Unfortunately, the graduation rate for US colleges is distressingly low and even those who do graduate do so with more credits than required for their degree or program, unnecessarily costing them both time and money. This is also true for the many students who do not graduate as they have also taken courses that do not count toward graduation. Taking courses that do not count toward graduation occurs because most catalogs are difficult to understand, and degree requirements are not clear. Therefore, one of the most important things institutions can do for their students is to provide them with a clear roadmap listing all courses, term by term, that are required to earn the degree, a central strategy of Complete College America.

Building and implementing Academic Maps leads to other actions that benefit students, faculty and the university. First, the path to a degree is clarified for students and faculty learn about any inconsistencies or other issues in the curriculum. The exercise may also generate a discussion about what is the appropriate math course(s) needed for the major. Should college algebra be required for a major that does not require calculus? Second, this exercise will reveal hidden prerequisites which are quite common; by this I mean a course being listed on the degree map as required but the course lists a prerequisite, which is not listed on the degree requirements. These hidden prerequisites cost the student time and money and sometimes are not covered by financial aid. If the prerequisite course is really needed the faculty should incorporate it into the degree program.

Building the Academic Maps will allow the faculty to designate “critical” or “milestone” courses, that is, courses that MUST be successfully completed in the term listed in order for the student to graduate on time in two or four years. These courses are either important prerequisites or courses in the major as they provide guideposts for the student to assess their progress. Milestones can be even more informative for the student and the instructor if the department looks at a frequency distribution of the grades in the course and the probability of successfully completing the next course in the program or graduating in that major. For example, a student who earns a “C” in Accounting I, may have only a 25% chance of graduating with a degree in accounting while a student who earns an “A” may have an 85% chance of graduating with a degree in accounting. These courses allow the student to assess her strength in that field and decide if this is a good major for her. The faculty member can announce early that (1) this is a critical course for this major and the material is fundamental to future courses and (2) if you, as a student, are struggling early, please come and see me immediately so that we can arrange tutoring or supplemental instruction.

The faculty must help craft a policy that determine how many times a student can retake a critical course. This is very important as it is not reasonable to allow a student to take a course three times if the probability of success is very low. In a large study of the public universities in Florida, more than half of excess hours were courses that were in the “Milestone” category. The excess hours were the result of D and F grades, withdrawals and repeats in critical courses where students often attempted these courses two or three times. The faculty can determine, based on campus data, what the probability of success is after a student attempts a critical course the second time and set the repeat limits based on these data.

Proactive advising flows directly from the designation of Milestone courses as advisors monitor registration and contact any student who does not register for the appropriate course.  The grade in a milestone course may also serve as an alert since a grade below the recommended one should alert both the student and advisor that the student may not have acquired critical knowledge and skills in the area that are needed to progress toward the degree.

The Academic Map benefits the departmental faculty as well since course offerings and teaching schedules can be built around the Milestone courses required by the students. Since the required courses are known, faculty can build teaching schedules around these courses and since the number of majors is almost always known, these courses can be offered with enough seats to serve all students and at a time that does not conflict with other departmental required courses.

The university benefits as the number of majors and where they are on their degree map is known (and therefore what classes and number of seats needed) and classrooms can be optimally scheduled.  The same information is critical to know how many advisors may be needed in different departments