Negative reinforcement

The University’s persistence on instituting a dubious rule to increase six-year graduation rates is ill conceived and will end up harming students. After all, the school’s proposed policies are mainly punitive. If you take 10 credits you’ll be charged for 13, essentially fining residents $539.70 and non-residents $1,590.84 per semester. And part-time students will probably be seeing a lot of sunrises on the way to 8 a.m. classes – if the classes they need are available at all, since they will be the last group allowed to register.

In classical conditioning, this is called negative reinforcement. It’s like when little Timmy gets his puppy. He wants the puppy to be able to fetch like the other dogs on the block. So, Timmy has two options when he goes to the pet store for assistance. On the left is a box of dog treats and on the right is a shock collar. If Timmy opts for the dog treats, so he can reward his puppy for fetching, then Timmy is positively reinforcing his dog’s behavior. But if he reaches for the shock collar to punish his puppy into fetching, then Timmy is doing the same thing the University is doing. He is negatively reinforcing the behavior he wants to occur. For Timmy, it’s fetching. For the University, it’s students graduating in six years.

Certainly, the University is also throwing students some treats. All credits after the first 13 will be free, and upperclassmen will be able to register before lowerclassmen. But most other schools already have similar policies in place. No school in the Big Ten charges after the first 12 or 13 credits except Michigan State and the University. If the University had given its students similar positive incentives in the past, it might have avoided the current six-year graduation rate, which is currently the lowest in the Big Ten.

None of the other universities in the conference require students to take a minimum of 13 credits, and their six-year graduation rates meet the goals they set for themselves. It seems more likely that there is something particular to the University’s infrastructure that is slowing students down. The University needs to go further in streamlining current policies to help students graduate faster. But instead of trying these pleasant alternatives first, the University is insisting on the shock collar.

Applying increased pressure behind a half-open faucet might squeeze more water out, but for the benefit of University students, administrators here would be wise to just open the faucet all the way as it would produce the same result with considerably less pressure applied to students. They can do this with positive reinforcements and a detailed look on why other universities’ policies assist students better. A 13-credit minimum course load is not the answer.