WHAT IS A COHORT?
Discussions of higher education sometimes make reference to the college cohort, referring in essence to a group of students who enter a program together and typically proceed through their coursework in the same sequence, at the same time. Two senses seem to apply to the term. One of them has to do with financial aid and educational funding; the other has to do with admission and progression through it.
In the former sense, talk of cohorts has less to do with commonalities of student practice and field of study and more to do with simple timing. It is the use that refers to incoming students as a “Class of” some year or another; they are united by coincidence and, traditionally, age rather than any particular sympathy of opinion or shared curricular paths.
Colleges use cohorts to determine applicability of catalogs and degree programs; students who enter at a given time can expect to work under the guidelines promulgated in that year’s catalog, and while they may be able to shift to later sets of rules, they are unlikely to be able to revert.
The United States Department of Education tracks student loan repayment rates among cohorts as determined by graduation dates, as well, with such information appearing here. “Cohort” thus becomes an administrative term, something used to make easier the processes of monitoring student outcomes. It is not the only sense in which the term is used, however.
More locally, individual programs will describe themselves in terms of forming a college cohort with each new set of incoming students. In such use, a group of students, usually relatively small, will enter a program at a given time – say, Fall 2015 – and will take the same courses in the same sequence. For example, a two-year MBA program beginning in Fall 2015 may have all of its students take Research Methods, History of Business Administration and Principles of Business Administration in that semester. Spring 2016 might have them all take Advanced Accounting, Advanced Marketing and Advanced Management, and future semesters would have similarly regimented schedules for the students.
Such programs do have the disadvantage of any lockstep curriculum: lack of flexibility. Having all students take the same classes in the same sequence – and even at the same time – will necessarily not play to the strengths or address the specific instructional needs of all students. At the same time, however, they offer the immense benefit of sustained connection. Students who share experiences will have opportunity to bond, helping to motivate them to excel in their coursework and to found professional networks that will help sustain them for years to come. Katherine von Jan addresses the benefits in some detail here. Her assertions correspond with the experiences of instructors and students as well as the attestations of ongoing pedagogical research, indicating that the feeling of connection to the course of study and the institution that offers it is one of the, if not the most important factor in determining whether students will succeed in college – and such success can easily be extended into professional life.
Cohort study is not for everyone, of course. Many students need to take courses in different orders than are prescribed. Many others need flexibility to find out where their talents and passions are so that they can develop and follow them more fully. But for many students, a college cohort is of great benefit.
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