Blocking the Exits

What do you do if you fail a mid-term exam? If you’re a student at one of several schools in the University of North Carolina system, don’t worry about it—you can just drop the class and try again later. UNC-CH, NC State, Appalachian State, and East Carolina all have extended periods in which students can drop classes without penalty. East Carolina students can drop a class 30 class days into a semester; at NC State, students can wait 46 days (the UNC system mandates a minimum of 75 class days per semester).

Depending on how a proposed policy change turns out, that option may no longer be available.

The seemingly arcane topic of “add-drop” was hotly debated at a meeting of a UNC Board of Governors committee. The committee concluded by recommending that  the UNC General Administration decide how late into the semester students may drop classes without penalty. (Currently, it is a campus responsibility.) A full Board meeting in January will vote on the recommendation.

The idea of putting the General Administration in charge of the drop-add period began with the UNC Faculty Assembly, which sent a slate of policy changes to the Board of Governors in September. The drop-add proposal was made to help ensure that courses required for graduation “are offered on a timely basis and with an adequate number of sections and seats,” a goal stated in the proposal package.

Proponents recommended a ten-day “add-drop” or “course adjustment” period in which students could change classes without penalty. After the ten days—but before 60 percent of the semester is completed—a student who drops a class will receive a “W” (for “withdrawal”) on his or her official transcript.  After 60 percent of the semester was completed, students could not withdraw at all. 

Withdrawals would have no effect on GPA, but they would be visible to anyone—such as a graduate school or employer—who took the time to look at a transcript.

The withdrawn courses would also count as “attempted hours,” a statistic that determines whether students would pay the tuition surcharge. If students attempt more than 140 credit hours, they must pay 50 percent more in tuition. The Faculty Assembly stopped short of recommending a maximum number of withdrawals per student, suggesting that individual campuses should set that number.

Sandie Gravett, former chairman of the Faculty Assembly, said later that shortening the add-drop period would help students. For one thing, it would “assist students who were enrolled in a course in seeing it through to successful completion.” In addition, she wrote, “It encourages maintaining enrollment in all courses instead of allowing a student to take a seat and then drop the hours later, thus preventing another student from enrolling.”

At the committee meeting, two university chancellors voiced strong disagreement with the proposal. UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor Holden Thorp contended that it was a bad idea to put the General Administration in charge of setting such policies. “I think this is a campus matter that should be determined by faculty members on campus,” he said at the committee hearing. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to centralize it.”

Thorp also opposed the policy on egalitarian grounds, arguing that some students should be allowed to take a class past the mid-term, and if they should fail, drop it and try again. “If you’re in that classroom at Chapel Hill, you’ve got some students who went to Philips Exeter, some that went to Enloe (a magnet high school in Raleigh), and you’ve got some that went to Warren County [High School],” he said. “The one from Warren County, if it takes her more than one try—it means that is not a bad thing.”

NC State chancellor Randy Woodson contended that the proposed shortening of the add-drop period would not achieve its intended goals. The change “is not really addressing the seats-in-sections” issue because only very few students actually drop courses after the initial ten days. According to Woodson, only 3 percent of students in an average NC State class end up dropping it after the first two weeks. At the meeting Thorp said that the figure at UNC-CH is 1 percent. 

The figures cited by the chancellors seem quite low, so the Pope Center contacted both chancellors’ offices to confirm the percentage of students who drop classes, and UNC-Chapel Hill corrected Thorp’s figure to 6 percent. Given that the author of this article dropped one class and knows many UNC-CH alumni who dropped several, the number of students dropping classes seems to be fairly significant under the current lenient rule. 

Students, for their part, appear adamantly opposed to shortening the add-drop period. The one student representative on the committee, Cameron Carswell of Appalachian State, mentioned that she had received roughly 300 student emails over a three-day period criticizing the proposal. Remarking that this level of engagement was unusual, she called the surge in activity “a huge force.”

Clearly, there are pros and cons to the issue. The members of the Faculty Assembly may be right that shortening the add-drop period would increase efficient use of seats in classrooms, but it’s difficult to believe that it would have more than a minimal impact in opening up classroom seats.

The policy change would only make an impact if it convinced a significant number of students to drop within the first two weeks who would otherwise have waited till the mid-term. At the meeting, UNC-CH student body president Will Liemenstoll worried that a “W” on a transcript might look bad for students applying to grad school, but he didn’t seem to think it would be serious enough to change student behavior. 

Moreover, considering the big differences in the campuses of the UNC system, the chancellors’ argument against imposing a uniform rule has merit. Whereas late-term drops may be a serious problem on one campus, they may not be on another. Shortening the penalty-free drop period could cause more harm than good.

But the issue is moving forward, and the governors will vote on it in January.