Monday, December 19, 2011

What Do You Mean, I’m Not Graduating?

It’s the end of the semester, which means it’s time for some students to figure out that they’ve taken the “wrong” courses for their programs.

This happens every single year.

When it happened at Proprietary U, I couldn’t really blame the students. PU had an odd habit of changing requirements annually, if not faster than that, so it was easy to lose track. (It wasn’t unusual to have three different versions of a curriculum running simultaneously. The scheduling headaches were awful.) Worse, Home Office used to change the requirements without paying attention to total credit hours. The ADHD culture led to all manner of confusion, with the students ultimately paying for it.

Here, that’s less of an issue. Curricula change much more slowly, and there’s no issue of people in one state making rules for people in another without looking at the relevant regs. But still, every year, some students profess themselves shocked to discover that whatever lineup of classes they chose didn’t add up to a program.

In my first few months of administration, I was surprised every time the question came up. Now, not so much.

Typically, confusion arises from any of several sources.

1. Curricular change. That’s still relevant when you have a student who started many years ago, took some time off, and returned, with the requirements having changed while she was away.

2. Inattention to advisement. “My advisor never told me” frequently translates to “I wasn’t paying attention when my advisor told me.”

3. Inattentive advisors. Yes, sometimes advisors get it wrong. The most frustrating cases are the ones in which they get defensive and try to explain that they’re actually right.

4. Procrastination. Some students will try to put off their math classes until the last possible moment, not noticing that they’ve placed into developmental courses. That means that instead of just needing the one class, they need a sequence of classes that can’t be taken together. There’s no elegant way out of this, once it happens.

5. Changing majors. Courses that counted towards the first major may or may not count towards the second. Students don’t always catch that, though.

6. Scheduling. This is usually the easiest to work around, assuming you aren’t in California. Sometimes a student will need a social science elective on a Tuesday night, but we don’t have one she hasn’t already taken on a Tuesday. In consultation with advisors, they can usually find an acceptable substitute. (For a business major, does “Early Modern History” seem like a viable substitute for “The Middle Ages?” I took the position that it did.) If they play their cards right, we just fill out “course substitution forms” and call it good. Of course, the substitutions have to be academically defensible. One literature elective for another is typically fine, but I’ve shot down requests to substitute literature for engineering.

Where this approach falls flat is where students can’t get anything resembling anything they need. In a case like California’s, in which colleges have waitlists thousands deep, there’s often no reasonable substitution available. Happily, that’s not my world.

My free advice to students and prospective students out there is to keep a checklist of course requirements from your very first semester forward. When you see your academic advisor, bring the checklist and go through it. It’s sooooo much easier to make adjustments to courses you haven’t taken yet than it is to find funding for an extra semester to make up for that one requirement you somehow missed.

And for the love of all that’s good, don’t put off your math. It won’t get any easier.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen other ways that students wind up with courses that don’t quite add up to a program?