CEDAR CITY — Lance Lowry had long given up on going back to college.
The Draper native enrolled not long after high school, but the "cookie-cutter" mold of general education courses wasn't working for him, Lowry said, and health problems tipped the scale, prompting him to quit early and lose the credits he'd worked and paid for.
Adding to his reasons not to re-enroll, the video production business he started kept offering the promise of immediate payback.
He'd given college a fair shot, and there was no reason to go back. Until now.
This fall, Southern Utah University will begin its Jumpstart GE program, which will allow a group of incoming freshmen to complete their general education requirements in one year, a process that normally takes at least two years.
Not only could the program shave off a year of classes and tuition for students, but university leaders hope it will make for an integrated college experience and motivate more students to complete their degree.
It's enough to tip the scale again for Lowry.
"To be honest, I really couldn't believe it at first because I think general education is something that kind of leaves a sour taste in some people's mouths when they think about going to college and doing a bunch of classes they feel they're never going to use," he said. "But to hear that I could get everything I needed and get it done in a year, I couldn't believe it. It sounded so cool."
It's a different approach to a time in college known for bottleneck enrollment, large classes taught by graduate students or contingent faculty, and little or no student-teacher interaction outside of class.
"This is not the trend that we want at SUU, especially with these incoming freshmen," said John Taylor, provost faculty fellow at Southern Utah. "We want them to make a connection to higher education, to our institution, to where they see the value of their education and they want to stay."
How it works
In its first year, the Jumpstart GE program will include a cohort of roughly 50 freshmen who will enroll together for the two semesters, 17 credits each. As with typical general education courses, the two semesters will include classes such as math, English, psychology, chemistry and communication.
Students in the program will be taught by eight faculty members, almost all of whom are tenured, who have collaborated over the past year to develop a curriculum that integrates each of the subjects.
Taylor likens the teaching method to jazz music.
"You have to know your discipline so well that you can think on the fly, and that's the kind of faculty members I grabbed for this," he said. "Our hope is to blur the lines between these courses so that the students see how all these things are connected together in a very seamless way."
The university is encouraging students who don't have prior college credit, such as concurrent enrollment or honors classes, to participate in the program. Jumpstart GE also targets students who are unsure of what their major will be to give them a broad introduction to various fields.
Jumpstart GE doesn't work with all majors because some, such as nursing, engineering or pre-med, require specific courses early on.
While most freshmen don't start their college career by taking 17 credits, university leaders say the integrated coursework, closer working relationships with professors, and the collaboration among students in the group will be enough to help the students bear the heavier-than-normal workload.
"I think as we form that right at the start of college, it gives students an opportunity to learn from one another and to have a support group," said Matt Barton, professor of communications and director of the university's master's program in professional communications.
"It can serve a lot of purposes in individual lives," he said.
Students aren't required to have an ACT score or high school GPA beyond the university's normal admission standard, but students who need remedial coursework in math or English must have it completed before enrolling in Jumpstart GE.
Last year, about 20 percent of incoming freshmen at SUU required some form of remedial coursework, according to university spokeswoman Jennifer Burt.
Students who complete the program will receive a general education certificate allowing them to transfer their credits to another institution if they decide not to stay at SUU. Even though the courses will be highly integrated, students will be graded in each class independently, according to Taylor.
The university is also planning to model Jumpstart GE on a smaller scale in other areas, combining courses into pairs or trios to integrate curriculum and instruction in certain subjects. As an example, students could use assignments from an engineering class to fulfill requirements in a general education writing class.
"Not only does the writing instructor have more time to teach writing, the engineering instructor has more time to teach engineering," said SUU President Scott Wyatt.
Students can expect to see more such classes in the coming years, Wyatt said.
"I think we can add dozens of these classes each semester," he said. "That is very manageable for us to do to merge those together because the workloads of the faculty members is pretty much the same. My hope is that within about five years, every general education class will be integrated with other disciplines."
University leaders say freshman retention rates and graduation rates will be indicators of just how effective the Jumpstart GE program will be. Currently, about 6 in 10 students re-enroll at the university after their freshman year, according to Taylor, with an overall graduation rate of 52 percent in 2013.
Taylor said he hopes the program will also contribute to Utah's goal of having 66 percent of its working population as having completed college in some way by 2020.
"To do that, we have to keep more students in college," he said. "If we can get a retention rate that is higher than what we typically see for freshman, then I think (Jumpstart GE) would have been a success."
Wyatt said other institutions will likely be watching closely as the program is implemented in its first year. Such a program would probably be more difficult for larger institutions, such as the University of Utah, to adopt, but regional universities are more flexible, he said.
"I think we're the right size where we can make it work," Wyatt said. "I think we're going to be able to be a model for what needs to happen."
Next spring, university instructors and administrators will visit with students who participated in the program to get their feedback. In addition to the cost and time savings, they hope students will have gained a greater appreciation for general education.
"I hear a lot of students say, 'I'm going to try to get through my generals and start focusing on my career,' as if there's no relationship between general education and their future life," Wyatt said. "We think the outcome will be not only faculty members (having) more time to teach their subject, but the students will be far more motivated to throw themselves into it."
Barton said the program has already helped faculty members collaborate and find innovative ways to teach. If it's successful, the program will also help students avoid tunnel vision — focusing only on their major — and instead keep a broader perspective, he said.
"I don't know that it's going to be perfect this first year. I think that it sets an interesting stage of what education could look like in the future," Barton said. "There might be multiple ways to layer education toward different outcomes."
What's immediately apparent to Lowry as he prepares to start classes this fall is the time and money he'll save. But he said he's also hopeful about the promise of a "personalized" education. It's an opportunity that won't go unnoticed, he said.
"I think a lot of students will want to go to SUU if they're the only ones offering it," Lowry said. "A lot of parents want to send their kids somewhere where they can get their work done and save a year off tuition. That's huge. I think that should be a major decision maker on where you send your kid to school."
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