State’s new common course numbering will ease transfers between schools
Transferring from one college to another can be a frustrating experience for students who risk losing out on credits earned and incurring more loan debt.
An effort to smooth that pathway is nearing completion. It will establish a statewide common course naming and numbering system that ensures that students can more easily transfer, confident that their credits will count toward their eventual degree.
“It’s all about the students getting a quality education,” says Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron.
The system will be phased in gradually over the next two years as schools make the transition and incorporate it into the software they use for handling course credits. It will replace what Damron calls the current “hodgepodge” of naming and numbering conventions that varies from college to college.
Those differences can mean extra years and extra expense for students who decide the academic direction they embarked on isn’t right for them, or for the many who start their degree journey at a lower-cost community college before switching to a university with higher tuition rates.
That switch is more common in New Mexico than in other states. Nationally, about 36 percent of all students change schools during their college years. In New Mexico that number is around 60 percent, Damron says.
Although courses appear identical, students often find that they are not recognized as being equivalent to what is taught at the new institution. As a result it typically takes New Mexico students around 150 credit hours to earn a four-year degree instead of the expected 120, according to the secretary.
In 2015, the Legislature passed a bill directing the Higher Education Department to address this issue. Many other states such as Arizona and Texas have already instituted common course naming and numbering.
However, Damron points out, those states have just a couple of governing boards overseeing their postsecondary schools while New Mexico has 21 governing boards.
“We looked at what other states had done,” she says. “But our process was unique because of the number of boards and advisory boards we had to go through.”
Damron says they could have simply standardized the course numbering system. “But that would have been dishonest to the students,” she says.
Late in 2015, the department began reaching out to all 31 of New Mexico’s post-secondary educational institutions — universities, community colleges and tribal colleges — to ensure buyin from faculty members.
Bridgette Noonen, the department’s director of academic affairs, oversaw a process that involved collecting syllabus information on the thousands of 100-to-300 level courses offered by institutions around the state. They identified 79 disciplines — subjects like history, biology and so forth — and committees composed of faculty members from the different institutions gave input on the course content.
Damron says the aim was to give faculty members the opportunity to study the syllabi in detail so they could agree on the course description and learning objectives. The object was not to standardize the course material, but to achieve a broad alignment while retaining the ability for individual faculty to be innovative.
“Faculty can still design the courses as they see fit as long as they reach the learning objectives,” she says.
As of late August, this work has been completed on 72 of the 79 disciplines. The Higher Education Department’s Articulation and Transfer Committee has also agreed on standardizing course numbering using a format with four letters followed by four numbers. Damron expects the new nomenclature to appear in course catalogs for Fall 2019.
“Now we have a whole matrix for thousands of courses,” Damron says, adding that it will still be possible to add or drop courses from the new system.
Damron is proud of the way her department and the representatives from schools throughout New Mexico have been able to create this new system in about 18 months despite the challenges they faced.
The common course naming and numbering system will help students avoid having to spend more time in school to earn their degrees, she says, thus saving lottery scholarship dollars and student loan money.
“We’re saving the state and students millions of dollars by this,” says Damron.