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Does the SHU Fit?

Opinion | October 1, 2018

In June of 2018, the Tufts Schools of Arts and Sciences and Engineering joined many other universities in the United States by switching from its traditional one course, one credit system and adopting the standard semester-hour unit (SHU) system, a project that had been in the works since the fall of 2013. While the transition to SHUs was made with good intentions, such as helping students create a more balanced course load and making the Tufts transcript more self-explanatory to graduate and professional schools, it has had unintended consequences. Most notably, the SHU system unfairly favors STEM students over humanities students.

One of the goals of the administration when creating the SHU system was to help students, particularly first-years, better balance their course loads. The credit hour is meant to be an accurate representation of the number of hours spent in a given course each week. Most courses are assigned three SHUs, while others that require additional instructional time, such as an extra recitation, are worth four SHUs. At most, a course can be assigned five SHUs, which is usually reserved for classes with intensive labs. However, what the SHU system does not account for is the time students must spend on coursework outside of the scheduled class hours.

During my first year at Tufts, I took Arabic 1, which is now worth four SHUs. It meets three times a week: twice for an hour and 15 minutes and once for 50 minutes. However, an important aspect not reflected in the SHU system is that students are expected to work on outside coursework for eight to thirteen hours each week, according to the syllabus. The SHU system fails to recognize the extensive coursework that may be assigned outside of class, thereby misleading students who are building their course loads. The SHU system equates more in-class time with a more intense workload, thus simplifying a more complicated reality.

Currently, I am registered in a total of 14 SHUs: two four-SHU courses and two three-SHU courses. In the beginning of the semester, I added an extra three-SHU course to my schedule because I felt that 14 SHUs was inadequate, due to the administration’s recommendation to take 15 SHUs every semester. Even though I enjoyed the class, it was the additional four to six hours of outside work every week combined with an already rigorous course load that made me drop the class. I knew that while I would be meeting the administration’s expectations, it would be extremely difficult to meet my own. I didn’t feel satisfied offering the bare minimum to each course just to maintain five classes, rather than focusing more of my attention on and succeeding in the four I was in.

A minimum of twelve SHUs is required to be considered a full-time student, which is equivalent to four three-SHU courses. However, according to Dean of Undergraduate Studies, Carmen Lowe, in an interview with the Tufts Daily after the SHU system was introduced, students are expected to take about 15 semester hour units per semester in order to graduate on time. This expectation means that students, in particular humanities students whose courses are mostly worth three SHUs, now feel mounting pressure to take five classes per semester. Under the old system, twice per week, one hour and 15 minute classes were given four SHUs, meaning students they would have only taken four to reach the 16 SHU mark. In contrast, courses in the STEM field are now typically worth four to five SHUs, and therefore those students can comfortably take four classes without worrying about graduation requirements.

A course’s SHU value determines how much it is weighted towards a student’s grade point average; a course worth four SHUs will have more of an effect than one worth three SHUs. Since STEM classes are often worth more than humanities classes, the grades that students get in their humanities classes are proportionately worth less than the grades from their STEM classes.  This devaluation of non-STEM classes goes against one of the key philosophies behind a liberal arts education—that all subjects of study possess equal worth. This is just another instance that highlights Tufts’ lack of commitment to humanities. Last year, the Observer brought attention to how majors in the STEM departments have the benefit of holding most of their classes in one “home” building whereas other majors like English are sprawled across 17 different buildings. This lack of a centralized space makes it difficult for faculty and students of the same major to form meaningful relationships. Additionally, last semester, with the departure of at least 11 professors and staff of color, the Observer called attention to Tufts’ lack of commitment to supporting and retaining faculty and staff of color.

The switch to the SHU system came about after the Federal Department of Education made a change in their requirements for undergraduate and graduate degree completion, requiring all colleges to verify that their graduates were completing 120 SHUS, or the equivalent. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), the organization responsible for accrediting Tufts, then mandated that Tufts make a change to the one course, one credit system because the Tufts administration could not guarantee that all students were reaching the required 120 SHUs.

However, many other schools who are accredited by the NEASC, such as Bowdoin College and Bates College, still use the one course, one credit system. Classes at Bowdoin and Bates earn one full credit, which they equate to four semester hours, and all courses count equally towards students’ GPA. They still meet the federal regulations by stating that courses that count for one credit will typically meet for three hours a week, with the expectation that a minimum of nine additional hours a week will be spent in lab, discussion group, film viewings, or preparatory work. This is a fair system that meets the federal guidelines, while also remaining true to liberal arts values.

If it is not viable to overturn the SHU system and return to the one course, one credit system, then adjustments must be made. If other schools accredited by the NEASC can offer one-credit classes that correspond with four SHUs, then Tufts should follow suit. There needs to be a closer examination of every course syllabus in order to more accurately represent the number of hours required for each class. The main purpose of the SHU system is to make the standards and expectations of each course clearer, and that cannot be accomplished with just a number.