University News

Approvals to ‘split’ eighth semester decrease

Admins aim to lower the number of students taking half course loads over their last two semesters

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, October 10, 2013

Following a steep increase in the number of seniors splitting their final semesters, the Committee on Academic Standing has increased the difficulty for applicants to gain approval.

A “split eighth” — an option to take two courses in both an eighth and ninth semester and paying by the course instead of the term — is a “rarely used administrative mechanism to enable an extraordinary opportunity for a student that can’t be done in any other way,” wrote Chris Dennis, deputy dean of the college and chair of the CAS, in an email to The Herald. He added that medical issues might also lead students to split their final semesters.

Last academic year, 29 students split their eighth semesters, compared to 33 total over the years between 2008 and 2011. There was a “considerable spike in last year’s figures,” Dennis wrote, adding that he does not know what caused the increase.

The approval rate for students applying to split their eighth semesters for the current academic year is projected to be lower than last year’s, Dennis wrote.

“The bar is high,” he wrote. “To delay taking one’s degree is a matter for the most serious consideration.”

“It’s very rare for splitting to be allowed at this point,” said Andrew Simmons, director of the Center for Careers and Life After Brown.

The CAS plans to discuss “exceptions to the eight-semester design” and students’ proposals in several meetings throughout the year, Dennis wrote. The Office of the Dean of the College, among other offices, will also participate in the review, he added.

 

Scaling down splits

Splitting eighth semesters can accommodate students who have taken leaves of absence by allowing them “to finish out their time at Brown at the ‘natural’ conclusion of the academic year, so students often feel less ‘out of step’ with the class they graduate with,” Lassonde wrote in an email to The Herald.

Originally slated to graduate this semester, Alessandra Frank ’14 decided to split because she didn’t want to finish school and start her job search in December, she said.

Former Deputy Dean of the College Stephen Lassonde, now dean of student life at Harvard, approved Frank’s petition last spring.

But this year, fewer students are gaining approval.

Vera Carothers ’14 was in proceedings with CAS earlier this semester to gain approval for a split eighth semester. The committee approves a student, “firstly, if they have an extraordinary academic opportunity that they’re trying to pursue by splitting, and secondly, (if) the extraordinary opportunity can’t be done in a more regular way,” Carothers said.

After reviewing Carothers’ proposal, the committee denied her because its members believed she could accomplish her goals in a more traditional way, she said.

 

Capital concerns

The University may have a financial incentive to limit the number of students allowed to split their final semesters.

“Having students splitting eighth semesters might not be financially viable and beneficial for them,” Carothers said. “Brown doesn’t want people floating around.”

Frank agreed that the University might have monetary motivations for increasing the difficulty of gaining approval. The University doesn’t profit as much when students’ courseloads are cut in half, she said.

Director of Financial Aid Jim Tilton could not say how splitting eighth semesters affects the institution’s savings or expenses. Cost can vary depending on how much financial aid a student receives, he said.

“I know other friends who wanted to split and now are discouraged to apply,” said Carothers, who noted that the reason she considered splitting her final semester was because many of her friends had. “The protocol has definitely changed.”

Splitting eighth semesters can also influence students’ personal financial situations.

Students’ financial aid and federal grants can be affected, Tilton said.

“It impacts every student differently based on aid eligibility, and it’s all individualized,” he said. “It’s important for students to know that it could impact the amount due to the institution and parent contributions.”

“I’m paying half tuition for this semester, but I still have to pay the normal student fees,” Frank said.

 

Grade expectations

Brown is committed to the “traditional four-year pathway” to graduation, Simmons said. Whenever a student does something “outside the norm” of a four-year pathway, he or she should have a good reason, he added.

“It is unclear to me what the impact is on the perception of the student’s performance by people outside Brown,” Lassonde wrote. “If I were a student, I would be concerned about this.”

The option may make Brown appear less rigorous, Lassonde wrote. Peer institutions such as Harvard and Yale “certainly didn’t allow this,” he added.

“It’s not a conventional educational path or pacing, but it’s something better for me as a learner and a worker,” Frank said. “I see it as an advantage as opposed to as a weakness.”

Mary Craig ’14, who chose to split her final semester in order to spend more time on her thesis, also said she is not concerned about potential criticism.

“I don’t think taking half of the classes undermines academic rigorousness,” she said.

Jonah David ’14, who is also splitting, said the idea that graduate schools or employers might look down upon this option never crossed his mind.

When making the decision to divide his final semester, “I knew I was going to graduate, and I didn’t think this would be problematic for employment,” he said. But, he added, “I’m sure some people would have that hesitation.”

As long as a student presents a “compelling” reason for splitting his or her last semester, “it can’t hurt at all in terms of your professional growth and trajectory,” Simmons said.

 

Attention-restriction

Splitting semesters can help students focus more on their assignments and extracurricular activities, Frank said.

“I feel like this is the way school should be done,” Frank said. “I have time to do readings for class and to read outside of class for pleasure. I have been doing all of my work with full enthusiasm, and I feel like I’m getting so much more out of my classes because I can really concentrate on them.”

But she added that less time in the classroom does challenge her self-discipline.

Craig said she found the decrease in course load “liberating.”

“When I was taking four classes, no matter how hard I was working, I always had to let some reading slide,” she said. With her focus now on two courses, she can spend more time absorbing the material, she added.

But insisting that students take four courses each semester to remain in good standing and then abandoning that expectation is inconsistent, Lassonde said.

“That just doesn’t seem fair to all of the students,” he added.

David said taking four classes has always been a challenge. “If it were very common to be a part-time student at Brown, I might have chosen to do it,” he said.

With two theses to work on, David decided to split his eighth semester since his adviser was on sabbatical during his senior spring.

While David said he believes other universities should adopt the option to split, Lassonde wrote that he would support Brown’s elimination of split eighth semesters.

“I would have supported the curtailment of this option even though I’m sure students would have felt that it was restricting,” he wrote.

“There’s not a prescribed way in which we should attend a college and learn, and there can’t be,” Craig said. “If anything, a split eighth semester opens up your options for how you can spend your time and incorporate Brown into your life.”

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