At the core of New College’s educational philosophy is the contract system, which allows students to focus their academics and college experience, not on numerical grades, but goals, levels of engagement and satisfactory completion of classes. Among the active changes taking place across campus, administration is also refashioning the contract system with the addition of the Preliminary Plan. The Preliminary Plan is an electronic form that students will complete during the second module of every semester to document their intentions for courses and educational activities to take for the next semester. By meeting with faculty and prompting students to envision their life on campus next semester, the Preliminary Plan aims to reinforce the nature of student-faculty advising and help the harrowing retention rate.
Fall 2018 marked the first semester that students and advisors completed the contract through an electronic platform. This electronic contract, the eContract, is the foundation of the electronic contract system that was put in place to help provide efficiency to the registration process. The eContract system is now expanding to include the Preliminary Plan, which was proposed by the Provost earlier this year. Developed in 12 days by the Office of Information Technology (IT), the Preliminary Plan was released by the Office of the Registrar as a part of the eContract system on Apr. 3.
Starting in Apr. 2019, students are required to submit Preliminary Plans listing courses and educational activities they intend to take for the subsequent semester. Much like the eContract, the Preliminary Plan includes sections for the students’ goals, educational activities, proposed tutorials, certification criteria, other activities and a faculty sponsor. Students are expected to meet with their faculty advisors in the eighth or ninth week of the semester to review and discuss their plans. There is no required advisoral signature on the Preliminary Plan, though the bottom of the form will feature a “Sponsor Preliminary Plan Acknowledgement” box which faculty advisors will use to indicate whether they have discussed the plans with their advisee. After the faculty sponsor acknowledges the Preliminary Plan, students will not be able to make changes on the form, though these plans are non-binding for the official class schedule that students will decide upon through the eContract at the beginning of the semester. Preliminary Plans will be due in April for fall semester and November for spring semester, prior to the contract renegotiation deadline for the current semester’s contract.
By demanding more thought and energy from students for considering their next semester, the new component of the eContract system aims to make the experience navigating through the academic process more meaningful and significant.
“It’s a positive development that everybody should benefit from,” Registrar Brian Scholten said. “Opposed to students just accessing the course request system (CRS) and picking a course just to be done with it and to avoid the late registration fee, the Preliminary Plan is something where we want the students and the faculty advisors to work together to think through what a potential class schedule would look like for the student, so there’s a little more thinking and planning involved.”
Another benefit from the Preliminary Plan is that recording courses and tutorials that students plan to take allows faculty and staff to track class demand more accurately than the CRS, which has traditionally been used to register students for enrollment in the following semester and typically yields little thought from students. Overall, the establishment of the Preliminary Plan reinforces the importance of the contract system for students’ progression through the school.
“I think one way that the contract system is better than the way most schools function is to think about the semester in a holistic way,” Professor of Classics David Rohrbacher said. “The freedom — although, this has been chipped away over time — to agree on different levels of engagement with different classes, and the ability to try something new and risky with the knowledge that it won’t ruin your GPA. I do think thinking about a semester rather than a class or a major is something that, when it’s done right, the contract system can really support.”
With the expansion of the eContract system, New College students and faculty can loosen their dependency on physical forms for registration. Accordingly, the eContract is part of the Office of the Registrar’s goals to create an online module for everything involved in the registration process. Along with the Preliminary Plan, an Independent Study Project (ISP) registration component is projected to be included in the eContract system in the fall of 2020. So far, the eContract system is fulfilling its potential to help with the efficacy of registration.
“People have easy access to things,” Scholten reflected on the eContract system. “[Students] can do it online whenever they’re free to do it, and it takes our hands out of the pie so that we can be doing more important things. This kind of manual work is just something that is not beneficial to students and faculty — we would rather, as an institution, have students spend their time doing the things that they came here to do instead of filling out paper forms and running around getting signatures.”
By fostering students’ thought, energy and commitment to their continuation at New College, the Preliminary Plan is also one of the various attempts on campus to help the distressing rate of retention.
“This idea [of the Preliminary Plan] comes from an understanding that students probably will feel more comfortable knowing that there’s something in place,” Associate Provost and Associate Professor of Chemistry Suzanne Sherman said. “It might not be what they end up with for their contract, but they will have engaged in a conversation with their advisor to discuss what they’ve done, where they’re going and what would be a good course of action for the [next] semester in terms of the courses, tutorials, internships, and whatever would seem to be the direction that could culminate in a really good education at New College.”
However, it remains evident that the Preliminary Plan is in no panacea for solving the issue of retention.
“Retention is a multi-faceted problem that’s of great concern to everybody,” Rohrbacher noted. “[The Preliminary Plan is] practical for the institution, but I think there’s a lot of negative personal stories that must underlie the fact that people are not coming back. Anything we can do to encourage and to retain is good, but I think that a lot of our focus is going to be outside the Preliminary Plan.”
With constant changes regarding faculty, infrastructure and budget, the Preliminary Plan emerges to mark the evolution of the contract system, one of the main pillars of the New College experience. Preparing students for this change, the Office of the Registrar sent out emails to the student list with instructions on completing the Preliminary Plan as well as important dates for the form. Students can additionally send feedback about the Preliminary Plan through the Feedback Form on the eContracts Student Dashboard and can email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It’s always important to recognize our first principles,” Rohrbacher concluded, “and then we say this is how we think about making a contract and we think that works — that’s the educational philosophy of the school and that we should continue to support that as much as possible.”