Cal State trustees seek cure for ‘bottleneck’ courses


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They are the courses that can drive students to distraction, not to mention to failure or to drop out altogether.

And the students who do poorly -- either through failing or withdrawing -- are slowing the progress of others working toward graduation.


Addressing so-called bottleneck courses that are high in demand but have a high failure rate emerged as a key to addressing the needs of these students during a discussion by the California State University Board of Trustees, meeting in Long Beach on Tuesday.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2013-14 budget proposal provides $125 million in new funding for the Cal State system, with $10 million directed to boost online learning. Officials said that increasing the use of online classes, Internet-based virtual laboratories and Internet counseling will help.

But identifying which courses are the greatest hinderances is proving more of a problem. Cal State Chancellor Timothy P. White said about 30 courses across the system have been identified as having a high rate of failure, with students receiving D’s, F’s or withdrawing from school.

But officials said campuses are still gathering information and a report is due in April. Preliminary indications point to lower division, freshman math and U.S. history classes as among the most problematic, said spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp.

“You get students who think they want to be an engineer but can’t hack it,” Uhlenkamp said.

Frequently those students tie up seats before dropping the class or fail and try to repeat it. It was not as clear why so many students are failing history, but reports from the system’s 23 campuses are expected to provide some answers, he said.


Some trustees voiced concern about the headlong sprint toward online learning with no real outline of where money should be spent.

“I’m concerned we’re going to be spending money on yesterday’s ideas,” said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who attended the meeting along with the governor.

Brown pointed to a pilot project at San Jose State University to offer online math classes in partnership with the Silicon Valley online education start-up Udacity as a system-wide model.

Cal State “has the opportunity to be a leader,” said the governor. “It has much more flexibility than other systems. The door is open and San Jose State is leading the way.”


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