Trident Tech’s short courses draw complaints Decades of falling student performance spur college officials to re-examine class duration

Trident Technical College President Mary Thornley addresses the graduates during the commencement in 2014 at the North Charleston Coliseum.

Cory Bazzle is a former Marine. After five years in the armed forces and one deployment to Iraq, she’s used to long hours, sacrifice and hard work.

But she wasn’t prepared for the intense pace of Chemistry 110 at Trident Technical College. Not when the class was just seven weeks long.

“You have homework and lectures; you have ridiculous amounts of work in lab. For every lab, you have to do a pre-lab, a post lab, a lab report — it’s absurd and I’m drowning,” said Bazzle, 29.

She quit a good-paying job as an aircraft electrician at Boeing last spring for the opportunity to advance her career with a college degree.

“It’s far too much information and the professors can’t even cover all the material. I’m thinking of transferring early because I’m really, really struggling.”

Two years ago, under the leadership of longtime President Mary Thornley, Trident Tech launched a bold and ambitious experiment with the goal of reversing decades of falling student performance: Starting in the fall of 2014, almost all courses moved to a “compressed schedule,” running at seven weeks instead of the traditional 14-week semester.

The administration justified the change with a trove of data showing students performed dramatically better, earning Cs or higher, when the course terms where shorter. This novel strategy, they say, has paid off. For the first time since 1991, more than 75 percent of students are passing their courses, up from less than 65 percent in 2011.

“It didn’t matter if you were 18, 45 or 50, black or white or purple, whether you were part-time or full-time, whether you were college-ready or remedial,” Thornley said. “We sliced data every way we could think of and every demographic showed improved student success on shorter terms.”

Since 2014, however, student enrollment has dropped precipitously, and faculty blame the compressed courses. The switch also has proven unpopular among students, who say they’re overwhelmed by the pace of their courses, and instructors, who say classes have been watered down and grade inflation is rampant.

In the 2013-14 academic year, Thornley imposed a new evaluation policy, linking student success rates to an instructor’s annual performance review. Although the administration claims there’s no evidence that grades are rising artificially, instructors are feeling squeezed. Full-time faculty don’t have the protection of tenure while adjuncts are competing for a limited number of jobs.

“This thing was ordained or christened to succeed whether or not the numbers would support it,” said a veteran humanities and social sciences professor, who spoke to The Post and Courier on condition of anonymity.

“Freddy Krueger could not match this house of horrors. This is worse than any Halloween nightmare I’ve ever seen.”

As Thornley tells it, Trident Tech’s steady decline in course passage rates began in 1992, when the South Carolina Technical College System switched from a quarter schedule to semester one. The impact occurred “overnight,” Thornley said.

From the fall of 1992 to the fall of 1993, the percentage of students passing their courses dropped more than 4 percentage points. By 2001, less than 65 percent of Trident Tech students were earning As, Bs or Cs in their classes, down from more than 75 percent in 1991, the same year Thornley assumed the presidency.

In 2007, Trident joined a national initiative aimed at closing achievement gaps and improving graduation rates among low-income students and students of color.

“We stumbled across the information on shorter terms, said Cathy Almquist, Trident’s associate vice president of planning and accreditation. “What we found was an unbelievable correlation. It stunned all of us: The shorter the term, the more successful our students were.”

According to a review of student data from the fall of 2008 through the summer of 2011, students who completed a semester’s worth of work in a three-week “Maymester” course had a success rate of 85 percent while students who covered the material in 14 weeks had a success rate of 64 percent. Faced with these statistics, in the spring of 2012, Trident administration made the decision to scrap semester-long courses, with few exceptions, for the compressed schedule by fall of 2014.

Fall and spring semesters are now divided into two seven-week terms with a week-long break between. According to Trident’s research, students are performing remarkably better. From fall 2011 to fall 2014, average course success rates across all academic divisions jumped from 62.2 percent to 75.8 percent. In science and mathematics classes, which roughly half of students passed in 2011, success rates increased to 65.9 percent in 2014.

“The data was clear. It was compelling. You have to do this for our students,” Thornley said.

Few faculty members appear to have embraced Trident administration’s decision to move to the compressed schedule while also imposing new student success criteria that counts for 10 percent of a full-time instructor’s overall evaluation score.

While Thornley has touted the compressed course schedule for raising student performance, Kathy Weatherford, a former Trident professor who retired in December 2014, said the relationship is merely correlative, not causal.

“What she hasn’t told anybody is that it also happened at the same time she told us our annual evaluation would be dependent on success rates,” Weatherford said.

One professor interviewed by The Post and Courier called the compressed schedule the “most counterproductive format and system” he’s ever witnessed in his decades-long academic career. Another professor said faculty morale is now “the lowest it’s been.”

“On paper, (the compressed schedule) sounds like a great idea, but not if you’re dealing with a population who has children or who are working,” this professor said. “And when a speed bump happens, that’s when it’s a disaster.”

Their remarks echo the tenor of a college-wide employee satisfaction survey, conducted in the spring of 2015 by Cedar Rapids-based Ruffalo Noel Levitz, a private enrollment management firm. On the open-ended comments section of the survey, provided to The Post and Courier, the overwhelming majority of the 188 responses to questions about campus culture, policies and work environment were critical, some blisteringly so, of Trident leadership, student success criteria on faculty evaluations and compressed courses.

One respondent accused the administration of striving to “make this institution a place where the students and faculty are exhausted, downtrodden and unhappy.” Another said the combination of compressed scheduling and success rate criteria is causing “in some cases grade give-away” while another complained of a “severe disconnect between the demands of administration” and “the reality of student effort and preparedness.”

According to this employee, students are “so poorly prepared” that faculty members have been forced to “dramatically lower their expectations” in order to meet the administration’s student success goals.

“During a recent check-up, my doctor, upon finding that I was a teacher at TTC, began telling me that there are droves of TTC students coming to get antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications for the first time,” another respondent wrote, “due to their inability to deal successfully with the TTC 7-week schedule.

Thornley denied allegations of grade inflation as a result of the new instructor evaluation criteria. The new policy, she said, was created to hold faculty accountable for their students’ success. According to Thornley, average scores on common exams in other departments haven’t dipped nor has the rate at which students are passing subsequent courses.

“Only six people out of 335 have not gotten an acceptable rating in the most recent evaluation last May,” she said.

At an employee-wide town hall meeting Thursday, Thornley fielded questions from faculty members on the compressed course schedule and new instructor evaluation criteria. She also chastised faculty members for speaking to journalists in the wake of a recent article from the online education website Inside Higher Ed, which called attention to the “darker side” of Trident’s reported success with compressed courses.

“I think most of you understand that the reputation of a college greatly impacts the support that we get from the state, from legislators, from donors, from the community, from the business community,” Thornley said. “And I would say, it also decidedly impacts enrollment.”

Enrollment at Trident has fallen roughly 14 percent since 2013, the year before the college’s switch to a compressed course schedule, after three years of consecutive growth. Meanwhile, enrollment at Trident’s sister colleges, Greenville and Midlands Technical, dropped 8.7 and 5.9 percent, respectively. Neither of those have a compressed course schedule.

Trident relies heavily on student enrollment to foot the bills as 61 percent of the college’s budget is driven by tuition and fees. The college has already dipped into its reserve funds in the current fiscal year to manage “a predictable budget concern,” Thornley said. But based on future enrollment projections, Trident expects a deficit by the end of the year.

In interviews with The Post and Courier, faculty attributed the sharp drop in enrollment to the compressed courses. At Thursday’s town hall, Thornley admitted the new schedule may have contributed to Trident’s declining student population, but the blame, she said, falls on an improving economy with more jobs and fewer graduating seniors, despite the Lowcountry’s population growth.

“It doesn’t take a crystal ball to anticipate the fact that we would decline,” she said.

On Thursday, Thornley also dismissed concerns from faculty that students disliked the compressed course schedule, saying they were parroting their teachers’ complaints. But students tell a different story.

“It’s so compressed that if you don’t keep up with your work, you start falling behind real fast,” said Nick Mikell, 20, as he tapped on his iPad mini on a recent Tuesday afternoon at the Student Center’s Spot Cafe. A computer science student, Mikell goes to class full-time in addition to working at Wendy’s three days a week.

“It’s good when you have nothing else to do,” he said.

Mikell’s friend, Aaron Manigault, also 20, and studying for his associate of arts degree said: “It feels like almost every day something important is due.”

“Not even the teachers like it,” added Philip Campbell, 20, a welding student, as he joined them at their lunch table. “I know I’m barely learning.”

Megan Strahan, who enrolled this past fall to study nursing, said she had to quit her full-time job at Buck’s Pizza in West Ashley after her first semester. She was working until 2 a.m. and going to class in the morning on four hours of sleep. She so was stressed and exhausted she lost 10 pounds.

“I absolutely hate it,” she said of the compressed courses. “If I could (transfer), I would.”

Twenty-six year-old India Saunders, a student at Trident since 2007, could only name one benefit of the switch from semesters to seven-week terms:

“By the time you start, it’s almost over,” she said. “You have less time to give up.”

Reach Deanna Pan at 843-937-5764.