Overload Restrictions: Stifling Student Initiative Since 2015
By Benjamin Whedon '18 Every year, Washington and Lee University graduates approximately five hundred of the nation’s best and brightest. A liberal arts institution by tradition, W&L prides itself on the diverse range of subjects to which its students are exposed. The opportunity to pursue multiple fields of study is an invaluable asset for those seeking to broaden their academic background and improve their future professional prospects. Indeed, a substantial majority of graduates now leave W&L with two degrees, a double-major, or several minors. Sadly, these days may be coming to an end as a strict new overload approval policy threatens to hinder the opportunities of enterprising students.
Within the same academic disciplines, several majors share prerequisites where a single course can satisfy both requirements. Majors such as History and Classics can be declared with multiple courses counting towards both fields of study. Primarily in the liberal arts, some double-major choices can be accomplished without the need for an overload. Difficulties arise when students seek to diversify their interests and declare two majors in decidedly unrelated subjects. When a student declares majors in Philosophy and Physics for example, they will find that few if any courses satisfy prerequisites for both disciplines. Those W&L students seeking to pursue diverse academic interests, even should they receive credit hours during matriculation, will often find that they must take an overload for at least one term.
Previously, approval for an overload was relatively easy to obtain. When filling out the application form, students merely had to state their regular coursework, identify their intended overload courses, and offer a brief statement explaining why they desired a larger course load. The request would then be sent to the student’s academic advisor who would forward it to the appropriate dean. If the request was for fewer than eighteen credits, then the dean’s decision was final. Otherwise, it would go to the Faculty Executive Committee for review. Though not invariably approved, students with reasonable GPAs generally could get approval for five or more courses with no justification other than their own initiative. Some students even received approval for as many as twenty-three credits.
Over the course of last year, the Academic Deans met to address the relatively lenient overload approval system. The results of these discussions were a series of restrictions on the application process. The overload request page on the University website has been updated to display the new criteria by which each application is considered. As before, approval may be granted for independent research, summer internship credit, or additional one-credit music courses. Exceptions are also granted for one-time attempts to retake failed courses or if a student’s schedule includes multiple four-credit classes, though they are still limited to four. Small requests of fifteen to seventeen credits are still reasonably attainable should they satisfy the given conditions. Qualified students desiring to enroll in five or more regular classes, either to complete a second major or minor or solely for the sake of interest, now ought to discount the probability of success. The new restrictions prevent overloads past 14 credits unless a proven need from the student, such as a graduation requirement or lab, puts them over the edge. Even in such cases, necessity has become the primary standard in Administrative approval of overloads.
The Deans’ decision to restrict overloads was a largely unanticipated move and was by no means well-publicized. Students and faculty advisors alike were not given ample time to plan, disheartening many students who have had to delete their majors or minors. The fallout from this new policy raises the question of why it was implemented. In a previous issue of this publication, one of our writers interviewed former Provost Daniel Wubah regarding the need for change in the registration process. He outlined a series of potential changes to the system such as the newly-implemented “pick one, pick three” process. To his credit, the ordeal of registration has been lessened considerably with server crashes now at an all-time low. Despite this, the competition for classes, particularly within the Williams school, has remained high. Intending primarily to alleviate the competition for those classes, but also to simultaneously address the issue of burnout, the Deans chose to implement the overload restrictions. Rather than expand the class sizes, to the benefit of few, they made an understandable move to curb demand for them.
Perhaps the most egregious oversight of the new system’s implementation was the absence of a grandfather clause shielding students who had already officially declared majors that would necessitate overloads. With no such clause incorporated into the restrictions, a plethora of students now must make difficult choices. Faced with the improbability of receiving administrative assent, those ambitious students with multiple declared majors or minors must now alter their academic plans. The forced deletion by students of their official fields of study is a contradiction of the values of this liberal arts institution. Prominently displayed at the base of the University coat of arms are the Latin words Non In Cautus Futuri, which translate to “not unmindful of the future”. The new overload policy flies in the face of our motto. As a highly competitive job market continues to demand more and more from its entrants, these harsh restrictions limit students’ abilities to distinguish themselves and prepare for their futures beyond their undergraduate studies.
Washington and Lee University has a place among the greatest schools in the nation and offers competitive programs in nearly all fields of learning. It is the stellar education and the plethora of academic prospects offered by this University that attract such inquisitive, ambitious minds to Lexington. How long will this last? As the opportunities for students to explore their interests here diminish, one wonders if they may begin to look elsewhere. Immediate repeal may not be feasible as the issues surrounding registration remain. That said, a partial relaxation of the restrictions at least is in order. With previous overload approvals reaching highs twenty-three credit terms, it is no wonder that classes were overbooked. To make approval nearly impossible, however, was too harsh of a step. A schedule including five regular classes is an undertaking. One with six or more is an ordeal. To be sure, some restrictions on the process are reasonable to curb student excess. However, the University might make some alterations to increase flexibility. Rather than end the option to take an additional course altogether, perhaps simply limiting overloads to five regular courses would be prudent. Moreover, a high minimum GPA requirement might be a reasonable way to combat excess demand for classes. Though a final, satisfactory resolution to the issue may take time, let’s hope the Deans reevaluate and adjust this policy in the interim.