More freshmen than ever before are coming to UCLA next year, which means more students than ever may be thinking about taking a General Education freshman cluster.
The program has been hailed by administrators as one of the best and most innovative for undergraduates at UCLA. With increased teaching support and a cohesive approach, the program certainly seems like a unique opportunity.
Administrators are hoping to expand cluster capacity by around 250 students next year and are requesting an additional $290,283 in funding.
Before making such an expansion, administrators ought to consider replacing the freshman cluster program with one for sophomores, who may be better prepared to handle the work. They should also compare the value of the cluster program to other GEs to better evaluate the program’s relative worth.
The cluster provides honors and Writing II credit, but in order to gain these benefits, students must remain in the program for the duration of the year. The risk in beginning a cluster sequence is that you may feel pressured to stay in it even though you may not enjoy a given topic; currently, around 12 percent of cluster freshmen drop the sequence after only one quarter, according to Judith Smith, vice provost and dean for undergraduate education.
Even though clusters are supposed to help students transition to college, the cluster program is more intense because of its interdisciplinary nature, and freshmen may find independent GEs easier during their first quarters at UCLA.
Sophomores will already have the experience of independent GEs under their belts and therefore be more interested in trying something as unique as the cluster program.
They might also have a better sense of their future plans, steadier footing on the UCLA campus, and perhaps most importantly, would be better prepared to handle the more “intense” workload of a cluster.
A cluster requires more commitment than independent GEs, and even the most motivated student may shy away from such a workload during his or her first year. Additional data comparing freshmen who take GEs with sophomores who take them may be useful as well.
Administrators have considered adding sophomore and transfer clusters but have been limited by the budget. I propose scrapping the freshman series entirely and only offering clusters to second-year students.
Unfortunately, there is also no review that compares cluster students’ experiences with those who elect to take traditional GEs. The two deserve comparison before next year’s expansion is made because of their marked differences, even though they both count for GEs.
A cluster consists of three courses taken in sequence only during freshman year and have an interdisciplinary focus, while independent GEs can be taken at any time throughout the four years and are often prerequisites for majors.
The three-class cluster sequence also has the added bonus of fulfilling four GE classes because it provides 18 units of credit, which makes it a faster way of knocking off GEs.
The program boasts high marks in analytical and library skills, but I’d guess that any UCLA freshman would have improved these skills by the end of their first year regardless of their GE choice.
The only comparison between cluster and non-cluster classes has been fiscal ““ clusters cost more per student than non-cluster GEs because class sizes are smaller. Fifty to 70 graduate instructors receive full scholarships for teaching clusters, which alone costs over a million dollars, said Gregory Kendrick, director of the cluster program.
According to Kendrick, the logistics of comparing cluster students with non-cluster students would be difficult.
Nevertheless, such a comparison is necessary to better understand the value of the cluster program. Perhaps one way to begin would be to compare students of the same major or minor who took a cluster with those who didn’t; it would be informative to see what influences, if any, their GEs had on their choice of major. We might also learn which skills are afforded in cluster classes which are lacking in other GEs, and vice versa.
While the cluster program certainly has many attractive aspects, further reviews which compare the experience of students in clusters with those in non-cluster GEs would strengthen the idea that clusters are the most intellectually valuable way of completing GEs.