New add/drop policy limits student choice

Credit: Courtesy of CMU Student Experiences Task Force Credit: Courtesy of CMU Student Experiences Task Force
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The Academic Policies and Practices (APP) Working Group of the Task Force on the CMU Experience recently proposed new policies regarding overloading on units and course dropping/withdrawal deadlines. The policies, despite being well-intentioned efforts to improve student wellness, would have harmful effects on the student body.

One aspect of the proposal concerns overloading, the practice of taking more units worth of courses than is standard in a semester. Currently, first-year students are not permitted to overload in the fall semester. This is a sensible policy aimed at ensuring that students adjust to Carnegie Mellon life and get a sense of how much work they can handle before overloading.

The Working Group’s proposal would extend this restriction to the spring semester, which would unnecessarily limit students’ flexibility. Many first-year students find it beneficial to overload in the spring semester, and the rationale preventing them from overloading in the fall does not apply to a complete ban on overloading during a student’s second semester at Carnegie Mellon. If this policy is enacted anyway, it would be a generous consolation for the administration to consider allowing students to use AP or IB credit to place out of Interpretation and Argument, the first-year writing course required across the university. At least then, many first-year students who previously would have overloaded in order to take an extra course would still be able to take that course by doing so in place of Interpretation and Argument.

The most troubling aspect of the proposal consists of moving the deadlines for dropping and withdrawing from a course several weeks earlier. The proposal suggests two models of changing deadlines which both aim to get students to leave courses earlier in the semester rather than later, but it is possible that the policy would achieve the opposite of its intended goal. A student might remain in the course for an entire semester rather than leaving after the first midterm either out of concern for getting a “W” for withdrawal on the student’s transcript, or because the withdrawal deadline, currently at the very end of the semester, might have passed and the student would have no choice but to remain in the class.

The proposed policy limits students’ flexibility and paternalistically suggests that students cannot make good decisions about when to leave a course. Ironically, the policy would make it even harder for students to make informed decisions about dropping a course, because they would not be able to spend as much time in the course and will not be able to receive individualized feedback (such as exam results) before the drop deadline.

The proposal suggests that registering for one too many classes and dropping your least-favorite class during the semester should be discouraged. However, this is actually an effective way to maximize the quality of one’s classes,, which in turn rewards professors with happier, more engaged students. Therefore, the administration should be trying to promote policies that empower students to make informed decisions about how they spend their time.

The idea that limiting choices can be beneficial does have some basis in social science, but a kinder and more freedom-preserving approach would be to “nudge” students toward choices that promote wellness rather than forcing restrictive policies on them. One of the proposed changes, making students jump through hoops before overloading by getting approval from their associate dean, follows this idea. The majority of the proposals, however, do not.

There’s another aspect of the proposal that utilizes manipulative behavioral science to attempt to gain support for this policy. By offering two models, one moderately more restrictive than the status quo and the other far more restrictive than the status quo, the Working Group has (either intentionally or accidentally) framed the moderately restrictive proposal as a sensible compromise choice, when in fact both policies would significantly reduce students’ flexibility.

Similarly, in a proposal that takes advantage of the well-documented social science principle that people are influenced by peer pressure, the white paper states that several of our peer institutions have more restrictive policies than Carnegie Mellon. But why should we at Carnegie Mellon adopt inferior policies just because other schools do? Instead, Carnegie Mellon should continue to be a leader when it comes to respecting students’ decision-making abilities.

The current state of affairs does not force any student to overload or to stay in a course they do not like for many weeks. Current policies simply allow students to challenge themselves by overloading or by taking a more difficult class with the knowledge that it is possible to drop it without consequences within a period of ten weeks. Carnegie Mellon ought to trust students to know what is best for themselves rather than impose paternalistic policies that restrict their choices.