If you’ve visited Educated Quest you probably know that I’ve posted a few virtual college visits. I’ll continue to post more, but I want to shift gears a bit. It’s a college advisor’s responsibility to let you know how schools are trying to adjust to this new world under COVID-19, and help you navigate it. My good friend, Elizabeth LaScala, founder of Doing College-and Beyond in Northern California summarized the issues for juniors and seniors quite well for your college planning. She has more advice for seniors who are uncertain on what to do. I want to take one of her points a little further, about virtual teaching, and talk about schools that are really trying to address the issues they face.
Colleges were forced to put courses online mid-quarter or mid-semester to keep ongoing classes going. But putting lectures and collecting homework assignments online is not going to work in the long term. Parents are less than anxious to pay for a full semester of online education. Inside Higher Education reported that as of mid-April 26 percent of college students were unlikely to return to their current school in the fall. They could take time off, or transfer out.
The colleges that are most likely to stand out in this new reality are the ones that get creative about delivering an educational experience. Creative colleges might not be the most famous. But it’s my job to learn about them and tell you about them. I’m going to start this series on creative colleges with a post about the block plan colleges
What is a block plan college?
A block plan college delivers one or two classes over a short time. A one-class block might have one class that runs three to four weeks with a short break between blocks. A two-class block runs the two classes over eight weeks, also with a break between blocks.
What makes a block plan college different from other colleges?
Most colleges operate on a semester system. Students tale four or five courses over 15 or 16 weeks. Other schools operate on a quarter system. You take three to five courses over nine or 10 weeks. This forces students to juggle assignments between classes, and forces teachers to keep to a standard lecture/lab/recitation so that the students can keep to a class schedule.
But a block plan college gives the teacher and student more freedom to design a class, and change it, when necessary. Imagine taking a class for 45 hours over the course of a semester over three to four weeks instead of 15. College students will not sit still for three hours per day of straight lectures in the same course, five days a week. A block plan college does better at holding a student’s attention in class. A good teacher can vary the course content and the assignments, because their students are not taking other classes. That teacher might combine readings with discussions, field trips, exams and projects.
Tell me more: how would a block plan college deliver a better experience for students?
At a block plan college, a small number of students have the full attention of a professor for the duration of a class. At the same time each student has only one professor to impress. S/he can devote all of their academic time to raising their grade. There’s no risk that your struggles in one class will drag down your grades in the others.
Students also have at least four blocks to help you decide on a major, possibly minors or a second major. If you go to a block plan college, you take a required course for each major during each block. Then you can use the next blocks to take the next required course or fulfill other degree requirements. Colleges that operate on more conventional calendars force first-year students to take courses outside their intended majors. A first-semester freshman seminar or expository writing course does not count to a major. If any of the possible majors, such as Business or Psychology requires math and/or statistics, those courses need to be taken early, too.
Teachers have to work harder to teach a course at a block plan college. They have less time to teach, but more time to prepare engaging lessons before the class begins. They also have the freedom to offer their class as an off-campus field experience, assign individual or group projects, mix online media with class meetings, and more.
How have colleges been doing with block plans?
Colorado College (CO), Cornell College (IA) and the University of Montana-Western have operated as one-class block colleges for some time with success. Beloit College (WI) and Centre College (KY) recently announced that their calendars will shift to eight-week, two-class blocks.
I’ve got some data on the three schools that have tinkered with the block plan for a while.
Colorado College is one of the most selective test-optional liberal arts colleges in the country. It has 2,100 undergraduates. Last cycle this school accepted less than 15 percent of all applicants, and took only 23 students off its wait list. While the college is test-optional, the middle 50 percent of the class who took the SAT scored between 1320 and 1460. For those who took the ACT, the composite was between 29 and 33.
The Colorado College block plan has been around for 50 years. Numbers help prove its success. Since 2008, Colorado College has retained no less than 94 percent of a freshman class. Four-year grad rates have averaged over 80 percent for every class that entered between 2004 and 2015. Colorado College offers 41 majors, 27 minors and 20 Thematic Minors.
A liberal arts college with 1,000 undergrads, Cornell College is one of the Colleges That Change Lives. It’s not hard to get into Cornell College. Last cycle the school took 62 percent of the students who applied. Like Colorado College Cornell is test optional. The vast majority of the class took the ACT; the middle 50 percent scored between 23 and 29 on the composites. That’s about the same range (22-28) for the class that arrived at Iowa State.
Cornell has been a block plan college for 40 years. The college just announced that it will add two summer blocks, offering the opportunity for incoming freshmen to graduate in three years. However, it lost about a quarter of the freshmen who arrived last year. But 69 percent of the freshmen who entered in 2013, the last year data was available, graduated on time. That’s quite good for a small liberal arts college that brought 83 percent of those students back for their sophomore year. Cornell College has a very large selection of majors and minors for a very small school.
University of Montana-Western
Montana-Western is an inexpensive small public college with 1,500 undergrads. The school does not use test scores for admission according to fairtest.org, as long as your GPA is over 2.5. But Montana-Western uses test scores to determine reading and math proficiency. Montana-Western reported an average freshmen retention rate of 72 percent to US News. The school does not publish a four-year grad rate. It became a block plan college in 2005. It offers only ten majors as well as an honors program.
These are small liberal arts schools, but have they designed a block plan around pre-professional majors?
Apparently, the answer is yes. Colorado College has an Education major and minor. Cornell College posts summaries for Business Analytics, Elementary Education, Engineering and Kinesiology. Montana-Western has programs in Business and Technology , Education, Equine Studies and Health and Human Performance. Cornell College is able to grant an engineering degree. But this program offers no specialities such as Electrical or Mechanical Engineering. It is also quite new, seeking ABET accreditation. So, it’s too early to judge whether a block plan will work with an engineering program.
Could more colleges shift to a block plan?
Smaller liberal arts schools, could definitely do it, as long as the faculty is collegial and buys in. The willingness to teach and be creative in the classroom is key. Students at Colorado College and Cornell College give their faculty very high ratings on RateMyProfessors.com. Block plan schools also do well with students who enter college undecided on a major. But I cannot imagine that larger universities with schools of business, engineering, nursing and more will adapt to blocks. Their pre-professional programs are tied to accreditation standards that mandate not only required courses, but also credit hours.
Why would block plan colleges be winners in this new reality?
The art of choosing a college, and the science of making a college list, will be based more around how classes are delivered and taught. While students and their families will be reluctant to pay good money to “do college” totally online, they appear to be willing to pay for an academic experience that is varied over a shorter time, much like a “gap-year” class. Only the block experiences, one after the other, lead to a college degree.
It’s my job to find the best fit, including creative colleges, to take you on the journey to the education and career you want. Want to know more? Contact me at email@example.com or call me at 609-406-0062.
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