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Faculty Senate discusses accessibility of four-year degree option

Eleven years after voting in favor of a four-year/two co-op degree option, the Northeastern Faculty Senate took up the issue again on Wednesday, with university leaders pointing out that adoption of the four-year option has been fairly low given high interest among incoming students.

Hugh Courtney, dean of the D’Amore-McKim School of Business and professor of international business and strategy, presented ways the university could make the four-two model a more viable option to students, in addition to the traditional five-year/three co-op model.

Courtney led a task force this summer that analyzed the co-op system and explored why, after many years, there wasn’t sufficient progress in implementing the four-two option. The Faculty Senate first approved the four-two option in 2002, and the university began marketing it to undergraduate applicants in 2009.

“There are a lot of reasons students would not have done the four-two, but one of the hypotheses we are looking at is it’s just difficult to do,” Courtney told the Senate.

Co-op is the cornerstone of Northeastern’s century-old experiential learning model, which integrates classroom learning with real-world experience. In the 2012-13 academic year, there were nearly 8,000 co-op placements at more than 2,900 employers around the world.

According to Enrollment Management and Student Affairs, interest in the four-two option has risen among incoming students from 31 percent in 2008 to 45 percent this year.

Courtney explained to the Senate that in most cases, if students select the four-two option, they don’t get a summer break during their time at Northeastern. That also leads to less of a chance of doing interdisciplinary studies.

“It’s tough,” Courtney said. “You have to go straight through from September in the first year to May of the fourth year.”

Courtney presented some ways departments and programs could make the four-two option more attractive, including making curricula more flexible, having students take a course while on co-op, and by providing unique experiential learning opportunities during the summer.

“The reality is in any option we need the student to study or work in the summer, so how can we make it more compelling to do so?” Courtney asked, adding the university could offer a certain number of experiential opportunities that would only available in the summer.

During the discussion following Courtney’s presentation, Murray Gibson, founding dean of the College of Science, said Northeastern should develop the way to offer a serious four-year degree with an extensive experiential learning component because no other school does that.

“We are going to have to create it,” Gibson said. “There is no other choice [if we want to] preserve all the things we want to preserve. We know the market wants it.”

Some faculty senators from more technical disciplines such as physics, biology, and engineering said it would be difficult to fit all the credits students need to graduate into the four-two model.

“There are other solutions needed for subjects like ours because getting to 128 credits is not a problem, it’s fitting everything in,” said chemistry professor Mary Jo Ondrechen. “The accreditation requirements are pretty extensive, and it’s not just the number of required courses, it’s that they are sequential.”

Professor Tony De Ritis, chair of the Department of Music, asked, “What percentage of students graduating in four years is the right amount? How do I know when we’re successful?”

Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, answered that it’s not about hitting a specific number. “Success is when all of the students who come to Northeastern wanting to graduate in four years are able to do so without difficulty.”

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