Trouble in SHU-ville

SHUs. Love them, hate them, or (most likely) hardly think about them. But for many Tufts students, SHUs have taken on the lurking appearance of a roadblock to graduation. The SHU system at Tufts is not functioning as it should and can be a significant educational and emotional stressor. The metric that Tufts uses to assign SHUs to classes frequently undervalues the time requirement for elective courses, creating a situation where to graduate on time, students in some majors must take upwards of five classes per semester, enroll in unnecessary seminar or capstone courses, or take summer classes. These options simply might not be on the table for students with internships, non-accredited extracurriculars, or those who need to work to support themselves or their family.

In 2018, Tufts transitioned from a one credit per course valuation to a qualified system where each class is weighted differently and “instruction time and homework time are taken into account.” According to the Tufts administration, the change was made to bring the university more in line with national standards of credit accounting, to simplify the application process to graduate schools for Tufts undergraduates, and to make it easier to understand the time commitment for each class. Tufts defines one SHU as “one hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out-of-class student work each week”.

Under the old credit system, Tufts School of Arts and Sciences students were required to complete 34 courses over the course of eight semesters in order to graduate, equating to 4.25 classes per semester. Under the current SHU system, liberal arts and engineering students are required to complete 120 SHUs to graduate, or 15 SHUs per semester. If one were to take only courses worth three SHUs (which Tufts admits represents the majority of their classes) students would have to take five classes per semester in order to graduate on time. Even if one were to take a course load of two classes worth three SHUs and two classes worth four SHUs every semester (a fairly difficult course load for some majors) they would still fall short of the 15 SHU per semester average needed to graduate on time. 

The undervaluing of students’ time commitment is evident in the credit awarded for social science classes. Of the economics classes that were offered this semester, only eight were four SHU classes while the other 30 were two or three SHU classes. For political science classes, there were 12 classes worth four SHUs (four of which were intro classes) and 21 classes worth three SHUs. The breakdown in the International Relations Department was nearly the same. Overwhelmingly, the courses offered in these departments are three SHU options, severely limiting many students’ ability to keep their class load below five classes while still taking enough SHUs to graduate.

Not only is this requirement difficult to manage, but of the few classes that are worth four SHUs, many tend to be introductory classes—for instance, Introduction to International Relations, Principles of Economics, and Introduction to Western Political Thought—which begs the question: why are these introductory courses worth more SHUs than nearly all the upper level classes for their respective majors? How can it be that my Islam and Modernity Seminar (that includes a 25+ page research paper requirement) somehow, according to the SHU system, requires a smaller time commitment than Principles of Economics? I have no good answer to those questions. Even as I near completing my majors in International Relations and Economics, I still don’t have close to the amount of SHUs I need to graduate. Because of my involvement in extracurriculars—this year in leadership capacities—I’m only able to take four courses both in the fall and spring semesters. I will most likely need to enroll in summer school classes simply for the extra SHUs.

Tufts Academic Advising claims that the recitation requirements of these introductory classes play a role in their four SHU classification. But even Tufts recitation logic standing, anyone who has pursued these majors from introductory classes to upper level classes will say the workload only increases as classes become more advanced. The reality of class time commitments is significantly different from what academic faculty in Ballou believe it to be. The disconnect is real, and it is harmful.

For students with significant commitments outside of the classroom, such as non-accredited internships, work, Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or any other significant non-credit-bearing time commitments, the current SHU system is a major hurdle. Students may find themselves having completed their major but still have a significant credit deficit. To prevent students from taking on a potentially unmanageable class course load, on top of any other potential commitments, the SHU system must change. Tufts administration must take concrete steps to reexamine and reassign SHU values based on the actual amount of time, including homework time, required for the course. For this to happen correctly, professor and student input must be sought out. Tufts must increase the value of SHUs for upper level classes or lessen the amount of SHUs needed to graduate. The emphasis for classes should be on learning and completing a degree, not filling up schedules with superfluous classes to fulfill opaque credit requirements. Until then, Tufts will continue to operate a system that creates more difficulties than good.