to some departments that they could ask for more semester-hour units for a class, and to others that they hadn’t justified the number they were asking for.”

The Tufts administration has stated that the new system will make it easier for graduate schools to understand the transcripts of Tufts students, while also enabling students to enroll in a more balanced course load. Once the switch is made to the semester-hour unit system, most classes will count as three credits, some will count as four credits, and a few will be counted as five credits or more. Full-time students will be required to enroll in a minimum of 12 credits a semester, and on average, students will enroll in 15 credits.

Lowe emphasized that current Tufts students’ progression towards graduation will not be affected by the switch. Every class completed before June that was worth one credit will automatically count for four semester-hour units and every half-credit course will count for two semester-hour units. Because of this, credits will be slightly inflated. For example, under the new system, most English classes will be worth three semester-hour units, but an English class taken before June of 2018 will count for four semester-hour units.

Mahoney pointed out that the switch is meant to enhance the typical Tufts education. One notable addition is that of “mini courses.” Under the new system, mini courses will count for one semester-hour unit. Mahoney said, “The idea is that a professor could set up a course that meets one hour a week, to cover just something small. Or you could meet three hours a week but have no homework at all.” Mahoney continued, “I could imagine a one semester-hour unit course on a technical aspect of the Ancient Greek or Latin languages, something useful for students but esoteric enough that they don’t need a whole three semester-hour unit class about it.”

Both Lowe and Mahoney also emphasized that the new system is intended to help students build a more balanced course load. Jake Rochford, a lead artist for the Tufts Observer, is a dual degree student at the School of Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) who is majoring in Science, Technology, and Society at Tufts while also working towards their BFA with a focus on illustration and printmaking at SMFA. They are “hopeful but also doubtful” that the new system will be able to help students lighten the course loads of students. They said, “Having taken [Introduction to Computer Science] and [Data Structures], I know for a fact that both courses, and other courses on the computer science track, take immense amounts of time and energy for out-of-class work. However, for SMFA students, out-of-class work could potentially not be reflected by the semester-hour unit credit system because that out-of-class work is either less valued or just less recognized.” Lowe noted that some computer science classes, and classes like Biology 13 (Cells & Organisms with Lab), will be worth five semester-hour units because they have both a lab and a recitation in addition to a lecture. However, SMFA studio classes that meet for six hours a week and have large amounts of outside work required will likely be worth only four semester-hour units.

The majority of foreign languages and lab sciences will also be worth four semester-hour units. Lowe said, “I think students who take foreign language and lab sciences might be able to take a lighter course load, and students who avoid foreign language and lab sciences might have to take more courses.” Emma Fleisher, a sophomore who is on the pre-medical track and is majoring in Clinical Psychology, thinks that the new system might be an improvement. She said, “I’ve always thought the way we assign credit now is unfair considering my labs are around three hours and also the preparation for lab and lab reports take up so much time. Other schools measure credits in terms of hours, which I’ve always thought made more sense.”

The switch may affect humanities majors differently than it will affect STEM majors. Maddie Oliff, a sophomore who is double majoring in American Studies and Sociology, speculated that the new system may reflect Tufts’ shifting priorities. She said, “It seems like students in the humanities will have to take closer to five classes to merely have enough credits to graduate.  I don’t necessarily think that’s a harmful thing. Breadth is important and I personally have been able to balance five classes. But I think this shows a clear indicator that Tufts, a self-identified liberal arts institution, is trying to value various disciplines over others.” Carrasco said that he thinks the effects of the switch will be minimal. He said, “Having reviewed Tufts academic catalog [The Bulletin] and the information contained within about the implementation, I would not anticipate any change in workload for the average student…the [semester] hour ‘system’ mainly serves as a standardized currency for educational activities.”

Lowe acknowledged that the new system has its flaws. She admitted, “It’s in no way possible to make this perfect. Let’s say there are many sections of a class and if Professor A assigns a lot more homework than Professor B, we can’t really change that.” But, she holds that this is still preferable to the one course, one credit system. “At least now professors will have more of an idea of how much work should be assigned for outside of class.”

Carrasco offered further insights on the switch. “It appears to me that Tufts has done a lot of work in developing how to implement this transition, but even the best laid plans require flexibility. Students should be prepared for the transition.”